When the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads met almost 150 years ago, newspapers across the country reported that the final spike was driven into the ground at Promontory Point, Utah. They were only half right. Actually, the forming of the first transcontinental railroad took place some 30 miles north at Promontory Summit, Utah. This mistake is still repeated in textbooks, films, and Goolge searches.
With the incorrect location in our GPS, we arrived at our destination half an hour earlier than expected. Apparently, our misconception is common. The nice kid at the visitors’ center informed us we were lucky not to have made the longer drive to Promontory point only to find farm land. But to be fair, Promontory Summit is also quite barren save for the brightly colored locomotives.
So why was Promontory Summit chosen as the location for the largest event in the country’s history at the time?
Before a location had been set, the government promised subsidies and land grants to the railroads based on the amount of track built and difficulty of terrain covered. The goal was to increase competition between the two railroads and encourage each to build faster. It worked. The Central Pacific Railroad wasn’t even expected to make it out of California but became a real contender.
It also encouraged corruption and lead to inefficiencies.
There was a loophole in the government’s promise to pay not just for track laid, but also for land that had been graded. Grading the land, or preparing the ground under the track, was easier than building the track itself. And because it needed to be done first, the railroads could grade a path 300 miles ahead of the current track. So when both tracks reached Utah around the same time, they made no effort to select a meeting point. Instead, they both just kept grading their own path–50 yards apart in some places–with each side watching the other work on a redundant task. This resulted in two parallel paths that span 250 miles across Northern Utah. With the grading of one path rendering the other useless, both time and resources were wasted.
Having been played, the government threatened a federal investigation. All work on the grading of the land halted immediately and the railroads agreed to accept a meeting location. Although Salt Lake City and Ogden both rallied to be chosen as the point of completion, the land was already graded too far north. By default, Promontory Summit was selected by Congress as the final location.
A quick detour on the way back will take you to the Chinese Arch. Overlooking the area once covered by Lake Bonneville, the arch is named in recognition of the Chinese immigrants who made up a large portion of the Central Pacific’s workforce. Be it bad timing or something more… deliberate, their exclusion from this photo is notable.
The official pamphlet from the Visitor Center states that the railroads also hired “Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, Civil War vets from both sides, ex-slaves, and even American Indians–8,000 to 10,000 workers in all.” And from what I’ve read, it was all pretty brutal. Workers of the railroad experienced racial tension, poor labor conditions, and constant scandal surrounding wages (or rather, the lack of) giving the job its nickname “Hell on wheels.”
The ceremonial final spike marked the end of the pioneer era. Passengers could now cross the country in about a week opposed to the usual six months. A huge accomplishment for the country and a great bit of history to have in an otherwise quiet part of Utah.
Tip: If you’re already making the trip, Spiral Jetty is only a 30-minute drive away