150th Anniversary of Transcontinental Railroad Unveils Frontier History

Published on September 05, 2019 12:00 AM in Driving Destinations, Getting There
150th Anniversary of Transcontinental Railroad Unveils Frontier History

A race, a bawdy prairie town and two companies vying for bragging rights. Promontory Summit in Utah Territory was the center of the world for the day. 

There, on the cool clear spring afternoon in May 1869, eastern and western rails for the Transcontinental Railroad came together. The tent city 70 miles north of Salt Lake City seemed like an unlikely place to consummate a great quest. 

“It was the equivalent of landing a man on the moon almost exactly 100 years later,” said Doug Foxley, chairman of the Golden Spike Commission and leader of Spike150.org anniversary celebration. “Most history books talk about magnates who ran the railroad companies. 

“For the 150th anniversary we focused on workers who made it possible.”

The Central Pacific Railroad kicked off its construction in 1865 from Sacramento, Calif. The Union Pacific Railroad started two years later at Omah, Neb. Each company was paid by the US government by the mile of track laid. And the race was on.

Some 1,000 railroad workers and dignitaries celebrated merging of the rails. The event became known as the Golden Spike Ceremony, and it unified a nation torn apart by five years of Civil War. 

For the Spike150.org anniversary, Foxley estimated 20,000 visitors gathered at Promontory Summit. 

“The anniversary event took on a life of its own,” said Foxley, who received an undergraduate degree in history from Utah State University and a law degree from The University of Utah. “We were able to get Promontory Summit designated as a national historic park.”

Spike150.org kicked off planning for the Transcontinental Railroad anniversary in 2016. A committee of some 150 members reached out to federal, state and local officials and turned the Utah ceremony into a national celebration. 

Anniversary events began in May and continue throughout 2019. 

In opening remarks, US Secretary of Transportation Elain Chao highlighted contributions of the 12,000 Chineses workers who made the Transcontinental Railroad possible.  They arrived mostly from Canton province during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. 

Mining rewards tapered off and a deep labor pool of restless Chinese looked for other livelihoods. Some of them took jobs laying rail through Central Valley farm communities. 

In 1865, the first dozen Chinese immigrants were hired by the Central Pacific Railroad and earned a reputation as diligent workers. In the next few years thousands more Chinese joined the Transcontinental Railroad effort.

While General Sherman’s army upended Confederate rail lines in South Carolina, Chinese workers laid tracks through granite peaks east of Sacramento. They picked and shoveled and blasted their way through snow-covered mountains.

Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans shouldered rails for the Union Pacific Railroad. Their challenge began in Omaha, Neb., and they encountered few obstacles across the prairie. 

Yet, prairie life tested their limits of tolerance. Deathly cold winters whistled through rail cars used as sleeping quarters. Indians raided camps erected in Native American territories and buffalo hunting grounds. 

The railroad workforce at both companies consisted mostly of young, single males. They pocketed about a $1 per day and worked from dawn until dusk, six days a week.

According to newspaper reports, workers brought their culture and vices into the new communities , Drinking, fighting, gambling and prostitution flourished. 

“Morman laborers helped complete the Transcontinental Railroad as it entered Utah,” Foxley said. 

In early 1889 the Union Pacific and Central Pacific agreed to merge lines at Promontory Summit. A media event was planned and engineers wired a maul to telegraph machines. The sound of hammer on spike became America’s first national broadcast. 

Afterward, workers disappeared into the frontier. Some of them stayed and formed thriving communities--Reno, Nv., Cheyenne, Wyo., Laramie, Wyo., Billings, Mo.

Abandoned railroad towns like Promontory Summit and Coyote, Kan., tumbled into history.. 

“The Transcontinental Railroad represented what people can do when they work together.” 

The rich stories of immigrants and their profound effect on American are on display from Sacramento through Omaha, Neb. Major landmarks are located conveniently along Highway 80, which follows the route of the Transcontinental Railroad.

For more information about this historic event visit:

Go to Spike150.org. This site has a deep well of information about the Transcontinental Railroad and workers who made it possible,  It also information events surrounding the 150th anniversary celebration.Learn about Promonotory Summit at Golden Spike National Historice Park.

