Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Promontory Summit & the Golden Spike

I stand astride America’s Transcontinental Railway, looking east, then west.

Initiated by Lincoln, overseen by Johnson, and completed under Grant, the undertaking called for the Union Pacific Railroad to work westward from Omaha and the Central Pacific, eastward from Sacramento. They met, as most schoolchildren learned in my day (do they study this anymore?), at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, in 1869, where a laurel tie was laid and ceremonial golden spike was driven to link the two coasts. With that linking, a cross-country journey abruptly dropped from six weeks to five days. Moving people and freight and the telegraphy that paralleled the tracks changed America forever. The immensity of the undertaking (the equivalent of a 19th century NASA moon shot) captured the imagination of Americans.

At Promontory Summit, telegraphers chronicled the ceremony by sending messages with each swing of the hammer, and church bells pealed in towns throughout the country.

Replica of the Union Pacific's Engine 119 (the replica of the Central Pacific's "Jupiter" locomotive was in the shop)

Even though railroad tracks no longer run through Promontory Summit (a more direct route across part of the Great Salt Lake was completed in 1904 and the tracks were torn up for use in the war effort in 1942), the Golden Spike National Historic Site is there. Only a half-hour off I-85 and I-15 near the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, it is a bit of Americana worth the side trip.

One Comment

  1. Emily Cotler says:

    Standardized time was a direct result of the Transcontinental Railway, a fact I only just learned. And following the establishment of Standardized Time some random railway station manager in some mid-west state discovered how dependent upon his pocket watch he had become and bought a big box of them, sent out a telegram to fellow station managers offering to send them by way of rail (a new concept) for a price. He sold out within months, and then Richard Sears got the bright idea that anything could be delivered by railway. All he needed was a catalog. Somewhere along the way he met another guy with big ideas named Roebuck. All because of a crazy idea to run a train from sea to shining sea.

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