"The Last Spike" - Separating Fact From Tradition At Golden Spike National Historic Site

(Top) This is perhaps the best-known of the photos of the "Golden Spike" ceremony on May 10, 1869. Image from the National Archives. (Bottom) A modern renactment of the historic ceremony at the park. NPS photo.

If you were a contestant on one of several TV shows that test your knowledge of famous historical events, how would you fare if the question involved the driving of the "golden spike" to mark the completion of the transcontinental railroad?

If you happened to miss a key fact or two, you'd be in good company, and the staff at Golden Spike National Historic Site has to contend with some long-established traditions that don't quite "hit the nail on the head."

The photo on the left is often used to illustrate a genuine "big event" in American history. Completion of a rail link across the country cut the time for a coast-to-coast trip from months to days, and ushered in major changes in our way of life.

What actually happened during that ceremony—and where it occurred—is the subject of nearly 150 years of tradition...and just a bit of misinformation. Separating fact from fiction is an ongoing effort for the staff at the park where that event took place, and also offers a fun topic for history fans and trivia buffs.

Let's begin with a basic question about this historical event: "Where did the driving of a golden spike symbolize the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in America?"

Which "Promontory" Is Correct?

If your reply were to be "Promontory Point, Utah," you'd find plenty of sources to back you up. Search for that subject on the Internet, and you'll find quite a few "hits" on seemingly credible sites that read something like this: "Where was the first transcontinental railroad connected? Answer: Just north-west of Salt Lake City (Promontory Point)."

A slightly different opinion is found on Google Books, which offers a short review of the book Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen Ambrose. That review says, "Nothing like this great work had ever been seen in the world when the golden spike was driven in Promontory Peak, Utah, in 1869, as the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific tracks were joined."

Okay, now we've got "Promontory Point" and "Promontory Peak," and other sites simply read "Promontory, Utah," so what's correct? Well, none of the above, according to the Library of Congress website, which says, "Officials and workers of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railways held a ceremony on Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory..."

Finding the Answer in the FAQs.

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The joining of the rails was selected for the design on Utah's coin in the state quarter series. U. S. Mint photo.

Golden Spike National Historic Site is located at the place where the ceremonial final spike was driven, and one of the "Frequently Asked Questions" addressed on the park website is this one: "Is Golden Spike NHS located at Promontory Point?"

The answer? "No. Promontory Point is thirty-five miles south of Golden Spike. The correct name for this location is Promontory Summit. For unknown reasons, some reporters and railroad officials in 1869 wrote that the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point, and this falsehood has been perpetuated throughout history in textbooks, films, and all other forms of media."

"Perpetuated throughout history" seems to be an accurate statement, but at least we all know that the famous final spike whacked by those dignitaries was a golden one ... don't we?

More Than One Spike?

A little digging will reveal that there were in fact four precious-metal spikes used in the ceremony: two of gold, one of gold and silver, and one of silver. None of them, however, was actually "driven" into the tie to complete the job, and for good reason, as we'll soon see. Information from the park provides both the basic information and a bit of humor about the spikes, hammer, tie and the ceremony itself.

Perhaps the most famous of the golden spikes was provided by David Hewes, a San Francisco businessman and friend of Central Pacific President Leland Stanford. Hewes was apparently a man who thought on a grand scale, and he reportedly tried to promote the casting of a solid gold or silver section of rail to mark the completion of the rail connection.

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The Hewes golden spike now resides at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Image courtesy of Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University; Gift of David Hewes.

Hewes failed to find any takers for that rather pricey idea, so he provided about $400 of his own gold which was used to cast a golden spike. The spike, made of 17.6-carat gold, was just over five and one-half inches long and weighed 14.03 ounces. After casting, the golden spike was engraved on all four sides and the top, and it was a beauty.

A second golden spike was ordered by Frederick Marriott, proprietor of a San Francisco newspaper company. A little smaller and lighter than the first, this spike was made from about $200 worth of gold, and bore a simpler inscription to mark the event.

All That's Shiny Isn't Gold

The third spike, presented by the Arizona Territory, was somewhat less ostentatious . A composite made from plating an ordinary 6-inch iron spike with gold on the head and silver on the shaft, this spike was ordered by the territory’s newly appointed Governor, Anson P.K. Safford. The highly polished spike was also engraved with a lengthy inscription.

The final spike, a silver one, almost missed the event. It was ordered on May 5, 1869, (only days before the ceremony) by Mr. F.A. Tritle, Railroad Commissioner and candidate for Governor of the new State of Nevada. Forged from 25 ounces of silver, the rather rough, unpolished spike was six inches long and bore only the assayer's stamp. This spike was rushed twenty miles to Reno, just in time to be given to Central Pacific President Leland Stanford, who was aboard his special train heading to Promontory Summit for the ceremony.

