Golden Spike: East Meets West at the Site of the Transcontinental Railroad Completion

Golden Spike National Historical Park: East Meets West at the Site of the Transcontinental Railroad Completion

Although nothing can beat a great vacation, one thing that comes close is turning someone else’s work trip into a vacation for yourself. I had a chance to do just that in August, when Stephanie got the chance to travel to Salt Lake City to speak at her first in-person conference since the start of the pandemic. We planned to take some time off to road trip through some national parks together when her work commitments were over, but because she was onsite at the convention center from early in the morning until late at night for the first few days of our trip, I had the chance to explore the area on my own. Much like a similar trip we took to San Diego, where I spent time visiting historic sites and eating California burritos while Stephanie attended a similar conference, I knew there were a few places in the Salt Lake City area that would be fun for a quick trip. The first place on my list was a place where, centuries ago, the east met the west at the point where the Transcontinental Railroad was completed.

If you are a movie fan like me, you might find that you know this spot, too. It played a role in the 2013 Johnny Depp movie The Lone Ranger, which included the joining celebration as part of the plot line. It was also featured in the Will Smith movie Wild Wild West as well as multiple Westerns during the 1920s and 1930s. Sure, those may be fictionalized takes, but each was based on the actual event that celebrated the completion of the railroad, which is still one of the biggest accomplishments in United States history. Since then, postage stamps and US quarters have honored the event, but there is only one way to truly learn about and experience its importance—and that is with a visit to Golden Spike monument in Utah. Whether you’re a fan of trains, US History, a movie buff, or just a curious traveler, there are a lot of reasons why this park should be on your list for your next vacation.

The Importance of the Transcontinental Railroad

In an era where air travel is preferred by many people traveling across the United States, it’s easy to forget how important the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was for many people. Before the railroad, it would take six months to cross the continent by covered wagon. If you didn’t like that option, you could choose an even longer route and sail around the southern tip of South America. Originally called the Pacific Railway, the railroad was built between 1863 and 1869. By the time it was complete, it connected the town of Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Francisco. A national railroad had been on the table to discuss for a long time, but President Abraham Lincoln saw it as an important way to unite the USA and signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 to finally bring it to life.

"The Champagne Photo" at the Golden Spike Ceremony in 1869. Source: Wikipedia
“The Champagne Photo” at the Golden Spike Ceremony in 1869. Source: Wikipedia
It was an enormous project that required support and financing from the United States government as well as numerous states. It was built by three different companies: a little more than half (1,085 miles) was built by the Union Pacific Railroad, while the Central Pacific Railroad built 690 miles of track and the Western Pacific Railroad Company built 132 miles of track. When the time finally came for the two railroads to meet, it seemed fitting to celebrate its completion with a ceremony.

The Central Pacific Railroad was formed by four men who were appropriately known as the Big Four: Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. The four men had financed the Central Pacific Railroad and were instrumental in its vision and completion, and they were invited to place ceremonial spikes into the ground to complete the project formally and officially. Huntington, Hopkins, and Crocker did not attend the ceremony itself, but spikes were placed on their behalf. One spike was made of a low-quality gold and was inscribed with the words, “With this spike the San Francisco News Letter offers its homage to the great work which has joined the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.” A silver spike offered by the state of Nevada was included, as was a spike made of silver, gold, and iron from the Arizona territory.

Leland Stanford attended the official ceremony, and he had the honor of placing the Golden Spike, the final spike, in place to join the two railroads as one. The ceremony did not go off as smoothly as hoped. Originally scheduled for May 8, 1869, it was delayed by two days due to bad weather as well as a labor dispute that impacted the Union Pacific portion of the railroad. When the ceremony began, Stanford gently hammered the Golden Spike into a pre-drilled hole; when the ceremony was completed, it was removed immediately due to concerns about theft. The ceremony also included two trains—the Central Pacific Jupiter and the Union Pacific No. 119—which met nose to nose on the tracks to symbolize how the railroads were united as one. The moment was memorialized by photographer Andrew Russell, who captured Central Pacific Railroad engineer Samuel Montague shaking hands with Union Pacific Railroad engineer Grenville Dodge when their trains finally met on the tracks.

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad helped to establish the United States as a world power, and for many it was a sign of progress and innovation. For many Native American tribes, though, it was an unwelcome and permanent disruption to their lives; with the construction of the railroad, the buffalo herds were destroyed, and many Native Americans had no choice but to move to reservations. While they were promised many things, most of them never received the food, clothing, or supplies they were offered, and they suffered a devastating end to their lifestyles.

