The golden spike that united the nation
On this day 150 years ago, a crowd gathered in Utah to witness the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
On May 10, 1869, officials and workers of the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad gathered in the Utah desert to celebrate the completion of an engineering feat decades in the making — a transcontinental railroad connecting eastern and western states. That day, as the last rails were laid at Promontory Summit, four ceremonial spikes were placed into a commemorative wooden tie made of polished California laurel, the last of thousands of ties supporting iron rails spiked in an unbroken track of 1,776 miles across prairies, deserts, and mountains.
A railroad reaching to the Pacific had been a dream of many entrepreneurs since the 1840s. During six years of railroad construction, the mostly Chinese crews of the Central Pacific built eastward, tunneling through granite in the Sierra Nevada and across the Nevada dessert. From Omaha, Nebraska, the largely Irish, veteran, and Mormon workforce of the Union Pacific laid rails westward across the Great Plains to Utah.
Between the unfinished ends of transcontinental track, Wells Fargo stagecoaches ran both east and west, bridging the gap between eastern and western states. On May 9, 1869, the day before the driving of the last spike, a Wells Fargo stagecoach made a final, short run east carrying mail and passengers — by then just an eight-mile journey. The trains had finally outrun the stagecoach.
The morning of May 10, 1869, two engines of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads faced each other on the last section of track. Railroad workers crowded around the last tie as Central Pacific Railroad president Leland Stanford and Union Pacific chief engineer Grenville Dodge used a silver-plated hammer to gently tap the four ceremonial spikes. David Hewes, a friend of Stanford, commissioned one spike out of 14 ounces of 17-karat gold. His gold “Last Spike” was engraved with the inscription, “May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.”
Among the crowd gathered to celebrate the laying of the final rails was a young U.S. Army officer, Captain John Charles Currier, and his newlywed wife, Nattie. Currier and his U.S. 21st Infantry regiment were being redeployed from Virginia to the Presidio of San Francisco, and on their way became the first military unit to complete a journey west by train. Captain Currier recorded the historic events of that day in his diary, which is now preserved in the Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.
“Promontory Point 12:30 o’clock noon. We have just witnessed the laying of the last rail, crowds commenced assembling at 7 o’clock. There were several thousand present. Ceremonies were opened with prayer by a Minister from Massachusetts. A laurel wood tie beautifully polished and appropriately engraved was then brought out, and by the two highest officials of each road present was placed in position. A rail was then taken by workmen and put in its place, a spike of solid gold was then produced with a silver hammer. The officers of the ‘U.P’ advanced from the East and those of the ‘C.P.’ from the West. A telegraph wire was attached to the spike; at a given signal one-two-three strokes or taps were made with the silver hammer. The telegraph wire were so arranged that the taps were flashed to all parts of the United States so that eager thousands in N.Y., Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia and other large cities at that moment knew the rail was laid and the Pacific Road complete! Truly it is worth a trip from New Hampshire to see this alone.
Two beautifully decorated engines, one from each road advanced till their guards touched; the engineers climbed out and broke a bottle of champagne across the space and shook hands. Nattie and myself were permitted to give a stroke upon the hammer. I drove my spike with my sword hilt. Then engines then backed about two rods. Our regiment marched up, stood at parade rest while our pictures were being taken. …”
After the ceremonies and speeches, the real celebration began. Currier recorded the festive scene:
“Champagne flowed like water. Much nonsense was got off but we had a jolly day. Half a dozen telegraph offices are crowded with applicants. Twenty or thirty prominent newspapers have reporters here. Everybody who is sober enough is scribbling; some are cheering some laughing and throwing up their hats and it is a festive scene. The speeches are good and our band played pretty well until they had taken too much ardent spirit. Thus is the greatest undertaking of the 19th century accomplished. ”
Shortly after the ceremony, Hewes reclaimed his gold spike. In 1892, he donated his art collection and keepsakes — including the famous gold spike — to the museum at the newly opened Leland Stanford Junior University in Palo Alto, California. In 1927, Stanford deposited the spike for safekeeping in the vault of Well Fargo Bank & Union Trust Company in San Francisco.
The spike was put on public display at the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego and at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay in 1939, where the gold spike thrilled fairgoers as part of Wells Fargo Bank’s Historical Collection exhibit in the San Francisco Building. Displayed in a bulletproof glass and steel safe, the spike stood alongside other western historical treasures such as an original Concord stagecoach and a large oil painting by Thomas Hill depicting the driving of the last spike at Promontory.
On August 24, 1940, a fire in the fair’s California Building came dangerously close to the adjacent building housing Wells Fargo’s exhibit. Curators who oversaw Wells Fargo’s display resisted moving the stagecoach and fragile artifacts until the last minute, fearing they would be damaged in a hurried evacuation. Besides, the heavy iron safe displaying the priceless golden spike was nearly impossible to move, and the time-locked safe could not be easily opened in emergency. Frantic telephone calls brought bankers rushing over from San Francisco with the safe’s combination so that the spike could be carried out under military guard and whisked away to safety in an armored car. Although art and artifacts from both buildings were saved by heroic efforts of soldiers, sailors, and fair employees, tragically one firefighter was killed fighting the conflagration, and 13 more people were injured.
After the Treasure Island fair closed in 1940, the spike returned safely to the custody of Wells Fargo’s vault in San Francisco and remained there throughout World War II. In 1948, Stanford requested that Wells Fargo put the golden spike on public display in its History Room museum in San Francisco during California’s gold rush centennial celebration and the state’s 100th year of statehood in 1950. Each morning, History Room staff would retrieve the golden spike from safe deposit, and under escort from armed guards, place it into the special steel safe for viewing by museum visitors, returning it to the vault each evening at closing.
For years, the gold Last Spike remained on daily display at Wells Fargo, along with the bank’s famous stagecoach, treasure boxes, firearms, and other mementos of western history. In 1954, Stanford University requested return of the gold spike to its renovated campus museum. On November 1, 1954, Wells Fargo transferred the treasure by armored car to Palo Alto, where the spike remains in the collection of the university’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts.