By Rachel R. Keoppel
Re-enactors create the historic moment at Promontory Summit. / Photo courtesy of the Golden Spike National Historic Site
Several thousand ties and spike, and a changed nation. Spike after spike was driven.
Tie after tie was laid.
Dynamite and shovels prepared the land for its future.
Thousands of miles of track were united across the nation in preparation for the conjunction of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies.
The joining of the tracks brought more together than just two stretches of track, but a nation.
The ceremony took place on May 10, 1869, but at the Golden Spike National Historical Site the story comes to life everyday. Replica trains, reenactments and untold stories all abide in the site.
"The railroads changed the nation geographically, politically and economically," said Melissa Cobern, who is the chief ranger at the site. "It helped to bond the nation together."
The joining of the railroads forever changed the nation. It changed the way that people traveled, it enhanced national unity and even changed the way that people told time -- with the creation of railroad-sponsored time zones.
Many people commonly know these facts about the construction of the railroad, but many of the stories that people know are wrong, or are unknown.
"[The story of just] one golden spike is not true," said Cobern. "Also the history books and even the local media have a misconception that this happened in Promontory, but it happened in Promontory Summit."
These are just two of the many falsehoods that have come to be known as facts about the history of the site.
One of the best known misconceptions about the joining of the railroads is that they were combined with one final golden spike. According to "The Last Spikes," a brochure at the site, there were actually four spikes used in the ceremony.
"Just about everyone that comes here thinks that there was one golden spike," said Cobern. "There was actually four precious metal spikes."
There was one spike that was cast in gold, the spike was "5 5/8 inch long, 14.03 ounce and 17.6 carats." The second spike was forged of silver and was "6 inches long and 10 1⁄2 ounces." The third spike was a combination of gold and silver plating. The brochure says it's, "a composite made from plating an ordinary 6 inch iron spike with gold on the head and silver on the shaft." The fourth and final spike was also cast in gold. This spike was "5 inches long, and 9 1⁄2 ounces."
The explanation for the falsehood is explained in the brochure. It says, "misconceptions surrounding the ceremony were started by newspaper reporters."
Because of the number of people in attendance and the push to get a glance at the ceremony not one reporter was able to see what was really going on. The brochure also says that many of the reporters even wrote their eyewitness story days in advance.
It reads in the brochure that, "The only information the reporters had was that some sort of celebration was to take place on May 8, near Promontory Point, and that Central Pacific President Leland Stanford was bringing a golden spike."
Many people that visit the Golden Spike National Historic Site are surprised when they discover that the spikes are not at the site. Three out of the four spikes are on display at the Stanford University museum. The whereabouts of the other spike are unknown; many people think that it was lost during the San Francisco earthquake and fire.
The spike was not the only artifact that is missing from the site. During the ceremony there was a laurelwood tie that the spikes were set into which was also lost during the San Francisco earthquake and fires.
Two of the largest pieces of history from the ceremony that are missing are the trains. The "Jupiter" and the "119" were the trains that were brought together at the ceremony until they nearly touched. Both were scrapped for a profit of one thousand dollars many years after their day in history.
"The original trains were scrapped at the turn of the century," said Neil Poulsen, who is a volunteer for the National Park Service. "When they scrapped the engines they also scrapped the blue prints and everything else."
The spikes are not the only artifacts that have hidden stories. Both trains have their own stories that sound like soap operas.
"There's a story that goes with both of these engines, they are both substitute engines," said Poulsen.
The "Jupiter" was not originally intended to be a part of the ceremony. There was a train called the "Antelope" that was the designated train, but en route to the site it was badly damaged in a logging accident. The "Jupiter" was able to take the place of the "Antelope" in the ceremonies.
"[Union Pacific Vice President] Thomas Durant was on his train coming out of Nebraska, and going to Piedmont, Wyoming," said Poulsen. "There he was met by 400 angry tie cutters who hadn't been paid in five months. They chained down his train until they paid him."
Durant's original train was not at the ceremony so the "119" was able to take it's place, and to be written into history.
The original trains are no lost forever, but the site was able to have replicas made. The replicas were completed in 1979 for the 110th anniversary of the ceremony.
"These are working replicas of the 1869 engines," said Poulsen. "The cost of these engines in 1970 was $750,000 a piece. They were estimated to cost a million dollars apiece. Mr. O'Conner took the rest as a write off because he wanted to see the project completed."
O'Conner Engineering Laboratories made the replicas of the "Jupiter" and the "119." According to the site the engineers and technicians built the duplicates with no blueprints or original plans. The trains took four years to complete, and every dimension is within 1⁄4 inch of the original trains.
"[People] are surprised by the painting and how ornate the locomotives are," said Cobern. "People are very attracted to them."
Poulsen said Ward Kimball, the chief animator for Disney, did all the painting and detailing on the replicas.
The replicas are run daily from May 1 through Labor Day. Poulsen said that the trains are currently put away for the winter, and to have their tenders refurbished. Visitors to the center are still given a chance to see the trains, by visiting the train house.
The Golden Spike National Historic Site stays open year around, and is closed most major holidays. There are several different activities that occur throughout the year, with the anniversary celebration being the largest.
The railroads not only changed the geography, but also the economy, travel and the unity of the nation. Construction with several thousand ties and spikes may seem old, but they were the building blocks for the technology of today. "This site commemorates a very important chapter in history," said Cobern.
"I think it's important as Americans to visit these places, especially something like the railroad that had far reaching consequences for the nation.