Transcontinental railroad is completed, May 10, 1869
Although it would be another year before bridges and extensions actually connected the Atlantic and Pacific by rail, two steam locomotives met where the Central Pacific Railroad tracks from Sacramento were to meet the Union Pacific Railroad tracks that were built west from Omaha to commemorate the completion of the tracks.
For the ceremony, a special tie made of California laurel was put down and the last rail sections were laid across it. Leland Stanford and Thomas Durant, of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific respectively, used a silver-plated maul to gently tap ceremonial gold spikes. The 17.6 carat gold spike would not have survived a blow from a spike maul.
The spikes and tie were then removed and replaced with a pine tie into which three ordinary iron spikes were driven by a rail worker after Stanford and Durant were unable to finish the job.
A telegrapher commemorated driving in the spikes by relaying three dots then sent the message “DONE” at 2:47 pm. After announcing it to the general public, this message was sent to President Grant: "Sir: We have the honor to report that the last rail is laid, the last spike is driven. The Pacific Railroad is finished."
The golden spike, which is now displayed at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, bore the phrase, “May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.”
After years of debating the issue, northern legislatures approved a central route for the railroad during the Civil War, and passed acts that would give cash subsidies and land grants to private companies to build the tracks across the continent.
The tracks from the east stretched nearly two-thirds of the route as the western portion was more difficult to construct across the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Central Pacific crew was primarily Chinese immigrants, while Irish immigrants made up much of the Union Pacific crew.
Because of their hard and dangerous work, the 3,000-mile, cross-country journey that had taken months could now take only days by rail. More importantly, the abundant resources of the West could be shipped east quickly and profitably. The transcontinental railroad was perhaps the most important factor in the American conquest and settlement of the West.
In 1904, the Lucin Cutoff was built across the Great Salt Lake, making the Promontory Summit rails unnecessary. The rails were recycled during World War II, but the site is still home to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where reenactments of the ceremony are often held.
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For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.
Editor's note: This article was originally posted on May 10, 2013 and edited on May 10, 2015.