The transcontinental railroad was the greatest accomplishment of its age, and given the technology used, possibly in the history of the modern world. As Stephan Ambrose wrote in his book on the achievement, “A person born in 1829 or earlier was in a world in which President Andrew Jackson traveled no faster than Julius Caesar, a world in which no thought or information could be transmitted any faster than in Alexander the Great’s time. In 1869 with the railroad and the telegraph that was beside it, a man could move at 60 miles per hour and transmit an idea from coast to coast almost instantly.”
From Omaha and Sacramento, two narrow lines of rail moved toward each other, building on President Lincoln’s dream of binding a fractured nation together and ambitions of many business people to create commerce from coast to coast. Using primarily manual labor, each company pushed track toward the other, aiming for an almost mythical point in time and space where the two ends would be joined.
Fittingly, we the people have memorialized that point to celebrate the fulfilled dreams and terrible labors of so many people. Congress decided the joining of the two lines would be at Promontory Point in Utah, north of the Great Salt Lake, and the National Park Service has preserved the site so we’ll all remember what happened over a hundred years ago. Golden Spike National Historic Site commemorates the joining of the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad lines with a modern visitor center and exhibits of the work done along the length of the railroad.
If you’ve ever seen the famous photographs of the event then when you visit the actual site you’ll find there’s been little change since. The path of the track was moved in 1904 when a bridge was built over the Great Salt Lake to shorten the trip, stranding the original roadbed that passes through the high desert north of the lake. The Park Service has turned much of the original roadbed into walking or driving trails for visitors to see the effort put into creating this chain linking the country together.
Certainly the crowning exhibit of the Site is the reproduced steam engines, exact replicas of the Jupiter and Engine 119 that touched cowcatchers on May 10, 1869. Each day during spring through fall the engines are fired up (literally) and run down the track by the visitor’s center. Guides tell the stories of the history of each engine as well as the events of the day as the firemen and engineers prepare the great machines for their short, but historic, trip.
The Site is seriously off the beaten path but anyone interested in one of the defining moments of the 19th century in this country should take the time and visit. It’s a great connection to a time when the world was changing almost as radically as the one we’re experiencing.