Every summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, thousands of people attend re-enactments of the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Utah’s Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit.
The spikes they use, of course, are also re-creations. Two of the actual, ceremonial spikes from 1869, including the famous gold one, have been on display at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.; the third at the Museum of the City of New York.
But now, for the first time in a century and a half, the three ceremonial spikes have reunited, and they’re on tour. Next stop: the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the campus of the University of Utah.
As the 150th anniversary of the big day — May 10, 1869 — approaches, the spikes are headlining an exhibit titled “The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West,” which opens to the public on Friday.
“This is the first time of course that they’ve been reunited in Utah since the ceremony back in 1869,” said Leslie Anderson, UMFA’s curator of European, American and regional art.
“These are kind of the crown jewels of railroading,” said Patricia LaBounty, collections manager at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Omaha, Neb. “And I’d like to dispel the myth that they were driven. They were gently tapped” into pre-drilled holes, because gold and silver are soft metals.
The three spikes are:
• The Nevada Spike, which was forged from silver mined in that state.
• The Arizona Spike, which is blended from iron, silver and gold and engraved, “Ribbed with iron clad in silver and crowned with gold Arizona presents her offering to the enterprise that has banded a continent and dictated a pathway to commerce.”
• And the world-famous Golden Spike (aka the Last Spike), which is engraved on all four sides — the names of various dignitaries on two sides; “May God continue the unity of our Country, as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world” on another; and “The Pacific Railroad ground broken January 8, 1863, and completed May 8, 1869” on the last.
That turned out to be wrong. Union Pacific's vice president, Thomas Durant, was “hijacked by UP employees in eastern Wyoming and held for ransom, essentially, because they wanted to get paid,” LaBounty said, delaying his arrival and the ceremony by two days.
There’s some doubt about the truth of that story.
“Durant was a mercurial character,” said Brad Westwood, senior public historian at the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts. “And there are a lot of historians now who think that he actually arranged for the hijacking so that the contractors he had been working with would get paid.”
Whatever the case, May 10 is marked as the date the railroad was completed. All three spikes will be at the UMFA through April, then move to the Utah Capitol May 8-12.
The UMFA exhibit includes 150 photographs and stereographs by Andrew Joseph Russell, who photographed the construction from the Union Pacific/eastern side, and Alfred A. Hart, who photographed the Central Pacific/western side in 1868-69.
There were actually four ceremonial spikes back in 1969 at Promontory Point, but it’s “unclear what became of the fourth one. It’s the lost spike,” Anderson said.
If it’s up in your attic, you could be rich. LaBounty laughed and said she couldn’t even put an estimate on its value, “but it’s priceless to railroad history.”
She said the only newspaper account from that time that even mentions the fourth spike says it was given to Grenville Dodge, a Union general in the Civil War who became the Union Pacific's chief engineer, “but he never mentions it in any of his papers — and he wrote a lot.”
If your last name is Dodge and you’re headed up to the attic to check, the missing spike was also made of gold — albeit of a lower grade than the Last Spike — and inscribed, “With this spike the San Francisco News Letter offers its homage to the great work which has joined the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.”
• Free admission to the museum and $5 admission to “The Race to Promontory” exhibit on the first Wednesday and third Saturday of February, March, April and May.
• All other Wednesdays $5 admission after 5 p.m.
• Free admission Feb. 16 and March 6