They Had a Hammer, and It Was Special

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This 1944 postage stamp commemorated the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad. Photo from Wikimedia commons.

It would certainly be unseemly to use an ordinary tool to drive all this high-dollar hardware into that final railroad tie, so the president of San Francisco’s Pacific Express Company arranged for a special spike hammer, or maul, to be made for the ceremony. After it was fabricated, the maul was heavily plated with silver and stamped with the manufacturer’s name.

The final key item for the ceremony was the railroad tie into which the spikes would be driven, and given the quality of the spikes and hammer involved, a run-of-the-mill tie would clearly not fit the bill. The tie contractor for the Central Pacific rose to the occasion and engaged a San Francisco billiard table manufacturer to prepare a highly polished tie made from California laurelwood.

The 8 x 6-inch laurelwood tie was seven and one-half feet long, and bore a centered silver plaque marked, “The last tie laid on completion of the Pacific Railroad, May, 1869.” The plaque also listed the officers and directors of the Central Pacific along with the names of the tie maker and donor. In a nod to practicality, four holes were pre-drilled into the tie in order to accommodate the ceremonial spikes, and before the start of the ceremony, workers placed the laurelwood tie on the grade and laid the last rail sections across it.

All was now in readiness for the big event, which began with the inevitable speeches, one of which was tactfully described by an NPS publication as "arduously verbose," and that brings us to one more place where tradition and fact diverge.

"Driving" the Golden Spike

Numerous accounts of the event refer to the "driving of the golden spike," but in reality those high-priced spikes and fancy hammer barely received a love tap. A succinct explanation is provided on the park website, which notes, "They did not drive the Golden Spike. It was made of 17.6-carat gold, and would not have survived a blow from a spike maul."

Railroad executives Stanford and Durant reportedly used the silver-plated maul to gently tap the precious metal spikes, "so as to leave no mark upon either the spikes or the maul." "Leave no mark," indeed, but finally, on to the real business at hand!

Immediately after the ceremonial taps, the precious-metal spikes and laurelwood tie were removed and replaced with a basic pine tie, into which three ordinary iron spikes were driven—presumably by persons experienced in that job. A fourth iron spike, and a regular iron spike hammer, were both wired to the transcontinental telegraph line so that the Nation could “hear” the blows as the spike was driven.

Now, the railroad execs had their chance to really make history and drive that final spike home.

One Giant Swing for Mankind?

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Reenactments of the historic event are held on summer Saturdays in the park. Photo from Wikimedia commons.

According to one account, Central Pacific President Stanford took a mighty swing at the spike... and struck the tie instead. Union Pacific Vice-President Thomas Durant had already opted out of his speech a few minutes earlier, pleading a severe headache which some speculate was the result of a hangover from the previous night’s party in Ogden. Durant took a feeble swing, and not only missed the spike, but did not even hit the tie! In perhaps a fitting end to years of backbreaking work to span the continent by rail, the hammer was passed to "a regular rail worker," who drove home the last spike.

At least the date and even the time of the driving of the "last spike" in the railroad link seem to be well-documented. At 12:47 p.m. on Monday, May 10, 1869, Western Union telegrapher W.N. Shilling sent a message that was eagerly anticipated all across the country: “D-O-N-E.”

Why the confusion about the other details? According to an NPS account, "Due to the press of the crowd May 10, not one member of the press saw the Ceremony, and many reporters had actually written their special "eyewitness" accounts days before the Golden Spike Ceremony was even planned. The only information the reporters had was that some sort of celebration was to take place May 8, near Promontory Point (the only place marked on their maps), and that Central Pacific President Leland Stanford was bringing a gold spike."

There are some other great stories about this historic event, including why the ceremony was held two days later than originally planned and used a different pair of locomotives than organizers initially intended. A story earlier this year in the Traveler includes those tales, along with a view of the park in the winter season.

If you'd like more details about the four spikes—and what later became of them—you'll find some answers at this link. The original "Hewes golden spike" is now the property of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, and you can view a high-resolution image of the spike at this link.

Reenactments and Locomotive Demonstrations Are Yours to Enjoy

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Visitors can enjoy viewing the locomotives in action during the sumer and early fall. NPS photo by Chuck Ryan.

The annual major reenactment of the "last spike" ceremony will take place at Golden Spike National Historical Park at 12:20 p.m. on May 10, 2013, and volunteers will also reenact the "Driving of the Last Spike" on a smaller scale on Saturdays and holidays during the summer season.

Daily locomotive runs are scheduled at the park most days from May 1 through early October in 2013, and allow visitors to see, but not ride, these steam-powered beauties in action. Check the park website for more information.

Finally, if you plan to visit the park, be sure to check the park website for driving directions. Modern GPS units aren't proving to be much more accurate than the history books in leading you to the correct location. You don't want to waste a day looking for Promontory Point!