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AAA World Article

Grit, Greed and Glory

The transcontinental railroad celebrates 150 years.

By Kathleen M. Mangan

AAA World Article

Illustration depicting the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad.

The vast emptiness of Northern Utah’s Promontory Mountains—rocks, dirt and sagebrush as far as the eye can see—makes it an unlikely place for a historically significant event, especially one that transformed the nation. But 150 years ago, a ceremonial spike made of gold connected railroads from the East and West Coasts here in this remote spot, the culmination of an epic engineering project marked by grit, greed and glory.

In 1869, the Golden Spike changed coast-to-coast travel from a tiring six-month voyage around South America to a five-day rail excursion. It opened opportunities in the West and launched a golden era of rail travel. Some modern-day trains still follow sections of the historic railroad grades that were built—incredibly—entirely by hand.

At Utah’s Golden Spike National Historical Park, established in 1965, the sound of a steam whistle makes everyone in the crowd gathered to witness the weekly reenactment of the historic link-up strain to see the approaching Victorian-era steam engine with tender car, a replica of the original. The blue-and-red Jupiter, representing the Central Pacific Railroad that built the line from Sacramento, California, east to Utah, billows white clouds of steam from its smokestack as it arrives. The hissing sounds from the engine continue long after it comes to a stop in front of the park’s visitor center. 

Central Pacific Railroad
Central Pacific Railroad Jupiter
Photo Courtesy of NPS

Just as it did a century-and-a-half ago, the drama unfolds as the railroad baron reenactors riding Jupiter claim superiority by arriving first. A bit later, the Union Pacific Railroad’s engine No. 119 with tender car arrives with whistles, bells and cheers to mark completion of the transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific laid more total track, starting in Omaha, Nebraska, and headed west to Utah, and although late for the ceremony, the speeches by the reenactors are still righteous due to their accomplishments.

Transcontinental Railroad
Pacific No. 119
Photo Courtesy of NPS

A Golden Spike replica is ceremonially inserted into a pre-drilled hole in the railroad tie, and then an iron spike is pounded in to seal the link. Finally, the reenactors set up the iconic historic photo with railroaders holding Champagne bottles stretching from the front ends of both engines across the gap as the crowd snaps photos. U.S. Park Ranger Lucas Hugie, sporting a burgundy coat, gold vest and monocle for the ceremony, says, “It’s a thrill to reenact one of the nation’s proudest moments.” Golden Spike reenactments happen every Saturday from May to October; the steam engines run daily through the season.

Transcontinental Railroad
at Golden Spike National Historical Park reenact the champagne toast.
Photo Courtesy of NPS

An engineering feat—and a little fraud
Celebration was certainly warranted back in the day, according to the movie and exhibits in the visitor center. At the time, many critics said that laying 1,800 miles of rail from the Mississippi River to the West Coast couldn’t be done, yet it was completed in six years, just half the time expected. The task required human toil and stamina; thousands of primarily Chinese and Irish immigrants dug tunnels and cuts, built trestles, filled valley gaps and carved mountain ledges while enduring blistering summer heat, deep winter snowfalls and warring Native Americans.

Greed was the driving force behind quick completion, as the legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln bestowed land grants and federal subsidies to the railroads for each mile of track laid. With no mandated meeting point, however, the companies crossed in Utah and continued in opposite directions for 250 miles, raking in the per-mile payments. Congress forced a junction once they got wind of the ruse, and the railroad barons agreed to join at Promontory Summit, splitting the engineering challenges presented by those mountains.

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Today, the remains of two parallel grades built by the competing companies are still visible around Promontory, notably from the trail across the Big Fill. The Central Pacific’s workers used dump carts to fill in the 500-foot-wide Spring Creek ravine, while the Union Pacific’s workers built a rickety wooden trestle across the same gap a stone’s throw away. Two driving tours follow historic rail beds in the park through cuts and across steep slopes, providing further evidence of what it took to build the railway.   

Also within the park is Promontory Summit Engine House, where the replica locomotives overnight and undergo maintenance. A stop here is a must for the mechanically minded—engineer Tom Brown is happy to answer questions. During the summer, he operates the locomotives dressed in period clothing, complete with an antique pocket watch. “This is the best job in the world,” says Brown.

Ogden: The Junction City
Soon after the last spike was struck, Ogden, Utah, became the location where transcontinental travelers changed train lines. Enterprising businesses in the city offered passengers disembarking at Union Station such indulgences as hot baths, shaves, food, drink and gambling as they made their way up 25th Street to the Bigelow Hotel.

