On May 10, 1869, the ceremonial golden spike that was driven into a polished cypress crosstie at windswept Promontory Point, Utah, marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad — or what was then called the Pacific Railroad or Overland Route. The railroad, linking Omaha, Neb., to Sacramento, Calif., some 1,780 miles, made it possible to travel from coast to coast by the steamcars in a matter of days, rather than months in prairie schooners.
Talked about for 30 years, the building of the line by the Central Pacific Railroad (CP) and Union Pacific Railroad (UP) represented a collaboration between the federal government and a rogues’ gallery of questionable businessmen who thought nothing of putting personal gain at the forefront of what was one of the most incredible industrial construction projects of the 19th century.
Its workforce of freed African-Americans and Civil War veterans were joined by Chinese who built the CP, while Irish immigrants toiled building the UP through some of the most inhospitable mountain terrain found in the West, all the while dealing with scorching desert heat, howling winds, and battling Indians as steel rails were laid and telegraph wires strung through tribal lands.
At 2:47 p.m., Eastern Time, 150 years ago today, as the final spike was driven, telegraphers flashed “DONE,” from coast to coast, which kicked off public celebrations in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other American cities with bells ringing and whistles blowing.
“The last rail is laid and the last spike is driven, the Pacific railroad is finished,” was telegraphed to President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House.
But, curiously, in Baltimore, where American railroading had its birth in 1827 when the Baltimore & Ohio, considered the “Mother of Railroads,” and the nation’s first common carrier railroad, began building westward to the Ohio River from Mount Clare, there were no public celebrations.
Relying on the Associated Press and other telegraphed reports, The Baltimore Sun observed, “The formal consummation of so grand an enterprise deserves to be heralded by such an agent as electricity… Such a work is not only more valuable, but more truly glorious than all of the achievements of war.”