It could be a play, a street festival, a photography exhibit or even a train ride, but there are dozens of events happening across Utah to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.
But all that fun requires planning. A lot of work and planning.
The massive celebration scheduled for the first part of May 2019 actually began two years prior when Doug Foxley approached the governor’s office and several legislators with the aim of throwing the biggest party Utah had ever seen.
“I was born and raised in Box Elder County and had grown up in the shadow of the Golden Spike,” he said. “I was always very, very interested in the history and what happened there.”
The transcontinental railroad was completed at Golden Spike National Historic Site, according to the National Park Service. Officials of the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad drove in the final spikes of the six-year project at this location. Promontory Summit, also known as Promontory Point where a special ceremony was held, is located 35 miles south.
Foxley’s efforts were successful, as a concurrent resolution passed during the 2017 legislative session recognizing the upcoming 150th anniversary and requesting the formation of a committee to plan the ceremony. Foxley was then appointed to lead that committee.
“When we sat down we thought we’d probably need to raise $4.5 to $5 million,” Foxley said. “We said ‘We can’t accomplish this but let’s go do what we can do.’”
Thanks to the work of a small army of volunteers they actually raised about $8.6 million in cash and in-kind donations. Foxley said about 95 percent of those donations came from within Utah including $1 million appropriated by the state Legislature.
That money has gone toward making numerous events happen throughout the state. For example, the Pacific Railway Act will be transported from the National Archives in Washington D.C. and put on display on the second floor of the Utah State Capitol. The document was signed by President Abraham Lincoln July 1, 1862, and provided federal subsidies for the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
Foxley said getting such an important historic document to Utah took time and money. Personnel are needed to travel with the document and the best security measures and insurance policies had to be in place.
“We’re spending thousands but we got light and humidity controlled cases,” he said.
The document will be free for the public to view alongside other artifacts from the building of the railroad May 4 to June 25.
“With the exception of Emancipation Proclamation I don’t think there’s a more important document signed by Lincoln than this,” Foxley said.
While there is a large festival taking place at Promontory Point on the anniversary of the Golden Spike, May 10, organizers wanted the celebration to take place statewide. To help make that a reality the committee allocated about $200,000 to be distributed as grants to help fund smaller events throughout Utah.
Executive Director of the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts Jill Love said her department oversaw the distribution of the grant money. She said while they were able to give out 40 grants, far more applied.
Love said the grant money went toward everything from community festivals to cleaning up railroad depots. Even a historical pageant being put on in Corinne May 9-11 received some seed money.
Love said she was also very excited about the Pacific Railroad Act coming to Utah, as it hasn’t been viewed by the public for several years.
“It’s been a lot of work in the making for months and months and months,” she said.
Cindy Gubler, Spike 150 communications coordinator, said they created online toolboxes communities could use to put on their own events. These are available online and include historical data and key messaging points like “It’s time to recognize and properly honor the laborers whose efforts were crucial for constructing the railroad.”
This information was available to anyone who wanted to put on their own event.
“There was a lot of effort to make this the biggest and best but some communities just did this on their own,” she said.
Many other events being held around the state tell the story of the Chinese American and Irish workers who helped build the railroad along with the Native Americans whose lives were disrupted by it.
Much like the railroad itself, Foxley said it has taken the work of multitudes of people to make the Spike 150 successful.
“The beauty of what’s happened here is I planted some seeds but others planted seeds and it’s amazing what can happen when people start working together, come up with their own ideas and run with them,” he said.
Gubler said the big event at Promontory is sold out and thousands of people are expected to attend the Ogden Heritage Festival May 9-11.
The Spike 150 committee also worked with legislators to get the Promontory Point site, where the final spike of the transcontinental railroad was driven into the ground, named a national historic park.
“That really brings with it new focus from the parks service and additional support and processes that will protect that land and help people understand the history of the place,” Love said.
Foxley wants this year’s May 10 celebration to echo what it felt like 150 years ago when the final spikes were driven in and telegrams reading “D-O-N-E” went out across the country.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said.