Exploring The Engine House At Golden Spike National Historic Site

Ranger David Kilton alongside No. 119 inside the Engine House. Lee Dalton photo.

Even though I’ve visited Golden Spike National Historic Site many times through the years, I’d never taken the tour through the engine house where the replica locomotives, Jupiter and 119, hibernate each winter.

When I arrived at the historic site on a Friday afternoon, a southeast wind was carrying moist air from Great Salt Lake up over the Promontory Mountains. It was condensing into a long cloud of freezing ground fog that was dusting the landscape with big and delicate ice crystals. It was cold as the proverbial witch’s breath, but it was absolutely beautiful.

Along the way I’d seen two bald eagles sitting on fence posts just as the road starts uphill into the historic site. But of course, they didn’t hang around when I stopped to try for a photo.

As I pulled into the visitor center parking lot, a couple with Colorado plates on their car was just leaving. Judging from tracks in the ice dust, I was only the second vehicle and third visitor of the day. Delightful!

Inside the visitor center, Chief Ranger Tammy Benson made me feel immediately welcome, offered to run the movie for me, and then went back to struggling with a balky computer.

I’d been sitting down for an hour on the trip out from Ogden, Utah, so I spent my time before the scheduled tour poring over the museum’s displays. The museum room is small, and other times I’d been there it had been crowded with other visitors. Between crowds of people and some rather elderly captions printed on transparent plastic that makes reading a bit difficult, I’d never really been able to take in all the displays.

I welcomed a chance to have the time and space needed to maneuver around until the light was just right to be able to read texts on displays without feeling I as if was in someone’s way. Just as I finished in the museum, Ranger David Kilton came back from lunch. Even though the tour wasn’t scheduled for another half hour, he and Tammy decided he should head out to the engine house with me in tow since I was the only one there. She’d delay her lunch while she kept trying to get that darned computer back on line.

A few minutes later, David pulled out of the visitor center’s backyard and led the way for me to follow in my truck the mile or so out to the engine house. Even cold and silent, the two locomotives inside are awfully impressive chunks of machinery. The shop is neat and clean. Their two engineers, Ronald Wilson and Steve Sawyer, along with fireman Mike Oesteich, were quietly working on some of the myriad chores needed to keep them sparkling and running.

Ron was replacing worn out leather on an armrest from Jupiter’s windowsill. The others were working on floor boards from one of the locomotives and on refinishing the pilot – or cowcatcher – from the front of 119.

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Maintaining steam locomotives involves a lot of taking apart, cleaning, and putting things back together. Lee Dalton photo.

An assortment of valves lay scattered on a workbench waiting to have a summer’s worth of minerals from hard water removed so the brass could be polished again to its full brightness. Although though the locomotives are replicas of the originals, they are still national treasures. As such, they need and deserve a lot of tender, loving care.

With the exception of a few days around New Years when one of the engines emerges from its den for the Winter Steam Festival, they spend the winter in surgery. There’s a lot of work to be done before the annual deadline – when they roll out again under steam to take their places nose to nose in the spot where the last spikes were driven into the transcontinental railway on May 10, 1869.

On May 10 each year, the park staff and nearly 100 volunteers from surrounding communities join for a re-enactment of the driving of the Golden Spike. From then until October, the locomotives thrill visitors as they steam back and forth or sit sighing great clouds of steam between runs.

Steve Sawyer, Ron Wilson, and Mike Oesteich dress and act the part of train crewmen from the 1800s and history comes alive again at Promontory Summit.

The Stories of the Locomotives

Jupiter was built at Schenectady Locomotive Works in New York for the Central Pacific Railroad in California. Along with three sister locomotives, Storm, Whirlwind, and Leviathan, Jupiter was completed in September 1868.

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Jupiter shows her colors. Lee Dalton photo.

All three were dismantled, loaded aboard ships and taken around Cape Horn to San Francisco. There they were loaded aboard barges and pulled up the Sacramento River to the town of Sacramento, where they were reassembled and put to work on the railroad that was building east from California to meet the Union Pacific which was building west from Omaha.

Jupiter was commissioned on March 20, 1869. Just two months later, Jupiter was chosen by accident to be the locomotive that pulled Central Pacific’s president’s private car to the meeting of the rails at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory.

Railroad president Leland Stanford had originally chosen another locomotive, Antelope, to pull his train. But an accident in the mountains pushed Jupiter into history. It seems that work was still progressing on the railroad, and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains a crew was working alongside a deep mountain cut to remove some trees. They needed to roll a huge log down a cut bank onto the tracks where it could be cut into small pieces.

A regular train passed by while the tree crew waited. They failed to see a couple of small green flags on the locomotive of that train. The flags meant that a second train was following. Just as Antelope pulled into the cut, the log rolled onto the tracks and seriously damaged the engine.

