I probably would not have paid any attention to this anniversary had I not just completed a long train trip. But since I did notice it, I decided to waste a little time and do some research on the story.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that authorized the building of a trans-continental railroad that required tracks be built between Council Bluffs, Iowa and Sacramento, California. In 1863, Two crews, one from the west and one from the east, began to build the line. Six years later, after many worker deaths, the slaughter of the Buffalo herds and the establishment of a Chinese community in this country, on May 10, 1869, they met at Promontory Point, Utah.
My wife, Susie and I visited the National Park established there a couple of years ago and I ended up including the story of this visit in my third book, “Those were the days”.
In honor of today’s 143rd anniversary, I am posting that story from the book. I am also interspersing a few pictures that I took, something that I couldn’t do in the book.
Promontory Point, Utah
I don’t know if it’s a man thing or maybe it’s just me, but when I am on the road with a destination to reach, even though I have no timetable, I want to get there as soon as possible. I have fought that impulse ever since retirement because we do miss some interesting things that way. It was just the opposite when I was still gainfully employed.
Back then, our few and far between vacations had to come to an end but we always managed to prolong them as long as possible, never heading for home when we should have. Consequently, we had to drive hell bent for leather just to arrive home in time to get ready for work. In a sense, it’s still that way, but for a different reason. I don’t want to mosey along, stopping to take in every ‘world’s 2nd largest ball of twine’ attraction and not going home until we’d seen them all. We’d never have anything to look forward to on our next outing. Despite what you might think, I like my adventure in measured doses with not too many surprises.
I was contemplating this as we were making our way south down Interstate 15 towards our night’s destination of Ogden, Utah, slowly making some headway on the miles between us and the Indiana State line.
I was watching for my first peep at the Great Salt Lake when I glimpsed the sign out of the corner of my eye. It was a small sign, painted in the familiar brownish color that identifies information about National Parks and the color was what attracted my attention.
It was mostly luck that I saw it at all hanging there on it’s two aluminum posts on the west side of the highway. To the southeast, the Wasatch Mountain range, the range that Brigham Young crossed to find his promised land, dominated the landscape so that’s mostly where my eyes were when they weren’t looking for the Lake or occasionally at the road ahead.
“Golden Spike Memorial. Next Exit.” The sign said. I have wanted to visit this place since I was a child and had first read about the building of the transcontinental railroad. I knew that the park was in this general area but it hadn’t occurred to me to look at a map and see exactly where it was. And now, I didn’t need to do that anyway because there it was, just up the road.
What an opportunity. But wait, I hadn’t made any plans to stop here and I was ready to get home and sleep in my own bed after almost a month away. I also had no readily available information about getting there. How far off the Interstate was it? What time was it? How late are they open? Are there any one lane, rickety bridges across quarter mile deep canyons? I liked to know such things before leaving the comfort of the Interstate highway.
Nonetheless, I saw the interchange looming up a quarter mile or so ahead. I had to make a quick decision. There was no time to go through my usually thorough analysis of travel routes. I glanced over at Susie, deep into Jodi Piccoult’s book, ‘Nineteen minutes’. There was not even enough time to consult with her. There would not have been any consulting to do, anyway. She would have said “Let’s go” without even a second thought. . “What the heck?” I thought. I turned on my right turn signal, moved over into the right lane and went down the steep hill of the off ramp.
I’m not sure whose voice I heard first, Susie’s or that of Sheila, our GPS mapping system.
“Make a U turn as soon as possible.” Sheila blurted out in her prim, British voice. She doesn’t like surprises either and when we stray from her designated route, short of turning her off, there is no shutting her up. So I did just that.I turned her off.
“Where are we going?” Susie asked, looking up from her book.
“We’re going to Promontory Summit.”
A quizzical look came over her face.
“The Golden Spike Memorial.” I added and her face brightened right away.
The road was two narrow lanes without any markings and I began to question my snap decision. It eventually led us to Highway 83, a road a little wider with stripes down the middle. I began to feel better. That road wound around and over giant foothills covered in a sparse grass that always looks like its dead to me.
Tucked into the hillsides were low slung, windowless buildings surrounded by barbed wire topped fences. They practically shrieked ‘Secret Government Stuff” so I kept my eyes glued to the road ahead.
It turned out to be a lonely, thirty one mile drive out into the desert, skirting the northern edges of the Great Salt Lake but it was well worth the trip.
I’m sure everyone has seen the famous picture taken by Andrew J Russell of the two nose to nose locomotives surrounded by hundreds of workmen and dignitaries. The last spike in the transcontinental railroad had just been driven when the picture was snapped.
The place looked pretty much like the picture except there were only a handful of people there when we arrived at the Visitor Center. There were also two beautiful, shiny working locomotives, priceless replicas of the originals that were scrapped in 1900 for a thousand dollars.
“Can you believe that?” The ranger showing us around said. “A lousy thousand dollars. Did those people have no foresight?”
”I guess not.” I told him, wondering myself.
The two very expensive replicas of the original engines rested on a few hundred feet of remaining track. The railroad moved south in the early twentieth century and the track to Promontory Summit was torn up for WWII’s War effort.
Still, inside the Visitor Center, a movie, lots of photographs, artifacts and written histories gave us a flavor of the monumental task that was completed here in 1869. We spent a wonderful afternoon there learning about railroad right of way construction techniques, the Chinese and Irish laborers, the lost lives, the opening up of the western frontier and the boost to the country’s Manifest Destiny.
We also learned about volunteer opportunities there for people who love trains and while I thought I’d like to spend two months there earning my ticket on steam engine operation, the remoteness of the location convinced me otherwise. Oh yeah, there was also that ‘Are you crazy’ look I got from Susie.
Later the next day, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, we visited that town’s city park to look at a steam driven Locomotive built after WWII to pull thousand ton trains across the Rocky Mountains. It is a huge black monster of an engine, well over a hundred feet long with wheels taller than I am. It sits in the park, slowly rusting away because folks are too busy answering their cell phones to care about such things anymore.
I looked at this mammoth piece of sixty year old machinery built in Schenectady, New York and thought of the Golden Spike and the building of the Transcontinental railroad. What if we had to do this today, I wondered? Where would we find the people and the Corporations to build something as grand and glorious as this locomotive? In this service driven economy that our leaders have decided our country will have, how would we do it? Where do we find the budding surveyors or welders or tool and die makers when they’re all busy making Grape Slurpies at the corner convenience store?
In this day of environmental concerns, red and blue states, multiple languages, phone answering systems, affirmative action, anonymous bloggers, gender equity, minority contracts, OSHA, multi-millionaire CEO’s, litigious lawyers, wetland concerns and government permits, how would we ever marshal the resources to build a railroad such as the 150 year old one that we already have?
Is the spirit of the American dream still alive? I only wish I knew. I’d sure sleep better.