May 10, 1869
The First Transcontinental Railroad – originally called the Pacific Railroad — was officially completed with the tracks of the eastbound Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) joining those of the westward Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) during ceremonies at Promontory Summit in what was then the Territory of Utah. “The long-looked-for moment has arrived,” reported the next day’s edition of the New York Times. “The inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard and the dwellers on the Pacific slopes are henceforth emphatically one people.” The completion of this unifying railroad line took place despite the disruptions of the Civil War just a few years earlier and also in the face of various major engineering challenges and daunting far-flung logistics.
As part of the festivities at Promontory Summit, the Union Pacific No. 119 steam locomotive from the east and the Central Pacific No. 60 steam locomotive (better known as the Jupiter) from the west were drawn up face-to-face with each other on tracks that would soon be fully connected. Those speaking at that day’s ceremony included CPRR president (and former California governor) Leland Stanford, who extolled both the historical significance and economic benefits of the new coast-to-coast railway network.
“This line of rails connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, and affording to commerce a new transit, will prove, we trust, the speedy forerunner of increased facilities,” said Stanford. “The Pacific Railroad will, as soon as commerce shall begin fully to realize its advantages, demonstrate the necessity of such improvements in railroading as to render practicable the transportation of freights at much less rates than are possible under any system which has been thus far anywhere adopted.”
Not long after Stanford’s remarks, the last two rails for the UPRR were laid by Irish laborers while the last two rails on the CPRR side were laid by Chinese workers. At around one o’clock on that Monday afternoon, a total of four ceremonial precious-metal spikes – two of them gold, one of them silver, and another a blend of gold, silver, and iron – were tapped by dignitaries into a railroad tie made of laurelwood. It was Stanford who tapped in the final of those spikes (a gold one that is now famous as the “Golden Spike” or “Last Spike”).
After this part of the ceremony was finished, the laurelwood tie and the spikes embedded in it and were replaced by a tie made from pine. A total of four iron spikes were then driven into that tie, most likely by seasoned railroad workers, and the First Transcontinental Railroad became a full-fledged reality.
News of this transportation milestone was quickly circulated via telegraph across the United States, and the overall response was one of sheer exuberance. Celebratory cannons boomed in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., for example, and bells rang throughout Philadelphia. Stanford and UPRR vice president Thomas Clark “Doc” Durant jointly sent a telegram to President Ulysses S. Grant to update him on events at Promontory Summit. The telegram stated, “We have the honor to report that the last rail is laid, the last spike is driven, the Pacific Railroad is finished.”
The efforts to create this history-making transportation network, measuring 1,912 miles (3,077 kilometers) altogether when completed, had begun in earnest 16 years earlier when Congress first authorized a survey for a coast-to-coast railroad. Actual construction on the First Transcontinental Railroad was initiated in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, with the CPRR building from Sacramento and the UPRR starting in Omaha. The new cross-country railroad proved to be a pivotal development in American history, reducing a six-month trip to California from the east to no more than two weeks and in the process significantly shrinking distances between various sections of an ever-growing nation.