Editor's note: You definitely need to be determined to take in the year-end Steam Festival at Golden Spike National Historic Site. The site isn't really on the way to anywhere, so you need to carve a day out of your schedule to visit. And during the year-end holidays, that can be tough. Fortunately, Lee Dalton attended the 2012 festival on December 29 and provided the accompanying story, videos, and photos so you can experience the festival.
December 29 at Golden Spike National Historic Site was cold. Thankfully there was little wind to add even more chill to the 19 degree temperature.
A collection of hardy souls made the trip to Promontory Summit to witness a once a year treat of smoke, steam, bells and a steam whistle as Union Pacific Railroad’s 119 steamed along the tracks to the place where it sat on May 10, 1869, as the last spike was driven into the Transcontinental Railroad.
For a few days every year around New Years, the rangers and volunteers at Golden Spike bring one of the locomotives out of hibernation from the engine house to thrill anyone tough enough to stand the cold.
This Saturday was bright and sunny with about 8 inches of fresh Utah powder covering the ground. Cold air gave birth to blooming clouds of steam, while the steam whistle’s old sound echoed brightly from surrounding hills.
Families had opportunities that are not normally offered at the site on other days. They could hop a ride on a small gasoline powered crew car called Speeder and take a run down the tracks propelled by Speeder’s popping little engine.
Or, if they wanted a good dose of exercise to warm up, they could jump aboard a small hand-powered car and pump themselves from the visitor center to the end of the track and back again.
When anyone got too cold, they could slip inside the visitor center and warm up with a movie, hot chocolate, museum displays, or just some good conversation. Then, just about the time everyone was beginning to feel toasty again, it would be time to head back outside for another run of 119 back and forth on the tracks in a place that made history.
Some Hints for Visiting Golden Spike
And if you are one of those unfortunate enough to have missed Winter Steam Days this year, there are still things to enjoy at the site even in the dead of winter. The visitor center contains a museum with some fascinating displays. Did you know, for example, that until the advent of railroads there was no standard time? That’s right. Almost every town had its own time zone based on when the sun was directly overhead.
But as railroads became more complex there developed a need for accurate time keeping over wider distances. Without a way to accurately schedule and run trains over one-way tracks, inaccurate time keeping led to some big crashes.
That was pretty messy, so standard time zones were set up world wide. (Now, airplanes have become so fast and travel so far that pilots use a worldwide time system called Zulu, which is the same time as Greenwich, England’s time no matter whether you are over Africa or Golden Spike.)
If you visit on other winter days, the locomotives won’t be sitting outside. They’re in the engine house undergoing extensive maintenance that takes most of the winter to complete. Tours of the engine house will let you see the innards of both the 119 and Jupiter locomotives. Call 435-471-2209 x 29 for times.
And a big word of caution: Don’t rely on your GPS. Get a paper road map or follow these directions:
Northbound on I-15: exit #365, turn right (west) on Hwy. 13 to Hwy. 83. Follow signs to Golden Spike. (32 miles)
Southbound on I-15: exit I-84 west to exit #40 (Hwy. 102). Turn left and follow signs to Hwy. 83. Turn right on 83 and follow signs to Golden Spike. (Approximately 29 miles)
Eastbound on I-84: exit #26, south on Hwy. 83 past ATK Rocket display, turn right at sign to Golden Spike. (Approximately 27 miles)
Westbound from Logan: Hwy. 30 west to I-15, then follow directions for Southbound on I-15. (Approximately 50 miles)
As an added bonus, the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were manufactured in a large complex just east of the final turnoff to Golden Spike. There’s an interesting “Rocket Garden” where space buffs may stand among various rocket bodies that were manufactured by Thiokol and now ATK for military and NASA use.