Music, bells, and cannon fire rang out at a remote spot in the Utah desert in May. The celebration took place where the final spikes of the Transcontinental Railroad were hammered 150 years ago. That last rail united a nation long separated by vast expanses of desert, mountains, forests—and ideas. The United States was fresh off the Civil War when the 1,800-mile rail line was completed on May 10, 1869.
About 20,000 people swarmed to the sesquicentennial (one-and-one-half century) event at Golden Spike National Historic Park northwest of Salt Lake City. Visitors came from as far as China. Many were decked out in old-fashioned dresses, top hats, bonnets, and scarves.
Before the railroad was finished, cross-country travel by wagon or stagecoach could take as long as six months. The completed track shortened that time to about 10 days. And that changed how people traveled and conducted business.
Shipping goods from east to west (or vice versa) became dramatically more affordable and timely when train cars could carry them. The nation’s population began to spread toward the vast, largely unoccupied midsection. Towns, cities, enormous farms, and economic hubs developed along the way. Hauling textiles and crafts, metals and coal, lumber and grain, the railroad served to kick America’s domestic economy into a higher gear. And delivering goods to the coasts more easily further enabled international distribution.
At the celebration, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt spoke to the crowd. He marveled over how engineering, courage, optimism, and risk-taking came together to make the railroad possible.
The railroad was built using horses, oxen, hand carts, wagons, picks, shovels, hammers—and the physical strength of people. Mostly Irish immigrants worked on the portion of the track that came from the East. Mostly Chinese laborers worked on the part that came from the West. They toiled day and night—putting in 12 hours of manual labor daily. Many risked—and lost—their lives blasting through rocks and shoveling snow on frigid mountain peaks.
Utah state historian Brad Westwood called the transcontinental project “a grand gesture to bind the nation after the Civil War.” But, he says, “It was also a story of human capital.” He was referring to the investment of the Irish and Chinese immigrants who labored so hard and at such risk. Westwood says the railroad was built by the “most discriminated and least appreciated people in America.”
The epic project’s costs are as undeniable as its benefits. Several hundred railroad workers died in the construction. More coast-dwellers moving into the frontier contributed to the near annihilation of the bison. That population eventually brought about the loss of land for Native American tribes, Westwood added.
But even so, the final spike that tied the sprawling nation together physically also tied it together psychologically. The railroad’s completion in 1869 triggered a famous telegram: “The last rail is laid. The last spike is driven. The Pacific railroad is completed. The point of junction is 1,086 miles west of the Missouri River and 690 miles east of Sacramento City.”
It set off celebrations around the nation. The bells at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall rang out. A hundred guns were fired in New York. American flags were hung in cities across the nation.
The golden spike included an inscription: “May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”