Friday, July 11, 2008

The Last Spike: Then and Now

Promontory Point Utah, site of the “Last Spike” ceremony, June 1976. We’ve taken a few weeks off to do some traveling, and looking at the route between Idaho and Salt Lake City, we decided to include Promontory Point in our itinerary.

Promontory Point is a destination, not just an off ramp on the freeway; a minor journey out into the middle of no-where!

But we did luck out, in that this being the Centennial Year, functional replica locomotives, Union Pacific #119, a coal burning 4-4-0 on the left, and Central Pacific #60 the “Jupiter” a wood burning 4-4-0 on the right, had been placed for significant reenactments of that memorable day – May 10th 1869, when east joined west.

So here we have on the left, representing the Union Pacific Rail Road, #119. She was a coal burning locomotive, designed to utilize rich coal reserves located in Western Wyoming. One of five locomotives, 116-120, ordered from Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works of Paterson, New Jersey. She was completed in November 1868.

This information was extracted from an entirely engrossing paper entitled
“Union Pacific Locomotive #119 and Central Pacific Locomotive #60 the “Jupiter” at Promontery Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869” by Roy E. Appleman.

From “” we learn there were more than one spike involved the “Last Spike Ceremony:”

West Evans, tie contractor for Central Pacific, had San Francisco billiard table manufacturer Strahle & Hughes prepare a highly polished tie made from California laurel wood. The 7 1/2 foot long, 8 X 6 inch tie bore a centered silver plaque marked, "The last tie laid on completion of the Pacific Railroad, May, 1869." the plaque also listed the officers and directors of Central Pacific along with the names of the tie maker and donor.

Four holes were augured, or drilled, into the tie in order to accommodate ceremonial spikes without the need to drive them.

Before the start of the Golden Spike Ceremony, workers brought the laurel wood tie from Stanford's coach, placed it down, and laid the last rail sections across it. The Ceremony commenced, emceed by wealthy Sacramento banker Edgar Mills.

The Reverend Dr. John Todd of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, offered the invocation.

Presentation of the spikes and ties followed.

After an arduously verbose speech, Dr. H. W. Harkness, a Sacramento newspaper publisher and editor, presented the two golden spikes to Leland Stanford, who placed them into the first and fourth pre-drilled holes in the laurel wood tie.

Governor Safford presented Union Pacific Vice-President Thomas Durant Nevada’s silver spike by Mr. Tritle and Arizona’s spike. Durant placed these spikes into the second and third holes in the tie. Stanford then offered a rousing speech. He was to have been followed by Durant, but, due to Durant's severe headache (most likely a hangover from the previous night's party in Ogden), Union Pacific's Chief Engineer, General Grenville Dodge, took Durant's place and gave a few short, yet enthusiastic words. Mr. Coe then presented the silver plated maul, which Stanford and Durant used to ever so gently tap the precious metal spikes, leaving no mark upon either the spikes, or the maul.

Immediately, the precious metal spikes and laurel wood tie were removed and replaced with a pine tie, into which three ordinary iron spikes were then driven. A fourth iron spike, and a regular iron spike hammer, were both wired to the Transcontinental Telegraph line so that the Nation could "hear" the blows as the spike was driven.

Being a man of large stature, Stanford took a mighty swing at the spike, and struck the tie instead. Durant, still not feeling too well, took a feeble swing, and did not even hit the tie! Finally, a regular rail worker drove home the last spike, and the telegrapher, W. N. Shilling of Western Union, sent the long awaited message, "D-O-N-E." The time; 12:47 P.M., Monday, May 10, 1869.

After the Ceremony, the Golden Spike traveled back to California in the laurel wood tie aboard Stanford's coach. En route, a group of Army Officers riding with Stanford attempted to "drive" the Spike into the tie with the pommels of their swords, which accounts for indentations on the Spike's head, its only mar.

Following a brief time on display, the Spike was returned to David Hewes. Hewes kept it until 1892, when he donated his extensive rare art collection, including the Golden Spike, to the museum of newly built Leland Stanford Junior University, Palo Alto, California.

Nevada's silver spike was temporarily returned to Virginia City jewelers Nye & Co., who brightly polished the spike and engraved one side, "To Leland Stanford President of the Central Pacific Railroad. To the iron of the East and the gold of the West Nevada adds her link of silver to span the continent and wed the oceans." The spike was then delivered to Stanford and eventually placed along with the Golden Spike in the Stanford University museum.

It is unknown what happened to Arizona Territory's spike immediately following the Ceremony. Decades later, it became part of the Smithsonian's transportation museum, then went to the Omaha, Nebraska Union Pacific Museum and today is at the New York Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

The whereabouts of the second gold spike is unknown. It has been speculated that the spike was given to one of the Union Pacific dignitaries, but there is no mention of the spike in any of their memoirs. It is also possible that the spike was returned to the News Letter. If so, its fate may well have been the same as the newspaper company, when, in 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed the News Letter Building.

The silver plated spike maul was also given to Leland Stanford and became part of the collection at Stanford University museum. The famous laurel wood tie remained on display in Sacramento until 1890. By then, Central Pacific had been reorganized into Southern Pacific, and the tie was taken to the railroad's San Francisco offices in the Flood Building. Unfortunately, the building and tie also fell victim to the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

The recently “driven” last spike marking completion of Seattle’s Sound Transit's extension toward Sea-Tac airport, was not a golden spike driven into a laurel wood tie, but a gold painted bolt holding a rail retainer clip. I guess a solid gold bolt would be too expensive to make and guard, and gold plating – well, let's just go with the gold painted bolt!

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