They’re extraordinary pieces of history — three gleaming ceremonial spikes that helped celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad, now reunited in Utah for the first time in 150 years.
The famous Golden Spike, the silver Nevada Spike and the Arizona Spike of blended iron, silver and gold are the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the campus of the University of Utah. “The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West” opened Friday.
The spikes are also symbols, said Stanford University history professor Gordon Chang, of the “elites who presided over the May 10 ceremony in 1869.”
The spikes “direct attention to the business people, political people who were prominent at the time,” he said. “And they forget about the people who actually did the work on the Central Pacific — the Chinese.”
The exhibit includes 150 photographs and stereographs by Alfred A. Hart, who photographed construction on the Central Pacific/western side in 1868-69, and Andrew Joseph Russell, who photographed progress from the Union Pacific/eastern side.
Organizers of the exhibit — and of other events planned for the historic anniversary — are aiming to be more representative and inclusive of people involved in and affected by the connection of the railroads at Promontory Summit in Utah.
Making sure the thousands of Chinese workers who were the majority of the Central Pacific’s labor force are included in UMFA’s exhibit presented a challenge, because photographing laborers was not part of Hart’s assignment from the railroad.
“He was a company guy,” Chang said. “The photography he took was to serve their business purpose, which was to document some of this magnitude of the work and the beauty of the landscape. And his images would be used to attract attention [from] people on the East Coast and maybe eventually get them to be interested to come West.”
So Hart “was not interested or directed to give much attention to the people who actually worked on the line,” Chang said, and “it’s easy to take a look at those photos and not be sensitive to or informed about what the workers did.”
The vast majority of the photos don’t feature any people at all. In most of those that do — including some that are of Chinese workers — there’s not enough detail to make anyone out.
Even Russell’s famous “East and West Shaking Hands” photo — two trains almost nose-to-nose, with dozens of railroad employees, executives and other celebrators on or next to locomotives Jupiter and Union Pacific No. 119 — has many blurry faces because they didn’t hold still long enough for the photo to be exposed.
(A greatly enlarged “East Meets West” images figures prominently in an interactive area designed for children and parents. Hint: “Can you find a woman?” is a trick question.)
The “Race to Promontory” is being supplemented by several additional presentations, including a May visit by Chang. He’s the author of the books “Chinese Railroad Workers” and “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad,” which will be published in May.
Others will focus on the contributions of American Indians and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We felt at the UMFA that it was an opportunity to flesh out and tell these stories through our programming,” said Leslie Anderson, UMFA’s curator of European, American and regional art.
The exhibit puts the spikes at its center. The Golden Spike and the Nevada Spike are usually on display in Palo Alto, Calif., at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University; the Arizona Spike has been on loan from the Museum of the City of New York to the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Omaha, Neb., since 2003. No one knows what became of a fourth spike, made of a lower grade of gold, since the ceremony 150 years ago.
Visitors enter and begin “traveling loosely geographically along the same route that Andrew Joseph Russell followed when he was working for Union Pacific,” Anderson said. Displays show his photographs and stereographs from eastern Wyoming to Promontory Summit.
Stereographs are a “very 19th-century way of making photos three-dimensional,” as Anderson put it. Two very similar but slightly different photos are placed side by side and viewed through a stereoscope — sort of 19th-century 3D glasses, which are available at UMFA — making the image appear to jump out at the viewer.
The images are not reprints of original photos; they’re the original photos created on site during railroad construction, using the early wet-plate or collodion process.
Then after a stop at the three spikes, the exhibit invites guests in the other direction, with Hart’s photographs and stereographs that move west from Promontory Summit through Nevada and California.
There’s an optional detour into an exhibit of 31 images by Utah photographer Charles Savage in the same era, drawn from the U.’s J. Willard Marriott Special Collections.
“I’ve really tried to kind of expand the story and and impress upon our visitors the significance of local photographer Charles Savage and his contributions,” Anderson said. “Through it, we see the kinds of efforts after [the celebration at] Promontory to disseminate images of this region and encourage travel along the rails.”
The Savage exhibit was not part of the exhibition when it debuted in Omaha in October, and it makes the experience uniquely Utah.
“It shows the power of these images as stereographs or larger-format prints or as illustrations and travel literature — how that would draw people to Salt Lake City and its environs,” she said.
Chang applauded efforts being made by the curators of “The Race to Promontory” to try to rebalance the scales.