Today, portions of the original Transcontinental Railroad are still operating. The tracks have been replaced over the decades, but through Utah and Wyoming the routes remain unchanged. In 1957, Congress authorized the creation of the Golden Spike National Historic Site as a tribute to the place where the historical railroad was completed. In 2019, the site was renamed as the Golden Spike National Historic Park, and today it is a great place to visit to learn more about this important piece of US history.

Visiting Golden Spike National Historic Park

Golden Spike National Historical ParkOne of the reasons to visit Golden Spike National Historic Park is to see the replica trains, Jupiter and the 119, arrive and meet just they did in 1869. I arrived at 9 AM, an hour before the Jupiter was brought out onto the tracks. Sure enough, at 10 AM the Jupiter arrived, followed by the 119 about 30 minutes later. Once the trains were parked in their location for the day, I had the chance to take a look inside. They have engineers who are able to answer questions, and it was nice to be able to see what the trains most likely looked like in 1869. The trains stay onsite until just before 4:00 PM, when the 119 leaves, followed by the Jupiter.

The website for Golden Spike National Historic Park is a great place to learn about the schedule of events and activities during your visit. Take a look below if you are planning a trip through northern Utah.

More Information:

What to Do at Golden Spike National Historic Park

There is more to do at Golden Spike National Historic Park besides seeing the replica trains, although they are definitely the highlight. Here are a few tips and other ways to experience the park.

Plan your visit around the trains

The replica trains arrive beginning at 10 AM and depart just before 4:00 PM, which means if you arrive early or plan to leave later you will want to prioritize your visit around them. The replica trains run most days from May 1 until October 11, so it’s a good idea to watch the website or call ahead to ensure they will be running on the day you plan to visit.

Check out our video below to see the trains coming into position at the site.

Be sure to arrive with plenty of gas

The Golden Spike National Historic Park is located pretty far from the closest towns and rest areas, which means it’s important to head off with plenty of gas in the tank, especially if you plan to explore the auto tours. Taking some water and a few snacks might be a good choice as well.

Explore the visitor center

Golden Spike National Historical ParkThe visitor center has quite a few exhibits as well as some museum displays that feature artifacts from the era, and it’s a great place to learn about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Be sure to leave yourself enough time to experience it.

Check out the gift shop

The gift shop is a great place to pick up your very own replica golden spike, which makes a fun souvenir! The replica spikes available for purchase are engraved with the same details as on the official spike that was hammered into the ground during the 1869 ceremony. There are also plenty of other fun things including magnets and t-shirts, but the spike is a unique item to help you remember your visit.

Take an auto tour

There are two different roads available for self-guided auto tours that are a great way to learn more about where the Transcontinental Railroad was built. The West Auto Tour will take you along seven miles of land and shows the place where 10 miles and 56 feet of track were laid in a single day as the railroad neared completion on April 28, 1869. The shorter East Auto Tour is just two miles long but nicely shows the landscape around the area.

Where Is the Golden Spike from the Transcontinental Railroad?

Golden Spike National Historical ParkAlthough you might expect to find the official golden spike from the Transcontinental Railroad completion ceremony onsite or in the museum, you won’t find it there. Interestingly, David Hewes—a financier who thought up the idea of using a golden spike for the ceremony—had two golden spikes cast in preparation for the ceremony. One spike was used, but the other was not known to the public until 2005.

The actual spike used in the ceremony is now located at Stanford University in California, which was founded by Leland Stanford in 1865. A second Golden Spike, which was donated by the Hewes family, is on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, California. The second spike was likely engraved after the ceremony, as it has the correct date of the ceremony: May 10, 1869.

Hotels Near the Golden Spike National Historic Park

Golden Spike National Historic Park is located at Promontory Summit, Utah, which is about 100 miles and 90 minutes north of Salt Lake City. We stayed in the city, since that was convenient for Stephanie during her conference, and it’s a good central point for many other places you may want to visit when in Utah. We used to research and select a hotel downtown; we highly recommend you take a look at the properties has as you compare and choose the right hotel for you!

Enjoy Golden Spike National Historic Park!

The Transcontinental Railroad was a very important part of the USA’s history. From changing how people could move and explore to its very real and devastating impact on the landscape and the Native Americans who had called the land home, visiting Golden Spike National Historic Park will give you a real appreciation for the triumphs and sacrifices that led to a momentous occasion. I was glad to have the chance to learn more about it, and if you find yourself in Utah it is definitely worth a stop!

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Golden Spike National Historical Park: East Meets West at the Site of the Transcontinental Railroad Completion