By Maury Klein
For Americans in 1869, the driving of the golden spike, which joined the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, carried a significance similar to that of the first moon landing for a later generation. It marked the conquest not only of distance, but of a landscape that was as alien to most Americans as the moon. It bound together the far-flung ends of a nation still licking its wounds from a bloody and divisive civil war. Travelers could now go from New York to California via a series of trains in seven days, a journey that earlier took 35 days across the fever-infested Isthmus of Panama or five months for the perilous sail around Cape Horn. In the process they could also glimpse the West that few of them had ever seen and was already an American mythology in the making.
This longest ribbon of iron ever built by man across the harshest but most spectacular terrain in the nation reflected the dawn of a new age of industrial progress, in which the reunited states were sure to excel. Visions of settlements, towns, cities, farms, mines, and trade with the Far East beckoned to a people eager to fulfill them at almost any cost. Fabulous riches awaited from industry, trade, and commerce. More railroads soon followed, and eventually five more transcontinental lines were built along with thousands of miles of track laid by other roads. For more than another half a century the railroads remained the biggest and most dominant industry in the nation.
Americans reached out toward a world larger than they had ever imagined, confident of making it smaller through familiarity. “We are the youngest of the peoples,” bragged the New York Herald, “but we are teaching the world how to march forward.” March forward they did, and not alone. That same year another mammoth project, the Suez Canal, opened for traffic. Distant shores whose wealth and promise had tantalized imaginations since the days of Marco Polo now seemed within reach. Work was also underway to connect New York, London, Calcutta, and Canton by telegraph. “Commercially it places the United States in contact with Asia,” added the Herald, but even more, “internally it will make North America sparkle with cities; politically, as a national binding force it is invaluable.”
What of the railroads that met on that memorable day? Although the railroads endured some hard, often desperate times after 1920, they reconfigured themselves to become a strong and prosperous industry driven by fresh ideas and technologies. Today the rail industry is dominated by four giant systems, two east of the Mississippi River and two west of it. Of the four, the largest and the only one that still possesses its historic name is the Union Pacific. Its partner at Promontory, the Central Pacific, was later absorbed by the Southern Pacific Railroad, which in 1996 was taken over by the Union Pacific. Today the UP still owns and operates what became famous as the Overland Route. In that sense the driving of the golden spike still resonates today in an age when the railroads bear scant resemblance to their earlier selves.
Maury Klein is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Rhode Island and the author of many books, including Union Pacific, The Reconfiguration: America’s Greatest Railroad from 1969 to the Present ; Rainbow’s End: The Crash of 1929 ; and The Power Makers.