The Golden Spike: Promontory Summit and the Transcontinental Railroad

Western settlers longed for a faster and easier way to travel across the West. Emigrants traveling by horseback, wagon, or foot required several months to cross the plains and the Rocky Mountains. Trains made travel faster, safer, and much less physically taxing, but there was no transcontinental railroad that connected the country from east to west in the mid-nineteenth century. Technology and political incentives made it feasible for the country to contemplate a transcontinental railroad.

By the late nineteenth century, the transcontinental railroad came to fruition. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad companies laid hundreds of miles of tracks, but needed a place to connect. On April 8, 1869, Grenville M. Dodge, chief engineer of the Union Pacific, along with Collis Potter Huntington, president of the Central Pacific, met with Congressman Sam Hooper to settle the debate of where the two railroads would meet. Together they concluded on Promontory Summit, “at which place the rails shall meet and connect and form one continuous line.”

Located in Utah, Promontory Summit (also referred to as Promontory Point) is an area of high ground northwest of Salt Lake City. Here, at Promontory Summit, on May 10, 1869, three spikes were driven into the ground to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The spikes symbolized different areas of the country coming together, like the different railroads that came together. The most famous spike, the golden spike, was made from California gold, the silver spike from Nevada alloy silver, and the iron spike from a combination of Arizona metals, connecting these Western states permanently in one symbolic tie of the railroad.

A crowd of up to 1,000 people gathered at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869 to witness the historic day when the railroads joined together as one. The Deseret News reported, “A thousand throbbing hearts impulsively beat to the motion of the trains as the front locomotive of each company led on majestically up to the very verge of the narrow break between the lines, where, in a few moments, was to be consummated the nuptial rites uniting the gorgeous east and the imperial west of America, with the indissoluble seal of inter-oceanic commerce.”

Today, Promontory Summit, forever tied to the railroad, houses a Visitor Center and Engine House where people can experience the history of the transcontinental railroad.

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6200 North 22300th Street West, Corinne, UT 84307