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.



9 thoughts on “The Completion of Transcontinental Railroad

  1. They had a documentary regarding this image. More so it was regarding the thousands of Chinese workers that actually constructed the railroad, it was the only job the chinese could do as the white americans prevented other job prospects with the whole “taking our jobs” campaign of that era of nationalism. Whats funny about this photo, is that not one Chinese person is pictured despite the vast majority of the railway being built by the chinese. Only those of anglo descent where invited for the picture. The chinese, sadly forgotten.

    Thanks for sharing this great website. I love it.

    • Actually, I think that the Chinese would have been represented in large numbers on only one of the two railroads. The one coming from the west, the Union Pacific railroad. Still, in general the point is well taken.

  2. this photo is also interesting for who was not there. The territorial governor at that time was Brigham Young. He is not in the photo. While the technological event of the century was taking place 75 miles from the capital, most territorial officials stayed away due a conflict with the Central Pacific over payment for labor performed by members of the LDS church.

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