“I think there is a deep sense that there was something wrong in the past of how the railroad was understood and the neglect of the role of the Chinese,” he said. “I think things are just coming together and I really welcome and appreciate this heightened sensitivity.”
It’s a marked contrast to the centennial celebration in 1969, which all but excluded any mention of the Chinese, said Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association. In 2002 and in 2014, New York City photographer Corky Lee enlisted scores of Chinese-Americans for a “flash mob” photo to match the famed locomotive shot — also known as the “champagne photo.” In more recent years, the annual event has become a gathering point for celebrating Chinese-American heritage.
In 2014 — on the 145th anniversary — Gov. Gary Herbert declared May 10 Transcontinental Railroad Chinese Laborers’ Recognition Day, calling the railroad “an achievement made possible by Chinese laborers, who did the majority of this backbreaking and dangerous work.”
With a $1 million appropriation from the Utah Legislature and a matching $1 million grant from Union Pacific, the state formed the Spike 150 commission to organize what the group’s chairman, Doug Foxley, called “the biggest and best party ever held in the state of Utah.”
The roster of events — including lectures, exhibits, symphony and opera performances, train shows, galas and photo exhibits — will culminate with a May 10 re-enactment of the 1869 event that joined the Union Pacific and Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, now the Golden Spike National Historic Site. The list of events includes several devoted to the contributions of the Chinese laborers, a change from the centennial’s events.
“We’re making up for it this year,” said Kwan, a long-serving judge in the Taylorsville Justice Court whose maternal great-great-great-grandfather worked to construct the railroad. Kwan will be part of a panel at UMFA’s “Railroad Stories” presentation on March 20.
The Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association is sponsoring an exhibit titled “Tracing the Path: Chinese Railroad Workers and the First Transcontinental Railroad“ now open at the Utah Capitol, which is also home to “A World Transformed: The Transcontinental Railroad and Utah.”
“The Spike 150 commission and the governor have been very, very accommodating to make sure the story is being told,” Kwan said. “Not just told by other people, but they’re letting us tell our story this time. Which is great. Almost remarkable.”
Admission to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts during “The Race to Promontory”
Tickets • $17.95 adults; $14.95 seniors; $14.95 ages 6-18; free for children under 6, UMFA members, University of Utah students, faculty and staff, students at other Utah public universities, Utah Horizon/EBT cardholder, and active-duty members of the military.
• 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
UMFA FREE “RACE TO PROMONTORY” PUBLIC PROGRAMS
• “Discovering History Through a Photograph: One Picture, Eight People, and the Unexpected Stories of American Life,” Saturday, Feb. 16, 11 a.m., Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium — Princeton historian Martha A. Sandweiss examines a single photograph made by Alexander Gardner during the Fort Laramie Treaty negotiations of 1868.
• “Third Saturday for Families: Drawing with Photographs,” Saturday, Feb. 16, 1–4 p.m., Emma Eccles Jones Education Center Classroom — Imagine what photographers left out of the photos on display in “Race to Promontory” by drawing the rest of the story outside the frame.
• “Promontory Perspectives: A Faculty Conversation,” Wednesday, March 6, 7 p.m., Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium — University of Utah faculty members will examine the significance of this historical event. The panel will include Paisley Rekdal, Utah poet laureate and professor of English; Gregory Smoak, director, American West Center, and associate professor of history; and Matthew Basso, associate professor of gender studies and history. A question-and-answer session will follow.
• “Railroad Stories: Community Voices and Regional Perspectives,” Saturday, March 20, 6:30 p.m., Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium — The panelists include Katherine Kitterman, historical director, Better Days 2020; Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation; Michael Kwan, president of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association; and Fred E. Woods, professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
• “Charles Savage: Pioneer(ing) Photographer,” Wednesday, April 10, 7 p.m., Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium — Leslie Anderson, UMFA’s curator of European, American and regional art, profiles Charles Roscoe Savage (1832-1909), who documented the construction of the Union Pacific line in Utah.
• “Working on the Railroad: Chinese Workers and America’s First Transcontinental Line,” Wednesday, May 8, 7 p.m. — Drawing on years of research, Gordon Chang — the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford University — presents the most documented account of this history.
For a list of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, go to spike150.org.
Correction: 5 p.m. Feb. 3: This story has been corrected to reflect that the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Summit.