The Golden Spike: History of the Trains meeting at Promontory, Utah

Iron Horses to Promontory by Gerald Best, 1969.
F. Wade Frasch Family Collection

On the windswept high desert, the two steam locomotives met. Leland Stanford and the dignitaries removed their hats. A prayer was offered. The last spike was in place. The telegraph operators, one at Promontory Point and the other at the Capitol in DC listened for the taps on the spike. Each had a finger poised over the telegraph. Stanford was supposed to drive in the spike. He missed. A backup worker drove the spike in with three blows. At 2:47 pm on May 10, 1869, the Promontory Point operator sent the message. “Dot, dot, dot. Done!” The driving of the spike and then those words marked the completion of the Pacific Railroad. Iron bands now stretched across the continent uniting the USA.

Five years ago, we took our two kids to watch a reenactment of the driving of the spike with two reconstructed locomotives facing each other. In less than five months, an estimated 100,000 people will visit Promontory Point over that weekend. After 150 years, with all our jet planes, freeways and the internet, why do so many still care? Most of the attendees, hopefully, I will be one of them, enjoy history. The joining of the transcontinental railroad was a seminal event with overtures that went beyond the opening of a railroad.  I suspect the majority want to feel like they are making history, at least on that sesquiennial day. As Americans we are proud. We are grateful for the advances in 1869 that led to every industrial and technological advancement in transportation and communication since. The ripples of this historic event still touch us.