Connecting a Nation

Posted February 19th, 2010 at 11:51 am (UTC-4)
1 comment

As you’ve read in my recent posts, the American West is a crazy quilt of regions, beginning with rolling grasslands and lonely prairies and extending westward across a spine of high mountains, wasteland plateaus and wide deserts to the sea. The East had been largely settled, and fully developed cities bustled along the Pacific Coast. Only nomadic Indians, for the most part, occupied the great gap in between. During the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, prosperous California, rich in gold and silver, was even a full-fledged state, aligned with ― but no more than a distant and unconnected cousin of ― the other states of the Union.

It wasn’t until four years after federal troops subdued the rebellious southern Confederacy that a stunning technological achievement tied East to West, riveting the attention of the nation and inspiring a momentous westward migration.

On May 10, 1869, railroads from the west and east met in the barren highlands of Utah. The dream of a transcontinental railroad was at last fulfilled.

The meeting of the Union Pacific line from the east and the Central Pacific from the west profoundly changed American life. What had been a two-month trip from New York to San Francisco by wagon ― or a three-month ordeal by ship around the tip of South America ― now took just five or six days by rail.

Bill Kratville, a consultant to the Union Pacific Railroad, which is still in business, reminded me that prior to this amazing rendezvous of lines people generally lived their whole lives within a few kilometers of their homes. “The railroad opened a chance for everyone to go somewhere,” Kratville told me. “Clear across country even, reasonably easily. There was great romance in this that the writers and photographers and artists eagerly portrayed.”

This was not a luxurious journey, mind you. Passengers sat on hardwood seats the whole 2,858 kilometers (1,776 miles) from the Missouri to Sacramento rivers. But it beat the teeth-rattling trip by horseback or stagecoach or wagon.

Kratville and I talked in a little park in Council Bluffs, overlooking the Missouri River on the western edge of Iowa. This was once Milepost One of the Union Pacific, with freight yards, a hotel, and a building where mail from farther east was sorted for the journey to California on the transcontinental line.

Only one little shed remains from those days, but among some picnic tables stands a seldom-visited, 17-meter-high cement monument. It’s painted gold and shaped like the ceremonial Golden Spike that linked the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rails 141 years ago. More about that in a bit.

The Union Pacific’s locomotives, passenger cars, and iron rails had to be carried to Council Bluffs on steamboats, because railroads had not even crossed all of Iowa when construction of what President Abraham Lincoln called the “Pacific line” began in 1861.

“They would lay track ahead of the train,” Bill Kratville told me. “The men would take rails and ties off flat cars and spike them into the graded ground ahead. The train just kept building westward, rail by rail and tie by tie.” Indeed, the crews included muscular specialists, including “tie men,” “rail men,” “screwers,” and “spikers.”

At the other end of the line, in Sacramento, California’s capital city, the state in 1976 opened the California State Railroad Museum where the Central Pacific started its way east. There’s early train stock there, and a display showing the work of poorly paid Chinese laborers, whom the Central Pacific hired by the thousands. Museum vice president Paul Hammond told me that these “coolies,” as they were unkindly called, pushed the railroad through the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains using only picks, shovels, and treacherous blasting powder.

“It was a great workforce of dedicated folks who kept to themselves,” Hammond told me. “They were small people willing to do the most dangerous tasks. And they didn’t get ‘likkered-up’ as much as the white miners and laborers did. They simply boiled some water, made tea, and kept on working.”

The Central Pacific was eventually absorbed into a larger line and then purchased by the Union Pacific in 1996. Today the UP runs 1,500 or so freight trains a day through 20 western states. Each is controlled from a futuristic dispatch center in Harriman, Nebraska, that would amaze the trainmen and “gandy dancer” track workers of the transcontinental railroad. Every train is tracked on what dispatchers call the “Star Trek Wall” and on six computer screens. Not only that, but you can home in on each train and tell what each of sometimes 100 or more cars is carrying, where the load originated, and where it’s going.

Today, UP freights and Amtrak’s “California Zephyr” passenger train follow the route of the old transcontinental railroad. A good stretch of Interstate Highway 80 also runs along these historic rails.

And it can be argued that the change in the American West, from a desolate and daunting “empty quarter” into a “New West” of big cities, high-tech centers, and tourist destinations, began on a single day.

One of American history’s most famous photographs caught the moment on May 10, 1869. It’s called “The Wedding of the Rails.” Amid the sagebrush, hundreds of men pose around and atop the Central Pacific’s locomotive, “the Jupiter,” and the Union Pacific engine 119, which stand, cowcatcher to cowcatcher. At the focal point, CP president Leland Stanford ― for whom Stanford University in California is named ― shakes hands with UP vice president Thomas Durant as two railroad workers reach forward from the engines to exchange bottles of champagne.

It was a glorious and improbable moment beneath remote, black-limestone Promontory Summit in Utah ― one that would herald a new day not just for travel and convenience, but for the U.S. economy and defense as well. Troops could now move all the way across country in days rather than months. Ore and produce from irrigated California fields could reach eastern markets. And what had been scrub land all the way across the country became highly prized. Towns along the track thrived; others, just a few fields away, withered and died.

Remember the Golden Spike? What is commonly thought to be the single, real, ceremonial spike that brought the two lines together in Utah is preserved at Stanford University. Leland Stanford took it with him back to California.

It’s engraved with a prayer: “May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

In truth, four spikes ― two gold, one silver, and a silver-plated spike with a golden head ― were driven into the rails with a silver sledgehammer at the Wedding of the Rails. The second gold spike ended up in San Francisco, then disappeared, it is thought, during the catastrophic earthquake of 1906. The other special spikes probably rest in some rich person’s curio cabinet.

A little town grew up at Promontory Summit. But when the railroad moved its main line south, across the Great Salt Lake, Promontory, as they say, dried up and blew away. In 1916, the railroad erected a modest, concrete obelisk at the site of the meeting of the rails. Hunters found it handy for target practice.

After awhile the old, original rails were ripped out, too. They were donated for scrap during World War II.

But nowadays in temperate months at the Promontory site, visitors get quite a show. Ever since government funds and citizen donations funded a new Golden Spike National Historic Site there in 1965, gleaming reproductions of the black and maroon, coal-burning UP No. 119 and the CP’s blue, crimson, and gold, wood-burning “Jupiter” roll together so tourists can snap pictures. And each May 10, there’s a complete, full-costume re-creation of the historic event.

The convergence of these great lines may have been the world’s first live, coast-to-coast “media event.” Somehow, accounts from the time tell us, the ceremonial hammers and spikes were wired to a telegraph line beside the rails. Each stroke registered as a click at telegraph stations nationwide. And when the hammering of the first golden spike was complete, a message was transmitted to the east and west coasts.

It read, simply, “DONE.”

 (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Coolie  A derogatory slur for unskilled Asian ― especially Chinese ― laborers employed in mines and on the railroads of the early American West. The term was borrowed from British colonialists’ word for Indian servants.

Crazy quilt  A patchwork cover sewn from irregular scraps. The term is often broadened to describe places ― even ideas ― cobbled from odd sources.

Candy dancer  A laborer on a railroad work crew. The term is thought to have followed the introduction of the first track-laying machine by the Gandy Corp. of Chicago. One can picture the workers dancing out of the way of such a contraption.

One response to “Connecting a Nation”

  1. College Research Papers says:

    >Interesting post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll likely be coming back to your blog. Keep up great writing.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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