Jupiter was sitting at the next station and hurriedly took Antelope’s place to finish the run to Utah and history.

No. 119 was built in November 1868 at Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works in Paterson, New Jersey. Along with some sisters, 119 headed west to the Union Pacific’s headquarters in Omaha and then west to end of track north of Salt Lake City. Like Jupiter, 119 was not the engine that should have been at Promontory. On the way to Promontory, the Durant Special carrying UP’s vice-president, Thomas Durant, stopped to take on water in Piedmont, Wyoming. There Durant and his entourage were met by about 400 laid-off tie cutters who had not been paid in over three months.

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The fine artwork on No. 119 is a historical touch. Lee Dalton photo.

They were a little ticked off, so they chained Durant’s coach to the siding and demanded their pay in return for letting Durant proceed. When the men’s pay arrived two days later, Durant was already late for his date. The ceremony had originally been planned for May 8, but Durant wasn’t unchained until early on the 10th.

As the Durant Special proceeded west into the canyon of the Weber River not far east of Ogden, it was discovered that the river had become swollen by heavy rains and melting snow. Its raging water had partially washed out a bridge. The engineer saw the damage and refused to try to take the heavy locomotive across the tottering structure.

Durant’s coach and other cars were unhooked. The locomotive gave them a shove and sent the lighter cars rolling one by one across the weakened bridge. Durant and the dignitaries with him walked gingerly across the wobbling bridge and re-boarded the train on the other side. But there was no locomotive to pull them. A quick telegraph message to Ogden found that 119 was sitting on a siding in the yard. It had steam up and was the closest engine to the main line, so it was sent quickly up the canyon to haul Durant and his crowd on to Promontory.

And so it was that on May 10, Jupiter and 119 sat pilot to pilot each with “half a world behind them.”

Interestingly, both locomotives ended up in scrap yards in the early 1900s. Both had been sold to other railroads and both were finally sold for scrap – each for $1,000.

Rebuilding History

Ever since the establishment of Golden Spike National Historic Site on April 2, 1957, there had been a dream of once again having Jupiter and 119 sitting where they had on May 10. The idea was batted around for several years, but nothing came of it until March 1966 when the National Park Service contacted a man named Chadwell O’Conner.

Chad O’Conner was the owner of O’Conner Engineering Laboratories in Costa Mesa, California. O’Conner had been working for years making camera and other equipment for Walt Disney.

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When not driving his locomotive, Ron Wilson works on maintaining it. Lee Dalton photo.

When the NPS asked Disney for help in rebuilding replica locomotives, Disney referred them to O’Conner. He jumped on the idea and seven years later, Jupiter and 119 rolled again.

It’s a long and very involved story. Much too long to tell it all here. For anyone who is interested, a fine book, Rebirth of the Jupiter and the 119; Building the Replica Locomotives at Golden Spike, is available by contacting the rangers at the site.

That book was written by Robert Dowty, who was one of the other men who made it all possible. Bob Dowty and his son Eric were invited by O’Conner to help. They worked from 1975 until 1979 to have the replicas ready for the 110th anniversary of the Golden Spike. There were no surviving blueprints or plans for either historic locomotive. So O’Conner and his engineers set about using historic photos and lots of research.

Careful measurements of enlarged photos of the old engines finally enabled them to rebuild the locomotives to within one-quarter inch of their original dimensions. Just drawing the plans took two years. Walt Disney provided considerable help with certain aspects of the project.

Visitors are often surprised by the locomotives’ bright paint, shining brass, and intricate artwork. But that’s the way it really was in those days. Locomotives were the prize possessions of the railroad that owned them, and railroads competed in having the most beautiful pieces of art on the rails.

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Gleaming brass. Lee Dalton photo.

When they were finally hauled by truck to Promontory, the replica locomotives were christened with water from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Then they fired up and went to work.

Bob and Eric Dowty, who had worked so long and hard to help rebuild the great machines had fallen in love with the locomotives. So when Jupiter and 119 came to Promontory, so did Bob and Eric. They served for many years as engineers and caretakers of the locomotives and spent summers dressed as trainmen of old.

Rarely stepping out of character, the two helped carry visitors back in time. Originally, the locomotives were both fired by waste motor oil donated by Hill Air Force Base and other sources near Ogden. But in 1990 the decision was made to convert back to their original fuels – coal for 119 and wood for Jupiter. Now visitors to the site can experience all the original sights, sounds and the smells of coal and wood smoke.

In his book, the late Bob Dowty wrote, “Around May 1 each year, a great event takes place in the engine house. Our sleeping giants are awakened for the summer. It has been said that there is nothing quite as dead as a cold steam locomotive and nothing quite as alive as one under steam.”

It’s true.