Ogeden Union Station
Ogden, Utah’s Union Station
Photo by Bryan Butterfield

Today, the Bigelow Hotel retains its Victorian ambience in the renovated lobby and suites. The city has preserved its old Western-style buildings, particularly on historic 25th Street. Here, visitors can enjoy craft brews at Roosters, elk steaks at Hearth on 25th, and a farmers market every Saturday during the summer.

The jewel of Ogden is the Italian Renaissance-style Union Station, now an appropriate home to four museums, including the Utah State Railroad Museum. It reveals more of the story on the race to Promontory, such as the wager between the competing railroad barons. In the rush to completion, the Union Pacific barons pushed crews from one mile of track a day to seven miles of track, and they bet their competitor $10,000 that they couldn’t beat the record. Planning carefully, the Central Pacific responded with more than 10 miles of track in a day just before the date set for linkage, securing the win.

The Zephyr through the Sierras
Amtrak trains crossing the country nowadays still use some of the 150-year-old railbeds manually laid down by Chinese and Irish immigrants. Those segments are typically the only way to see high portions of the Rockies and Sierras; the landscape is apparently too intimidating for road building. I wanted to see the historic route through the Sierras, as it’s not only one of the most scenic in the country but was also the most difficult engineering challenge in the construction saga.

So, I book passage from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Sacramento, California, the historical end of the line, on Amtrak’s California Zephyr that runs between Chicago, Illinois, and San Francisco, California. My journey departs at 11:30 p.m., crosses Nevada through the night, traverses the Sierras the next day and pulls into my destination during the early afternoon.

My roomette for the overnight portion is compact, but the view out the window is expansive. I find the night landscape strangely compelling with its silhouettes of rock formations, hulks of metal bridges and periodic track lights. The stars go all the way to the ground; train whistles add forlorn laments.

During breakfast in the dining car, passengers scan the hillsides for wild horses. The observation car has the best views, and California State Railroad Museum guides provide historical insight on the Gold Rush and railroad construction through the Sierras.

We look down on Donner Lake, go around horseshoe curves and travel through mountain tunnels. The Donner Pass summit tunnel through 1,659 feet of solid granite was the Central Pacific’s supreme accomplishment, taking two years to complete using chisels, hammers and black powder, sometimes progressing just eight inches a day.

Out the window, I glimpse the 1,400-foot drop to the American River, where Chinese workers were lowered on ropes over the cliff edge to place black powder charges and blast out the shelf for the train. We stop in Roseville, where graffiti-covered freight cars form an impromptu  pop art exhibition, and continue to Sacramento.

Echoes of Old Sacramento
In the 19th century, Sacramento was a gateway to the West for frontiersmen and prospectors as well as a center of commerce for suppliers. Today, the Old Sacramento district retains authenticity with historic buildings, shops, bars, restaurants, museums and horse-drawn carriage rides.

Old Sacramento Transcontinental Railroad
A horse-drawn carriage ride is an evocative way to tour Old Sacramento.
Photo by Carlos Eliason

Docked at the riverfront is the fanciful Delta King paddle wheeler, which delivered passengers in style from San Francisco in the late 1800s. Now it’s restored as a floating hotel with dining on the deck overlooking the Sacramento River and Tower Bridge.

Transcontinental Railroad
19th century paddle wheeler Delta King is now a floating hotel.
Photo by Carlos Eliason

A highlight of Old Sacramento is the California State Railroad Museum, showcasing the first Central Pacific locomotive, post office cars, and luxe 1920s Pullman dining and sleeper cars. Curiously, there’s a priceless gold Lost Spike on display, which was rumored to exist but didn’t surface until 2005. It is a near-twin of the Golden Spike; both were cast at the same time by the jeweler but there are differences in the engravings.

Old Sacramento Transcontinental Railroad
Visitors to the California State Railroad Museum can take an excursion along the Sacramento River in a historic steam train.
Photo by  Kelly B. Huston

I believe that riding on a steam train is the only way to appreciate its role in history. Judging from the crowd lining up for an excursion on the railroad museum’s vintage train along the Sacramento River, I know many people agree. As the engine’s boiler heats up and bellows steam, it feels as if the stories of the past were seeding the steam clouds for dissemination, ensuring future enthusiasm for trains and the legacy of the railroad.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of AAA World.

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