How “golden spike” became the most important event of the 19th century

There is no simple definition of ‘fast’. To be reasonably correct, it is always necessary to specify what historical period we are talking about. There are still people among us who remember the advent of earlier, “sensationally” fast ways of communicating. In their childhood days, airmail was fast. We ourselves remember the ‘fast’ telephone modems that connected us to the Internet after a minute or two. 3G was fast, 5G is even faster.

Communication eludes the smallest units of time. It is so fast that – almost literally – it escapes from our reality. Metaversum is a virtual reality concept in which users in 3D can integrate into a virtual environment and communicate with each other. The concept is derived from two words: “meta”, which means “beyond”, and “universe”, so it can be translated as “beyond the universe”.

Despite such phenomenal technological advances, one cannot detect the explosion of joy that people would show at having overcome yet another speed barrier. This lack of enthusiasm is quite different from the public mood some 150 years ago, when new inventions and technical advances caused people to repeatedly take to the streets to manifest their joy.

Henry Ford congratulates the crew who completed the rally route in 22 days and 55 minutes, 1909.
The obsession with speed is not something new. Completion of the rally from New York to Seattle; won by the Ford Model T.; Henry Ford congratulates the crew who completed the rally route in 22 days and 55 minutes, 1909. Photo: The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company

Promontory - A place abandoned by man

The village of Promontory, Utah, is a place where today only desert dust hovers. It is a lonely place abandoned by man, swallowed by nature, one of the most forgotten historical locations captured by the first photographic cameras. This is where one of the most important photographs in American history was taken, the so-called ‘champagne photo’ (‘East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail’) by Andrew J. Russell. For every American, this iconic photograph from 1869 is as important as the images of the first flight of the Wright brothers’ plane, the moon landing, the photographs depicting the moment of the assassination of J.F. Kennedy and the attack on the World Trade Center towers.

Promontory Mountains, Utah
Promontory Mountains, Utah. ©Chris Light, Wikimedia Commons

"Champagne photo"- the most important event of the 19th century

The weather on 10th of May 1869, the day the “champagne photo” was taken, was beautiful. A crowd of about 600 guests, arriving from near and far, were about to witness the most important event of the 19th century. Millions of Americans waited impatiently for the Western Union to send a telegraphic signal to every corner of the USA announcing that the Pacific Railroad was finally complete. It was the first major event to be transmitted live. With the telegraph wires connected to the ‘golden spike‘, the sound accompanying the hammers were to ring out in almost every town and telegraph station in the USA.

The painting depicts the ceremony of the driving of the 'Last Spike' at Promontory Summit, UT, on May 10, 1869
The painting depicts the ceremony of the driving of the 'Last Spike' at Promontory Summit, UT, on May 10, 1869, joining the rails of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad. Thomas Hill (1829-1908)

Dignitaries, including Central Pacific chief Leland Stanford and Union Pacific vice-president and major shareholder Thomas Durant, gathered around the site where the last ‘golden spike’ was to be driven. There was also a military detachment, which would become the first military unit transported by the new railway across the continent, as well as two orchestras and ordinary workers. However, a representative of the US government, the practical sponsor of the whole project, did not attend the ceremony. Also absent from the ceremony was Brigham Young, the undisputed leader of the Mormons and the man with dictatorial powers in the Utah territory. It was in the territory of the ‘Saints’, which Young had tried so hard to isolate from the world, that the inauguration of the railway cutting across the continent and connecting Young’s two most important cities in the nation, the devilish New York and the satanic San Francisco, exploded with energy.

"Golden spike"

After the introductory, religious part of the ceremony, it was on to the main event – the driving of the last spike into the last railway sleeper. Due to the importance of this event, many wealthy individuals and organisations were interested in funding the ‘golden spike’.  In the end, there were as many as four golden spikes. Leland Stanford brought two gold-plated ones with him, sent by the State of California. The state of Nevada sent another spike, silver for obvious reasons, to the two railway companies. The then Arizona Territory also sent a spike with a special dedication. The ceremony was of a modest nature. The laying of the last rails was entrusted to a select few of the best workers, who, once their work was done, moved aside without delay, leaving the entire scene of this historic event to the visiting dignitaries. “Golden spikes” were hammered not into the usual railway sleeper, but into a laurel sleeper specially imported from San Francisco. The final strike (to be historically accurate – it was a missed strike, like the earlier attempts by Thomas C. Durant of Union Pacific) into a seventeen-carat gold spike was the work of Leland Stanford of Central Pacific.

