Friday, August 26, 2011
Did you know it could have been "Golden Rail National Historic Site"? Alas, a certain San Francisco booster discovered there wasn't enough enthusiasm for donating that much gold, so he settled for a golden spike instead. Nevada also offered a silver spike (from the Silver State, of course), while Arizona produced a silver spike with a golden head and a San Francisco newspaper gave a second golden spike. At the famous completion ceremony, these were (gently) tapped into place with a special silver-plated maul and then immediately pulled out again so that real spikes could be put in their place. Railroad magnates Leland Stanford and Thomas Durant tried to drive the iron Last Spike into place, but made a hash of the job; a real rail worker had to finish. The precious spikes were dispersed to various repositories and none resides at Promontory today*.
As a matter of fact, neither does the transcontinental railroad. The site was forced as a huge and inconvenient detour around the Great Salt Lake and, even today, it's almost 150 miles of vacant desert and single-lane road from Brigham City. Fortunately, the Salt Lake is quite shallow and crossing it with a trestle was well within 19th Century engineering capabilities. The Southern Pacific Railroad** completed such a cutoff in 1904 and, except for tourists visiting the National Historic Site, no one has seen much need to travel around the north side of the lake ever since.
A previous post on the financing of the transcontinental railroad
* The second golden spike has since been lost, perhaps in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire
**Not part of the original transcontinental railroad, which was built by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads.
Labels: history By Scott Hanley