The “Golden Spike” was driven on this date in 1869. What was the “Golden Spike”? Some of you may recall hearing it mentioned in a U.S. History class. This spike, which was truly made of gold, was not just a romantic bit of showmanship. It symbolized a huge milestone in U.S. history. The Union Pacific Railroad (starting from Omaha, Nebraska) and the Central Pacific Railroad (starting from the west coast) spent over six years building 1,900 miles of tracks to join the two sides of the country. And when the two railroads finally met up on May 10, 1869 near Promontory Summit, Utah, the golden spike was driven in with a silver hammer to join the two railroads into one continuous railroad line.
Even after several years of planning, this was no easy task. Small teams of surveyors had the dangerous job of scouting ahead through lands controlled by (understandably hostile) native tribes to determine the exact routes. Since much of the route went through enormous mountain ranges, trestles and bridges had to be built and tunnels had to be blasted. These edifices had to be designed and constructed before the teams laying the tracks reached them. The tunnels were particularly time-consuming. In fact, for many of the tunnels, which were hacked or blasted through granite, the crews only advance about one foot per day. Even on more level land, progress was slow, averaging about a mile a day.
Think about the logistics of all of this. Thousands of men were needed to construct firm, smooth roadbeds, build the bridges, force tunnels through the mountains, and actually lay the tracks. More people were needed to feed the crews everyday and provide some sort of sleeping quarters. Still more people were needed to keep the crews and their trains supplied with firewood, water, food – and work supplies. Think about not only the miles and miles of track and railroad ties needed, but all of the railroad spikes, shovels, picks, wheelbarrows and other equipment needed. And don’t forget the teams of mules and horses – and wagons –needed to haul materials to the work sites. Most of these materials had to be replaced regularly in large quantities. It all had to come from somewhere, and that was not easy to do when working in what at the time was truly “the middle of nowhere.”
But after six years of grueling labor, the “Golden Spike” was driven in and the work was done. Why was this a big deal? Because it was now possible to ride a train all the way from the east coast to the west coast. Before this, a person traveling between the coasts had two choices: 1) take a ship all the way around the southern tip of South America and back up the coast to California, or 2) take a ship to Panama, make the trek through the jungle to the other side, and then take another ship up the coast. These voyages took six months or more to complete. Now, the trip could be done in about one week on the railroad.
Another key thing the railroad did was to help open up the vast middle of the country to settlement. Not only did the trains make it easier for immigrants or other new settlers to get to their destination, but as part of their arrangement with the federal government the railroads were given huge tracts of land which they could then turn around and sell to the settlers. While the deal between the federal government and the railroads was not perfect, and in fact a few individuals became quite wealthy by rigging the system, it proved beneficial to the country as a whole. As a result, with the influx of new settlers, many of the places where the trains stopped to obtain more fuel and water became large cities we know today.
The Transcontinental Railroad was like the lunar moonwalk of its day. It captured everyone’s attention so much, it was said to be one of the inspirations for Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days, and also provided the inspiration for several movies in later years.
Today, much of this original railroad line is still in use, especially the portions through the mountain ranges. While the original tracks and ties were replaced over time, the trains are still running on the routes laid out by those early survey crews and on roadbeds dug out by those early laborers. Personally, it provides me with the inspiration to take a train trip across the country. If I ever do, I will say a silent word of thanks for the men who worked so hard all those years ago to make such a daring dream a glorious reality.
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