The golden spikes hammered into the laurel foundation did not stay in the ground for long. Almost immediately, they were transferred to Stanford’s closely guarded train. In place of the gold spikes and laurel sleeper, a sleeper of mundane cedar wood was substituted for the rails, into which the usual iron spikes connected to the telegraph network were hammered by the hands of real experts: the engineers of the two railway companies – General G.M. Dodge of the Union Pacific and J.H. Strobridge of the Central Pacific. The striking of the ‘golden spike’ was in fact the sound of the driving of the last, real, ordinary iron spike. A telegraphic message was sent out into the world: “done”. The construction of the most important railway line in the world was complete.

The "champagne photo" that sent the world into a state of euphoria. East and West Shaking hands at the laying of the last rail of the Union Pacific Railroad.
The "champagne photo" that sent the world into a state of euphoria. East and West Shaking hands at the laying of the last rail of the Union Pacific Railroad. ©Andrew Joseph Russel, Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the ceremony, the steam locomotives Jupiter and No 119 almost came into contact with each other. The space between them was only the width of one rail at the time. This was the signal for the patiently waiting workers and the gathered public to celebrate more spontaneously. It was at this point that the historic photograph capturing the event was taken. It did not include important officials who had already managed to return to their luxurious railway saloons and thus missed the chance to be among the cheering participants in the ‘champagne photo’, one of the most important photographic documents in American history.

A state of collective rapture

The euphoria following the event of 10th of May 1869 surpassed anything America had seen up to that point. The short telegraphic message “DONE”, sent out into the world at 12: 47, put the entire nation in a state of collective rapture over the success. In New York, 100 salvos were fired in City Hall Park. A day later, The New York Times carried a lead article that began with the words: “The long-awaited moment has arrived. The construction of the Pacific Railroad is an accomplished fact”, and The New York Herald Tribune emphasised that, “We are the youngest of the nations, but we are teaching the world how to march forward”.

 An eleven-mile carnival procession passed through Chicago in praise of the new railway; in Philadelphia, fire trucks parked in front of Independence Hall, whistling and ringing loudly. Bells and hymns of praise rang out in every church across the country. The writer Bret Harte, who was popular at the time, created a poem for the occasion entitled ‘What the engines said’.

America was enthusiastically bidding farewell to the old West – an abysmal wilderness inhabited by lone daredevils – and the era of travelling in covered wagons across plains full of buffalo. The future was the time of the new West – the ‘Gilded Age’, an era of mass emigration from the East, cowboy fortunes, and the hard work of miners, lumberjacks and farmers. The possibilities seemed endless and few thought at the time that some of these prospects would not at all be good, enjoyable or useful for the new nation. By creating a new world, the annihilation of the old order in the not-so-empty lands, the West, was contributed to.

The modern colossus of (rail) roads
The railway business inspired admiration but also disgust because of the activities of greedy railway barons who squeezed every cent out of the country and its citizens. Nineteenth-century capitalism, of which the railways were an important part, was not beautiful, but it was very effective in building the pioneering US West. ©The modern colossus of (rail) roads / J. Keppler, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Close the world

In the minds of the settlers, this railway line was to be the nerve of the young nation and unite the outermost regions of the North American continent. Some had an even broader perspective. The transcontinental line was to complete and ‘close’ the entire world of the time. At the time, the politically and economically dominant Europe looked at and defined the world through two glances at the globe. The first glance was directed eastwards, towards India, China and Japan. The second glance was towards the West, towards the United States. The common perception was that the USA ended at the natural boundary defined by the Mississippi River. With the construction of the Pacific Railroad, all that was about to change.

The Paris daily Le Figaro wondered what had actually happened. “What happens to distances? California is only 15 days away from Paris – it was three months twenty years ago”. In a similar vein, a few months later the world welcomed another historic work of 19th-century civilisation: the opening of the Suez Canal, built by the French, allowing travel from Europe to Asia without having to circumnavigate the southern African cape. Within a few months, the world became much smaller and travel faster. Enthusiasm for this was, among other things, the reason for Jules Verne’s well-known book ‘Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours’ (‘Around the world in 80 days’).

All you needed was money

To feel the gusto of new times and unlimited possibilities, all you needed was money. The journey from New York to San Francisco was only going to take about seven days and cost $65. A seat in a sleeper Pullman did cost a fortune – $136, or $2603 in today’s money terms – but many felt it was money well spent for the opportunity to participate in the revolution of civilisation and the inexhaustible possibilities that were opening up to energetic and courageous individuals.

Union Pacific 150 year later:

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