Golden spike marks transcontinental breakthrough, May 10, 1869

Workers for the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads on this day in 1869 watched as a golden spike was driven into the rails at Promontory Summit, Utah. Coming some four years after the Civil War, the event marked completion of the first transcontinental railroad: Henceforth, the United States would be connected by rail from coast to coast, cutting a prior journey of at least four months to a week.

In anticipation of the ceremony, Union Pacific No. 119 and Central Pacific No. 60, known as the Jupiter, locomotives were drawn up face-to-face. It’s not known how many people attended the event; estimates range from as low as 500 to as many as 3,000.

Under the aegis of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, the Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, prepared the first maps and reports describing the topography of the trails and passages from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

From 1835 onward, many Americans wrote and spoke about their belief that it was the “manifest destiny” of the United States to expand its territory over the whole of North America to extend and enhance the nation’s political, social and economic influence.

Congress, buying into the need for westward expansion, authorized a Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838. In the 1850s, the Senate ordered the printing of 10,000 copies of topographical surveys, known as the Pacific Railroad Route Reports, including one by John Charles Fremont, a member of the corps.

Expansionist-minded legislators such as Sen. Thomas Hart Benton (D-Mo.), Fremont’s father-in-law, saw that railroad builders would rely on such reports to cross the continent and unify the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Congressional leaders also recognized that, in the event of a war between the North and the South, whichever side had the best transportation system and access to the West would hold a military advantage.

Several members of Congress owned stock in The Credit Mobilier of America, formed in 1864 as the agent for the construction of the Union Pacific Railway’s portion of the transcontinental line. In 1868, Rep. Oakes Ames (R-Mass.) distributed shares to his fellow lawmakers, along with cash bribes — though the scandal did not come to light until 1872.

Leland Stanford, president of Southern Pacific Railroad and, beginning in 1861, Central Pacific Railroad, drove the golden spike. Stanford also served as a Republican governor and senator from California. He founded the prestigious university that bears his name. The spike is now displayed in the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford.

Nowadays, the Golden Spike National Historic Site, 32 miles west of Brigham City, Utah, receives some 60,000 visitors yearly. The site features auto tours, a hiking trail, and, from May 1 through Columbus Day, steam locomotive demonstrations. This year, on Saturdays and holidays during the summer months, volunteers will reenact the 149th anniversary of the historic linkage.

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