The Completion of Transcontinental Railroad


Six years after work began in 1862, the laborers of the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was there on May 10, 1869 that Governor Leland Stanford (one of the “Big Four” owners of the Central Pacific) drove the Golden Spike on the special tie of polished California laurel (later destroyed in an earthquake).

The completion of the transcontinental railroad was the world’s first live mass-media event: the hammers and spike were wired to the telegraph line so that each hammer stroke would be heard as a click at telegraph stations nationwide. Predictably, various problems occurred; the other ‘Big Three’ decided not to take the harsh journey. The ceremony was delayed by two days because of bad weather and a labor dispute, thus rendering the date engraved on the spike (May 8th) wrong. Eventually, technical problems force the hammer stroke clicks to be sent by the telegraph operators. The spike itself was merely gold plated (gold being much too soft for the purpose), and was immediately replaced by an ordinary iron spike. A message was transmitted to both the East and West Coasts that read: “DONE.” President Grant announced the message to the Capitol. The country erupted in celebration. Complete travel from coast to coast was reduced from six or more months to just one week.

I have always assumed that Leland Stanford was one of the people shaking hands at the center. Boy, was I wrong! Two people shaking hands were Samuel S. Montague (left) and Grenville M. Dodge (right), respective Chief Engineers of Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. In fact, Stanford hated this photo by Andrew J. Russell mainly because he was not in the photo. He subsequently commissioned a painter Thomas Hill to create a cleaned-up version which removed the cheeky champagne bottle, and included Stanford and his closet associates, including Theodore Judah, the visionary behind the Transcontinental Railroad, who had died six years earlier.

This post was originally created on May 10th 2009. Re-posted with a new picture.



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