Union Pacific Locomotive No. 119

May 10th will be the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Stephen Ambrose called this project “the greatest achievement of the American people in the 19th century. Not until the completion of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century was it rivaled as an engineering feat.” Many thought it couldn’t be done - especially not in such a short period of time. Its financial history is one of excesses: fraught with misconduct, influence peddling, questionable lobbying, and various other irregularities. From a financial standpoint, no one emerged from this experience looking very good, but built it was and what a blessing it turned out to be.

Now, all summer from May through August, twice daily, the National Park Service and volunteer actors, put on a living history presentation which does an excellent job of portraying the happenings of May 10th 1869. The actors, decked out in period clothing, accents, and period mannerisms succeed admirably in recapturing the sights and sounds of Promontory, Utah when the eyes of the nation were upon it and upon our state. May 10th , being the official completion date, was an occasion that called for a celebration and the company organizers and planners did their best to treat the nation to a brief one day extravaganza of ceremony, patriotic posturing, flag waving, band music, and too long and possibly too many speeches.

The “Champaign Photo” from Promontory, 1869

There were several lighthearted moments punctuating the events of that day: Probably the most memorable was when Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific stepped forward to drive the last spike. “He missed,” someone said. There was momentary silence. Then he missed again. Unable to complete the job, Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific came forward to demonstrate his skill, or lack of. He did no better. By this time the crowd of 500 to 600 hundred spectators were roaring with laughter; a rail-worker had to finish the job with three, well placed swings

The highlight of the many speeches came during Stanford’s endless tirade about how the government subsidies had been unnecessary and in-fact had been detrimental to the construction effort. After listening a bit too long to this endless discourse, Dan Casement from the CP, having had too much to drink, stepped up and shouted: “Since these subsidies have been a detriment – I move that we return them to the U.S. Government with our compliments.” Again the crowd roared with laughter. Stanford was the only one not amused.

Today we are lucky; the highlights of that day’s events have been condensed down to less than an hour and with a bit of editing here and there made particularly entertaining, informative, educational, and amusing. We don’t have to sit through those long speeches to experience the humor and occasional witty pronouncement. For a brief few moments, you feel like you are standing there on that rocky, windswept ridge, 141 years ago; two beautiful steam locomotives are facing each other; dignitaries, railroad workers, and general citizens began to climb aboard those engines; some are perched wherever space allows while others are arranged on the ground in two lines. At the center are two individuals, each leaning inward toward each other; one holds a glass; the other a bottle of champagne. The pouring of the champagne into the glass symbolizes the uniting of the East with the West. The photographer snaps his shutter and creates one of the most famous photographs of all time; it soon becomes the symbol of the day’s events and that image was recently chosen to represent Utah on our statehood commemorative quarter.

For those of you with an interest in railroad history or those who enjoy living history – this is a must see reenactment. Please call the Park Service for times and dates. If you arrive early you can volunteer to be part of the cast. If chosen they will provide you with a simple costume, some coaching, and perhaps a memorable experience.

Some information for this story comes from Nothing Like It in the World, the Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863 – 1869, by Stephen E. Ambrose, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.