By Dale Swant
Spokane was a major hub for a number of railroads in the late 1800’s right up to today. Companies like the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Burlington Northern, Milwaukee Road, Union Pacific. Spokane International, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroads served the area and branched out to almost every community to serve farmers, ranchers and passengers who used railroads as their primary form of transportation and shipping. Over the years some railroads failed while others merged and the primary movers in our area today are the Burlington Northern Sante Fe and Union Pacific. A few counties, like Lincoln County, have a local railroad like the Washington Eastern Railroad now operating between Cheney and Coulee City.
All companies had their roots formulated by the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad over 150 years ago when the Union Pacific and and Central Pacific Railroads met at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1889 to celebrate the event by driving a golden spike where they joined.
Members of the Inland Northwest Rail Museum celebrate the event annually with “Rail Road Days” the second weekend of May which this year falls on May 13-14-15. Some memorable activities are scheduled, some for the first time, to commemorate the anniversary.
Completing the last link in the transcontinental railroad with a spike of gold was the brainchild of David Hewes, a San Francisco financier and contractor. The spike had been manufactured earlier that year in San Francisco especially for the event. Two of the sides were engraved with the names of the railroad officers and directors. A special tie of polished California laurel was chosen to complete the line where the spike would be driven. The ceremony was originally to be held on May 8, 1869 (the date actually engraved on the spike), but it was postponed two days because of bad weather and a labor dispute that delayed the arrival of the Union Pacific side of the rail line.
DRIVE A GOLDEN SPIKE YOURSELF!
Visitors to the museum can experience the completion of the railroad during the celebration by driving a “Golden Spike” themselves. This special event always anyone to drive a spike during the three days for $3 and take the “Golden Spike” home as a souvenir.
On May 10, 1889, in anticipation of the ceremony, Union Pacific No. 119 and Central Pacific No. 60 locomotives were drawn up face-to-face on Promontory Summit. (Photo 1) It is unknown how many people attended the event; estimates run from as low as 500 to as many as 3,000 government and railroad officials and track workers were present to witness the event. During the 150th Anniversary celebration in 2019 it was estimated 20,000 rail fans attended.
Before the last spike was driven, three other commemorative spikes, had been driven in the pre-bored laurel tie provided by railroad board members: A second, lower-quality gold spike, supplied by the San Francisco News Letter was made of $200 worth of gold and inscribed: “With this spike the San Francisco News Letter offers its homage to the great work which has joined the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.’
A silver spike, supplied by the State of Nevada; forged, rather than cast, of 25 troy ounces (780 g) of unpolished silver “offered to the enterprise that has banded a continent and dictated a pathway to commerce”. This spike was given to the Union Pacific president and is on display at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. A second golden spike, exactly like the one from the ceremony, was cast and engraved at the same time. It was held, unknown to the public, until 2005. This second spike is now on permanent display, along with Thomas Hill’s famous painting The Last Spike, at the California State Museum.
With the locomotives drawn so near, the crowd pressed so closely that the ceremony became somewhat disorganized, leading to varying accounts of the actual events. To drive the final spike, Stanford (Photo 4) lifted a silver spike maul and drove the spike into the tie, completing the line. He did miss the spike, but the single word “done” was nevertheless flashed by telegraph around the country. In the United States the event has come to be considered one of the first nationwide media events. The locomotives were moved forward until their “cowcatchers” met, and photographs were taken. Immediately afterwards, the golden spike and the laurel tie were removed, lest they be stolen, and replaced with a regular iron spike and normal tie. At exactly 12:47 pm, the last iron spike was driven, finally completing the line.
FEEL LIKE YOU WERE THERE
You may enjoy reliving this event, riding the museum’s 2-foot gauge train, driving a spike, tour the museum and museum cars, stroll among the giants and visit the museum gift shop for a souvenir. The Inland Northwest Rail Museum is open Friday-Sunday from 10 am-5 pm. Located 2-miles west of Reardan (25-miles west of Spokane), it sits at the junction of State Hwy 2 and 231 South. For additional information call them at (509) 796-3377 or check out the website www.inlandnwrailmuseum.com