It was one of the most significant transportation projects in U.S. history: the transcontinental railroad. Over six years (1863-1869) in the making, this railroad project joined the eastern states with the western frontier.
The golden spike (or “The Last Spike”) was a ceremonial 17.6-karat gold spike driven by Leland Stanford to connect the rails of the Central Pacific Railroad (Sacramento, CA) to the Union Pacific Railroad (Omaha, NE) at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory. The golden spike is now displayed at Stanford University.
The labor for this transcontinental rail project came primarily from the Chinese, many of whom were recent immigrants to California. Over 12,000 Chinese built the rail line (80% of the work force). Originally considered too weak and small for this dangerous work, but the lack of labor forced the Central Pacific owners to take a flyer on them. Ultimately, the Chinese work ethic, tenacity and fearlessness helped the Central Pacific to blast through the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains in the west, despite snowbound, sub-freezing winter and blast furnace hot summer conditions. Hundreds of Chinese were killed in this project by explosions, landslides, accidents and disease.
Sadly, despite their significant contribution of the Chinese, nearly all were excluded from the Golden Spike ceremony in 1869. Only in recent decades has their story, achievement and legacy been honored and celebrated.
The “Golden Spike” moment was not just a technological achievement but a huge win for a young nation still leaning into its future.
With a transcontinental railroad available, the westward migration increased, new boom towns sprouted and the way to ship goods (including western cattle to eastern meat markets) grew.
The new railroad sparked additional east-west lines like the Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific and Atlantic Pacific…sparking a new industry: tourism. Yellowstone National Park (1872) and Yosemite National Park (1890) were the benefactors of railroad tourism.
And it all started on this date (May 10, 1869), when two railroads connected, in northwest Utah.