PROMONTORY — On May 10, exactly 150 years ago Friday, one of the most consequential events in the history of the United States and perhaps the world, took place before a relatively small group of government officials, railroad executives and laborers.
When the Union Pacific No. 119 and the Central Pacific’s Jupiter locomotives met face-to-face at Promontory Summit all those years ago, it signified the culmination of six years of back-breaking labor. A monumental effort carried out largely by those at the margins of America’s society — namely immigrants, Native Americans and black slaves.
When the final Golden Spike was driven, completing the first transcontinental railroad, it’s estimated that as little as 500 people were there to see it. As the spike was tapped into place, a telegraph operator transmitted a message to both coasts of the U.S. that simply read, “Done.” The news spread slowly — at least by today’s standards — across the world.
Built between 1863 and 1869, the railway connected America by linking the Pacific Coast at San Francisco Bay with the existing eastern U.S. railway. The railroad revolutionized American society, solidifying a dependable transportation system that transported goods and people at speeds that were at that time unthinkable.
Prior to the completion of the railroad, eastern travelers to the west had to either sail around the bottom of South America or make the dangerous covered wagon trek across the plains — journeys that took months to complete. When the railroad was finished, travel between the east and west coasts took mere days.
On Friday, in 2019, the historic consummating moment that lead to all of that change was celebrated and recreated — this time in front of a crowd of thousands of people from all over the world. It was also broadcast over television and social media to many multiples more. Vehicle traffic heading to the summit lined up for miles throughout the morning and into the afternoon.
The day started with replicas of the No. 119 and Jupiter chugging out of their permanent storage facilities at the Golden Spike National Historical Park and meeting, again face-to-face, on a track near the summit. A historical musical was then performed, followed by the unveiling of a commemorative bison statue, a recreation of the “Champagne Toast” that occurred after the spike was driven in 1869, a Chinese dance performance, a Native American prayer and a full-scale reenactment of the rail dedication.
Several other performances and events were scheduled to take place at the park Friday and throughout the weekend. Many national, state and local dignitaries attended the event, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, members of Utah’s congressional delegation, members of President Donald Trump’s administration, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Russell M. Nelson and more.
Many of the days speakers highlighted the contributions of the aforementioned rail laborers, the mostly disadvantaged and underprivileged who built the track by hand.
“I’m proud that we have highlighted the contributions of the more than 15,000 Chinese laborers, who along with Irish workers, Mormon workers, Native Americans and many others, built the transcontinental railroad,” Herbert said.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao gave a keynote speech, highlighting the contributions railroad workers — especially Chinese laborers — made to the transformation of the United States.
“The transcontinental railroad was a tremendous feat of engineering, innovation and manpower that was key to the economic development of the United States,” Chao said. “Today, we pay special tribute to the diverse workforce — especially 12,000 or more Chinese laborers — that built this seminal infrastructure project that transformed America.”
Daniel Mulhall, an Irish diplomat and current Ambassador of Ireland to the United States, highlighted laborers as well.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt talked about the foresight of President Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Congress to create legislation that granted the railroads public land and government bonds for each mile of track that was completed.
“What foresight to lead to such incredible infrastructure,” Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt’s public land theme continued, as speakers touted the newly designated national historic park status of the Golden Spike site.
Leslie Crossland, superintendent of the Golden Spike National Historical Park, said the land where the spike was driven is mostly unchanged since 1869, and should also be remembered as the ancestral land for over 22 Native American tribes.
Rep. Rob Bishop said the Golden Spike National Historical Park joins other historic parks like Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, the American Revolution site in Boston, Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Lewis and Clark trail in Oregon and Washington. Bishop said the historic park designation will provide opportunities to attract additional tourism and economic benefits to the northwest corner of Utah.
“This is a tremendous way to honor the lives of those who built the railroad and share with people its stories and what took place here,” he said.