Cedar City, Ut., "Cedar City Spike 150 Celebration". Presented by Visit Cedar City Brian Head, this weeklong exhibit running from October 12 to October 17 is a salute to Cedar City’s railroad and Hollywood movie history. Events include the screening of the classic Cecil B. Demile film Union Pacific, which was filmed in Cedar City. The week ends with a Downtown Mural unveiling commemorating the Spike 150 Celebration, Utah Parks Company and Union Pacific Railroad

Davis, CA. "All Aboard: Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad". This exhibit that ends on September 20 showcases how the railroad influenced a part of Davis as the home of the University Farm (now UC Davis), California's agriculture growth and the promotion of the state to tourists and settlers.

Provo, UT.  "After Promontory". This exhibition running through October 5 features period photography from some of the nations most accomplished photographers, like Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Carleton E. Watkins and William Henry Jackson. http://moa.byu.edu/after-promontory/


Other fun drives for railroad buffs:

Baltimore, MD. "B&O Railroad Museum". Not just a space on the Monopoly board, this museum houses the largest collection of 19th-century locomotives in the country. Just down the street, Mount Clare Station (built in 1829) stands as the oldest railroad manufacturing complex in the United States. www.borail.org

Corrine, UT. "Golden Spike National Historical Park". Home to replicas of the steam locomotives that met at the spike (Juptiter and No. 119) on May 10th, 1869 for the wedding of the rails ceremony. Ceremony re-enactments occur regularly through mid-October. From mid-October to late April the locomotives under maintenance in the Engine House. The Engine House is generally open to the public for self-guided tours during the week from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. https://www.nps.gov/gosp/index.htm

Enid, OK. "Railroad Museum of Oklahoma". Set in what was once the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe freight depot in Enid, OK, the museum displays railroad artifacts, as well as HO and N-gauge model railroads, a library and dining car china. 

Green Bay, WI. "National Railroad Museum". Innovative programs and engaging exhibits await at this national museum dedicated to American railroad history. The museum estimates it receives around 105,000 visitors a year. www.nationalrrmuseum.org

Las Cruces, NM. "Las Cruces Railroad Museum". Set in the historic Santa Fe Depot, this museum examines the impact the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad had on Mesilla Valley and Las Cruces. http://museums.las-cruces.org/1624/Railroad-Museum

Plainfield, IL. "Railroad Museum". Thirty-five miles northwest of O'Hare Airport stands the largest railway museum in the United States.  Open weekends April through October. https://www.irm.org/

Riverhead, NY. "Railroad Museum of Long Island". Numerous passenger cars, freight cars and part of a turntable remain on display at this museum located in a former Nassau-Suffolk Lumber Company warehouse and showroom. www.rmli.us

Ronks, PA. "Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania". More than 100 locomotives and railroad cars are on display at this museum in Lancaster County. rrmuseumpa.org

Sacramento, CA. "California State Railroad Museum". Found in Old Sacramento, the museum is the home of the Polar Express and includes a wealth of historic photography and artifacts. 

Salt Lake City, UT. "Following in the Footprints of Chinese Railroad Workers". Presented by the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, this exhibit pays homage to the thousands of workers from Guangdong, China who traveled more than 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to complete the work. Exhibit ends September 27.

South Salt Lake, UT. "Spike 150 Mural". Spike 150 commissioned Trent Call to create a mural celebrating the history and industry of railroad development in Utah and South Salt Lake. The mural is on the Beehive Distilling building. 

Springville, UT. "All Aboard!". Family-friendly exhibition running through September 21 showcases trains, railroads, workers and American art.

Thomaston, CT. "Railroad Museum-New England". Just in time for fall, Pumpkin Patch trains. Travel by train throughout the upper Naugatuck Valley. The train ride includes a stop at a pumpkin patch owned by the museum. www.rmne.org

Witchita Falls, TX. "Wichita Falls Railroad Museum". Found in Historic Depot Square in downtown Wichita Falls alongside the railroad tracks, this museum houses one of the largest collections of rolling stock--vehicles that roll on railways--in the region. The museum includes both steam and diesel locomotives, along with more than a dozer other associated railway cars. 

Article by Jay Alling, editor of Sensible Driver. Write to jay@sensibledriver.com.