Promontory Summit, Utah
The Place were America’a First Transcontinental Railroad was Completed
In 2007, I was hired as a seasonal Park Guide at the national Park Service's Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory Summit, Utah, where the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad is celebrated.
My job was to greet visitors, to acquaint them with the park’s facilities, to provide historical perspectives on the history of the transcontinental railroad and to introduce No. 119 and Jupiter, the two working replica steam locomotives that entertained visitors with daily runs along the park’s railroad tracks.
Coming from an East Coast city near Washington, DC, to a mountain desert was a wonderful change of scenery. I learned about the heroic efforts of so many unknown workers and the leadership of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads. Often, I would gaze out over the mountains, the tumbleweed, and the Basin Big Sagebrush and imagine the temporary camps of rail workers, and how they built the grades and laid the heavy iron rails.
For one year, I was immersed in the history of the transcontinental railroad. I had stories about how the steam engines worked, how the mostly Irish and Chinese workers spent their days, and how weather like snow storms and flooding threatened the completion of the railroad. When you looked out over the miles of desert, you were looking at a landscape that had not changed much since May 10, 1869, when the two rail lines were linked together.
The scrappy Union Pacific overcame many obstacles to reach Promontory Summit, including dealing with their irascible Vice-President, Thomas Durant, who at one point, tried laying rail across an ice-covered pond. It was the UP engineers who fought for a quality rail line and won.
For the Central Pacific, many players contributed to their success in reaching Promontory Summit, one oft-forgotten player was Theodore Judah, an engineer, who did not live to see his vision for the Central Pacific Railroad come to completion.
It was President Abraham Lincoln who signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 that launched the competition between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific to lay rail and to link their lines to complete America's first transcontinental railroad.
This railroad opened up the country to Americans to find land, homes, and jobs. Today, when we think of towns like: Omaha, Neb.; Ogden, Utah; Sacramento, Calif.; Reno, Nev.; and many other small towns, many do not associate these places with the railroad, but many of these towns were built by the railroads or buttressed by the railroad industry.
So many stories, so many places, and so much new technology. Americans were in love with steam locomotives for decades and many still are. They come to places like Golden Spike to see No. 119 and Jupiter on their daily runs, and to travel the remnants the CP and UP grades throughout the park.
In 2008, I got a temporary park position on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I was going to miss Golden Spike, my new friends, and Utah and its mountains.
In Washington, DC, I would learn about the history of many historical memorials and sites in order to provide visitors with tours of these places.
In my first month, while I was at the World War II memorial. I was down near the fountains, talking with some visitors, they asked me what other parks I had worked at. Before I knew it, I was pointing to the Lincoln Memorial in the distance and telling them about the history of the Transcontinental Railroad. They loved it.
When the opportunity arose, I would give my talk on the Transcontinental Railroad because I was standing in the place that started it all.