This obelisk stands on the spot in Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, where the "Last Spike" was driven in 1869

Letter From Wild West — June 2019

By Gregory Lalire
3/21/2019 • Wild West

TRACKING PROGRESS

Four years after the American Civil War westward emigration—already going strong among Northerners and Southerners, including former slaves—received a boost with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The “Last Spike” (or “Golden Spike”) ceremony on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, was certainly worth commemorating then and now, 150 years later. The uniting of the nation via the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads was a long time in coming. As early as the 1840s entrepreneurs had recognized the vast potential of a coast-to-coast railroad. The Civil War was still heating up on July 1, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. The Central Pacific broke ground during the war’s second year, and the Union Pacific did so three months after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Tracklaying was an intense, often risky process, but the work got done (see “Finished Working on the Railroad,” in the June 2019 Wild West). When the last rail was laid, Union Pacific chief engineer Grenville Dodge and other railroad bigwigs sent a telegram that read in part, “This will have an influence upon the future and upon the commerce of the world that no one can today estimate.”

In this sesquicentennial year Americans can appreciate in retrospect the impact of that first transcontinental railroad, that there was a time in this country when trains rather than planes carried more passengers and when trains rather than trucks moved most of the freight across the United States. Before the wedding of the rails in 1869 it took a traveler six months to cross from New York to California at the soaring cost of about $1,000. Afterward, a traveler could cross in about a week for $150.

The Last Spike marked both the conclusion of a grand engineering feat and the beginning of an era of prodigious tracklaying west of the Mississippi in the latter half of the 19th century. The nation wasn’t about to stop at one transcontinental railroad. On March 8, 1881, Atchison, Kan., connected to Los Angeles when the Southern Pacific met the Rio Grande, Mexico & Pacific Railroad (a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe) in a “Silver Spike” ceremony at Deming, New Mexico Territory. The Southern Pacific also helped link east Texas to Los Angeles later that year and New Orleans to L.A. in January 1883. The Northern Pacific, with crews working in both directions, began work on a route between Minnesota and the West Coast in 1870 and completed it on Aug. 22, 1883, though its own “Golden Spike” ceremony didn’t take place until September 8 at the completion site near Gold Creek in Powell County, Montana Territory. In 1893 James J. Hill, without federal aid, completed the Great Northern Railway, from St. Paul, Minn., to Seattle, to compete with the Northern Pacific. By then Canada had also gotten into the transcontinental railroad business. On Nov. 7, 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway completed a route from Montreal to the budding city of Vancouver, holding its “Last Spike” ceremony at Craigellachie, British Columbia.

Publicists naturally hailed the transcontinental railroads for promoting opportunity and settlement in the West as well as national unity through commerce. Of course, as with all major enterprises, the railroad story has some negative aspects, including highhanded methods by railroad robber barons; corruption, shady dealings and scandals (particularly how the financiers of Crédit Mobilier bought their way through Congress); forced relocation of American Indians from lands adjacent to the tracks; the destruction of natural resources to build tracks and stations; railroad corporations stressing expansion and profits at the expense of passenger comfort and safety; equipment failure and accidents; and, of course, that new gripping form of Old West crime—train robberies. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire wrote the 2014 historical novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly, and his Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 is due out in July 2019. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories. His article about frontier baseball in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America, earned him a 2015 Stirrup Award.

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