I was now left with our final task of the day, The Golden Spike National Historic Site. If I drove like a NASCAR driver I would arrive with a few seconds to spare before the site closed for the day. It was a hard decision to make, to drive out to the site and only see a bit of it or catch it on another trip. I decided to drive out there… in hindsight I wish I would skipped it and came back when I had more time… but like always I think I can squeeze in everything. I’m annoying I know.
I showed up with about 25 minutes to spare. I walked into the visitor center and the ranger gave me a funny look and informed me that they were closing soon… I know – I spent too much time at the brewery, big surprise, but I came to see the golden spike.
So you might be wondering what the golden spike is. It was the final spike used to connect the railways from the eastern United States to the western United States (well sort of).
Connecting the coasts by rail was first proposed around 1832 by Dr Hartwell Carver. It seem slightly crazy, maybe even unlikely to be able to connect the east and west coasts by rail – but like some crazy things – sometimes they come true. And like most things, once they figured out money could be made by connecting the two coasts the race to connect began, starting in 1862.
On the west coast Theodore Judah, a Californian engineer lobbied Sacramento merchants to create the Central Pacific Railroad. He had already been working on plotting the course for the rail line crossing the Sierra Nevada. Although he was able to get the merchants to agree it was still a bold plan, building a rail line over the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
In 1863 congress granted loan subsides to the west coast rail company, Central Pacific Railroad and to the east coast rail company, Union Pacific Railroad out of New York. Both companies began to lay the rail, charging towards the opposite coast. The Civil War stopped the construction briefly because there was more money to be made with the war effort than the railway and many of the laborers were busy fighting in the war anyway.
The Civil War ended in 1865 and the railway construction resumed. Both railway teams had their own challenges. The Central Pacific had the mountains to over come and the Union Pacific… well they had the Native Americans trying to protect their lands. The Natives knew that the railway would bring in more settlers, endangering their way of life and ultimately reduce their lands.
The two railways continued laying the tracks well into 1868. Originally there was no decision for a meeting point so both railways continued grading the land, while claiming more land and money on their race to the other coast. They even ran parallel grades for about 200 miles (322 km) once they passed each other.
In 1869 congress finally decided the meeting place of the rail line would be at Promontory Summit in Utah. The ceremony took place on May 10th 1869 at Golden Spike with one locomotive from each railway. Ironically the Golden Spike meeting spot and Promontory Summit are not the same spot. Golden Spike is located about 35 miles north of Promontory Point. Reporters wrote up the meeting place incorrectly while covering the story and history has been plagued by this misrepresentation since.
During the ceremony the Jupiter engine from Central Pacific and No. 119 engine from Union Pacific meet nose to nose at the point while the golden spike was “tapped”into place. An iron spike later took the place of the actual golden spike. Central Pacific put down 690 miles (1110 km) of track while Union Pacific put down 1086 miles (1747 km) for a total of 1776 miles (2858 km). I am not sure if the 1776 miles was just a coincidence or not but I found it interesting regardless… 1776 was the year the United States gained independence from the British… perhaps I am reading too much into it!?!??!
So now that you know a little bit about the golden spike – I am going to ruin it for you… the spike isn’t there. I at least thought it would be at the site. But it’s not. There was a replica of the spike… A fricken replica – I didn’t drive like a NASCAR driver to see a fake. So needless to say that was disappointing. The real spike is located at the Stanford University art museum in California after being donated in 1892.
Regardless of the lack of spike there are still other reasons to visit the site. There are reenactments of the final spike being driven into the ground and presentations of the replica locomotives meeting nose to nose. The original locomotives were both scrapped in the early 1900’s hence why they are using replicas. You can catch the reenactment every Saturday and holidays starting at the beginning of May running to Columbus Day, at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m after the steam demonstration. There are daily steam demonstrations at 1:00 pm and train runs at 10:00 am, 10:30 am, 4:00 pm and 4:30 pm. In addition to the visitor center there are interpretive signs outside and trails around the rails where you can get an up close view of what the rails look like.
I think if I were to go back I would plan my visit around a reenactment to partake in the fun. There is also a driving tour (closed December to May) that leads you around the different spots of where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific laid their final miles of track.
To get to the Golden Spike National Historic Site GPS units do not work well to get you there so they suggest the old fashion way of doing things – following written directions. There is a $7 USD fee per car in the summer and $5 USD in the winter. The America The Beautiful Annual National Parks pass is valid at this park. No dogs are allowed at the site. Also note that the nearest gas station is 26 miles away on Utah Highway 83 so be sure to plan accordingly.