|by Suzie Johnson
National Train Day is a celebration of the Golden Spike. This year is the 143rd anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, with the Golden Spike signifying the final spike that was hammered into the final rail tie to complete the project that is perhaps the greatest historical event in North America’s transportation history.
On May 10th, 1869, in Promontory, Utah, the tracks for the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads were joined together, completing a dream that had been envisioned since the late 1830s. Despite nearly twenty years of discussion, dreaming, debating, it wasn’t until 1853 that Congress put forth money for surveyors to work on this great project. Two years later, fearful Congress might drop the ball, California joined in the efforts.
|Along the route of the Central Pacific
in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
"When we stood for the first time on the iron-bound shores of the Pacific a generation ago and looked upon their desolate mountains, after a voyage of more than half a year, we thought in our hearts that the last tie that bound us to our native land was broken. We did not dream that the tie that was to reunite us, and make this our native land forever, was then flourishing as a green bay tree in our woods."
~~Dr. J.D. B. Stillman,“The Last Tie,” Overland Monthly, 1869 vol. III: 77
The tie he referred to was the final tie in the railroad, a crosstie cut from a California laurel tree. The golden spike hammered into it was the brainchild of David Hewes, brother-in-law to California Governor Leland Stanford. Hewes had the spike cast and finished as his contribution to the great railroad project.
Since this was to be the very first major media event in the country, Hewes also planned to spread the news with the firing of heavy cannons. As Governor Stanford drove the golden spike into the laurel tie with a silver mallet, telegraph lines would be triggered and cannons fired in cities all across the country, including San Francisco, New York and Chicago. In all but San Francisco, plans for cannon-fire were quickly replaced with plans to trigger fire alarms instead.
|Central Pacific No. 1 via Wikipedia
The ceremony was not without glitches. Heavy rains, riots among laborers, rumors the vice-president of the Union Pacific was being held hostage, and bridge wash-outs were all issues that had to be dealt with over the span of just a few days.
Finally, on the morning of May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific train arrived with Governor Stanford. Not long afterward, the Union Pacific train arrived. Union Pacific workers laid the final section of rail on the north side of the gap between the two lines, and Chinese workers dressed in freshly laundered garb laid the final section for the Central Pacific. The Transcontinental Railroad was nearly complete.
In anticipation, telegraph connections were established and fire alarms were ready to be set off across the country as soon as the final spike was driven. Reporters and spectators were present on that sunny day in May.
Representatives from the UP and CP hoisted the laurel crosstie and slid it into place. After a speech and a prayer, followed by more speeches, Governor Stanford was presented a silver maul that was wired to the telegraph. When Stanford hammered the golden spike, news quickly spread as cannon fire let loose in San Francisco and fire alarms were triggered all across the country.
The golden spike and silver maul were eventually donated to Stanford University, and the laurel tie was placed in the Southern Pacific’s San Francisco office and destroyed in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake.
There is obviously a lot more to this story than can possibly be included here, and Governor Stanford’s contribution to the entire project was great. These events will be celebrated on Saturday, May 12, 2012 in the fifth annual National Train Day begun by Amtrak in 2008.
In New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, participants will be able to tour private luxury rail cars, freight trains, and commuter trains. Other, smaller events will be held across the country. To see if there are any events in your area, you can click here, and then click your location on the map.
Train travel is one of my favorite pastimes, and this summer I’ll be traveling on the Coast Starlight to the RWA conference with Anita Mae Draper.
Do you enjoy train travel? What are some of the places you’ve visited by train?
Suzie Johnson’s debut novel, No Substitute, a contemporary inspirational novel, will be released by White Rose Press later this year. She is a member of ACFW, RWA, and is the cancer registrar at her local hospital. The mother of a wonderful young man, who makes her proud every day, Suzie lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and naughty little cat. Although the beaches there are rocky instead of sandy, lined with Madrona trees instead of Palm trees, and the surf is much too cold for wading, it is still the perfect spot for writing inspirational fiction. You can visit her blog, Suzie's Writing Place at http://suzieswritingplace.blogspot.com/