Promontory • The story of the transcontinental railroad, historian Jon Meacham told an audience at the spot where the two threads of that railroad were tied together 150 years ago Friday, “is the story of America, for better or for worse.”
Meacham helped tell that story at the recently re-designated Golden Spike National Historic Park on Friday, giving the keynote address at a ceremony full of re-enactment, music, prayers and dignitaries including two senators, a governor, a congressman, an ambassador, two cabinet members, spiritual leaders and a railroad CEO.
The ceremony was witnessed by thousands, including railroad enthusiasts, history buffs and Chinese Americans and Irish Americans paying tribute to their ancestors who made up the bulk of the labor that built the railroad that linked the Atlantic and Pacific.
Meacham began by saying “everything was falling apart” in America in 1862, a year into the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation to create the rail line from the then-fractured Union states to the distant California coast. Approving the railroad was, Meacham said, “a far-sighted act for a commander-in-chief buffeted by the winds of war.”
Lincoln and those who envisioned the railroad “knew that a nation connected just might be a nation united,” Meacham said. When the railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, four years after the Civil War’s end and Lincoln’s assassination, Meacham said, “the nation was united at [Promontory], if not in spirit, then in fact.”
Meacham said the fact that the transcontinental railroad was accomplished while the nation remained sharply divided — it was, he said, “an era of prevailing white supremacy,” and before women had the vote — is something Americans today can take to heart.
Many of the elements that brought divided people together to make the transcontinental railroad happen, Meacham said, “seem all too elusive in our own time. … We, you and I, are caught in a moment of reflexive dispiritedness.” Still, he said, “our common welfare depends not on what separates us … but what unites us.”
“If people want to know what is possible, come here,” Meacham said, pointing to the ground where the Jupiter and No. 119, replicas of the locomotives that met 150 years ago, stood and blew their steam whistles.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, decked out in a 19th century morning coat and top hat, was jubilant. “We are truly celebrating like it’s 1869,” Herbert said.
Herbert echoed Meacham’s optimism, saying that the transcontinental railroad showed that “even in difficult times of deep division, great things can be accomplished.”
Elaine Chao, U.S. secretary of transportation, called the transcontinental railroad “one of the greatest infrastructure projects in this country,” reducing a six-month cross-country trip by wagon train to five days by rail. She called the railroad’s creation in 1869 “every bit as consequential as the digital revolution that binds the world today.”
Chao, who is Chinese American, also praised the thousands of Chinese laborers — at least 15,000, by most historical estimates — “who risked everything to make the transcontinental railroad a reality” even though “many of the Chinese laborers did not have the opportunity to bring their families with them or become U.S. citizens.”
Historian Connie Young Yu, herself a descendant of Chinese rail workers, said that at the Golden Spike’s centennial in 1969, only one descendent — her mother — was present at the ceremony at Promontory.
That oversight was corrected this time, as hundreds of Chinese Americans were in the crowd, and Chinese culture was well represented on stage. A “lion dance” was performed at the start of the ceremony, and Chinese workers were included for the first time in the annual re-enactment of the driving of the Golden Spike. And the Chinese, along with Irish, free blacks and Mormons, were depicted in “As One,” a 30-minute musical-theater presentation about the railroad’s creation and completion.
The People’s Republic of China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, tried to bridge past and present. In a video message, Cui didn’t mention current trade friction between the two countries, but said the transcontinental railroad is an example of “how the Chinese and American people can come together and get things done, and make the impossible possible.”
Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall, led a celebratory toast. “We remember today all those who laid rails, built bridges and blasted rock,” Mulhall said, noting that some 10,000 of them were Irish immigrants who became “part of the fabric of modern America.”
Other dignitaries at the sesquicentennial celebration included both of Utah’s U.S. senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, Rep. Rob Bishop, former Sen. Orrin Hatch, Interior Secretary David Bernhadt, Rios Pacheco of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone, Union Pacific president/CEO Lance Fritz, and Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The ceremony ended with a military flyover and a fusillade of fireworks.
On Friday afternoon, the U.S. Postal Service was scheduled to hold a first-day-of-issue event at the historical park to celebrate new Transcontinental Railroad Forever stamps.
Friday’s ceremony kicked off a weekend of events at Golden Spike National Historic Park. (Bishop unveiled the new signs with the new designation, signed into law in March.)
Festivities will run Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. They will include musical performances, historical re-enactments and exhibits, a re-creation of a Shoshone camp, an “innovations summit” with interactive stations from STEM and Hill Air Force Base, and a re-creation of a traveling gambling hall and saloon that followed the railroad workers and was called “hell on wheels.”
Tickets to the weekend’s events are sold out. Standby lists are being compiled on the Spike 150 events website, spike150.org/events.