At the Golden Spike National Historic Site, two railroads joined into one and forming the first transcontinental railroad in the history of the United States. It was also the end of the Frontier.
Like everything, it all began with a dream. As America’s eastern states were linked by over 31.000 miles or rail none of them extended past the Missouri River.
By 1862 a young engineer named Theodore Judah had surveyed a route of the Sierra Nevada. He persuaded wealthy California merchants to form the Central Pacific Railroad. That same year Congress authorized Central Pacific to build a railroad eastwards from Sacramento and chartered the Union Pacific in New York.
Central Pacific broke ground in January 1863 and Union Pacific in December 1863. Neither of the railroads made much headway during the civil war.
After the end of the civil war progress on both sides increased as labor and supplies freed up. Eight flat cars of material were needed for every mile of track. Central Pacific faced an even harder challenge as they had to ship every spike, track, locomotive 15,000 miles around Cape Horn.
The workforce of both sides was as unique as the land they had to cross. While Union Pacific employed immigrants from Europe, Civil War veterans from both sides, ex-slaves, and even American Indians Central Pacific hired several thousand Chinese as the labor pool was drained by the rush for gold and silver. The Chinese formed the backbone of the Central Pacific’ workforce.
Both sides pushed harder to grade more miles of track to claim more land subsidies. They pushed so far beyond their railheads that they passed each other and ran for over 200 miles parallel to each other in opposite directions. Congress declared the meeting point to be Promontory Summit in Utah. On May 10, 1869, a locomotive from each railroad (Jupiter and No 119.) pulled up to the one-rail gap left in the track. A golden spike was symbolically driven followed by a final iron spike to connect the two railroads.
In just a little over 6 years, both railroads crossed 1,776 miles to bring together east and west. Union Pacific laid 1,086 miles while Central Pacific put in 690 miles of track.
This opened up new trade ways and brought more settlers to the west. A six months ox-drawn wagon journey was now reduced to only six or seven days by train. Supplies were brought from east to west and therefore money back to the west. The railroad helped the economy boom.
Indeed this was the completion of the first transcontinental railroad but not of a seamless coast to coast train connection. Neither of the termini (Sacramento, California and Omaha, Nebraska) was a seaport.
The Lucin Cutoff, a new railroad route, opened in 1904 and by-passed the Promontory Summit location. By running the railroad west from Odgen across the Great Salt Lake to Lucin, it shortened the distance by 43 miles and avoided the curves and grades going over the Promontory Summit. In 1942 the last spike was ceremonially “undriven” and the rail line between Corrine and Lucin was salvaged. The steel was directed towards America’s war effort.
What to Expect at the Golden Spike National Historic Site
The visitor center is located at the place where the golden spike was driven. Inside and outside you find many artifacts from building the railroad and an in-depth history lesson. About 1.7 miles of the original tracks were restored. Replicas of the locomotives Jupiter (Central Pacific) and No. 119 (Union Pacific) operate during the summer month on the track. You will see the locomotives three times a day pulling up to the location of the golden spike. No train rides are offered as there are only the locomotives moving without any cars.
The locomotives are stored during the winter in the nearby engine house, which can be toured as well. Self-guided tours of the engine house are offered on weekdays and special ranger-led tours are held on weekends. Check the official website for more information.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day volunteers engage in the reenactment of the driving of the last spike. These events take place every Saturday and Holiday at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
Every year on May 10th a commemorative celebration is held. On May 10th, 2019 the “Last Spike” will celebrate its Sesquicentennial and the National Park Service is planning a special event for that date.
Auto Tours and Backcountry Byway
The two auto tours are maintained by the National Park Service.
East Auto Tour:
The entrance to the auto tour is located about 3.5 miles east of the visitor center and a marker shows the turn-off on the right side of the street. This 3-mile long route will show you some of the obstacles the railroad had to overcome to get to the summit. Part of this is the “Last Cut”, one of the many cuts the railroad build through solid rock to maintain a steady grade up to Promontory Summit. Further down the road, you will pass the Chinese Arch which is dedicated to the many Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroad. Just before you leave the tour route and turn back on the main road (Golden Spike Drive) you can see a great example of the parallel grading done by both companies. As you will drive on the Central Pacific Grade, the Union Pacific Grade is just to the right of you.
Golden Spike East Auto Tour
The Last Cut
The last cut through solid rock before reaching the summit. The railroad had to make many cuts through rock to keep the grade level.
West Auto Tour (closed from December to May):
About 8 miles west of the visitor center you will find the entrance to the 8-mile long West Grade Auto Tour Route. The entrance is to your right as you drive west. This route puts you on the Central Pacific Grade and you will see a historical marker of the 10-Mile Day. Just a bit over 10 miles of track were laid on this grade in just one day by the Central Pacific crew. Remnants of the incompleted Union Pacific grade are also visible on this tour.
RV’s and vehicles pulling a trailer are not allowed on either auto tour. Availability and access to the tours is subject to change without notice.
Transcontinental Railroad Backcountry Byway (BCB)
This byway takes you from the entrance of the West Auto Tour further west on what used to be the Central Pacific Grade. As the rails were removed in 1942 and the steel put towards America’s war effort, the grade was converted into a gravel road. This 90-mile long route takes you through the remnants of railroad sidings, towns, and trestles. More info can be found on the Bureau of Land Management website.