History for the Rest of Us

Transcontinental Railroad ‘Done’

Transcontinental Railroad ‘Done’

May 9, 2014

Final Spike Driven
After a swing and a miss by an official from Union Pacific, and a second swing and a miss by another, two construction supervisors took turns driving in the last spike and completing the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. The spike and the original sledge used by the UP officials were wired to transmit the sound to the nation.

The word ‘done’ was telegraphed across the United States on May 10th, 1869 at 12:47 P.M. with the Union Pacific’s No. 119 facing Central Pacific’s ‘Jupiter’ at Promontory Summit, Utah.

Transcontinental Railroad Complete

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right).

Golden Spike
Leland Stanford President of the Central Pacific Railroad Co. brought four ceremonial spikes which were dropped into pre-bored holes in the ties as part of the proceedings. Among the four was the famed ‘Golden Spike’ inscribed ‘the Last Spike’.

Groundbreaking for the Central Pacific Railroad took place in Sacrament six years earlier on January 8, 1863, while the Union Pacific broke ground on December 2nd of the same year on the Missouri River bluffs. Competition between the two companies helped drive the efforts forward. Charles Crocker who was in charge of labor issues for Central Pacific claimed they could lay 10 miles of track in one day. Union Pacific officials claimed it was impossible. On April 28th 1869, with a $10,000 bet hanging in the balance, CP set the record by laying 10 miles of track.

The efforts were not without setbacks as Central Pacific faced labor shortages with workers leaving the effort when in 1865 silver was discovered in Nevada, and Union Pacific facing Native American raiding parties. Central Pacific resolved their issues by hiring Chinese workers to fill the shortages while UP appointed Grenville Dodge, a former ‘Indian fighter’ as Chief Engineer to resolve their challenges.

The Transcontinental Railroad played a major role in Western expansion, served the North during the Civil War, and was instrumental in building fortunes. Its importance has dwindled with time and the advent of other means of transportation, but its impact on United States history remains.

Transcontinental Railroad Route

Transcontinental Railroad Route. Image Courtesy: Cave Cattum