The original golden spike — which marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869 — measures about 5 ⅝ inches.
A replica 92 times that size — 43 feet long — will soon stand to guide visitors to the same location, after stopping at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
A crowd of about 150, including children in train conductor hats, greeted the arrival of the monument Monday afternoon, taking pictures as soon as the flatbed truck on which it is mounted parked at the Capitol.
The memorial will be on display at the Capitol’s front steps, Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. People can see exhibits, take part in activities, and listen to lectures — including from artist Douwe Blumberg, who created the sculpture.
“We’ve been waiting for three years, and finally it is here,” exclaimed Margaret Yee, chairperson of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, who wore a gold blazer for the occasion.
Two of Yee’s great-grandfathers, one each on her mother’s and father’s sides of the family, worked on the railroad. They moved from Sacramento, where construction started heading east — meeting up with the Union Pacific heading west, and meeting in Utah.
“We are so proud of our ancestors,” Yee said.
Blumberg got choked up as he told the crowd about his “labor of love.”
“It was a wonderful experience from beginning to end,” he said. “It’s rare to move a piece of artwork across the country like we just did.”
The monument — which left Lexington, Ky., where Blumberg works, on Oct. 5 for a “whistle stop” tour through Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming — will reside permanently at the new Golden Spike Park, an 8-acre site outside of Brigham City in Box Elder County.
The Golden Spike Foundation, a Utah nonprofit formed in 2018 to mark the railroad’s to mark the railroad’s 50th anniversary in 2019, commissioned the monument from Blumberg in 2021. The foundation partnered with Brigham City to buy the land for the new park, near Interstate 15.
Doug Foxley, the foundation’s chairman, said he thought about how to get people to visit the original site where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met at Promontory, at what’s now Golden Spike National Historical Park. What was needed, he said, was “the ultimate billboard.”
The foundation, as part of its legacy, decided to create three public art pieces in Box Elder County. After sifting through 229 submissions from artists around the world, Foxley said Blumberg’s entry was the “jackpot,” because he “miraculously turned history into an amazing art object.”
DJ Bott, the mayor of Brigham City, said, “I don’t think that folks grasp the weight of having a piece like this in the community — because, frankly, I didn’t until I actually was in Kentucky and saw it.”
When the park is completed, Blumberg’s spike will be the most prominent of four sculptures there. The others are “Distant Thunder” by Michael Coleman, “Monument to Their Memory” by Ilan Averbuch, and Daniel J. Fairbanks’ bust of President Abraham Lincoln (who signed the 1862 Pacific Railway Act that set the transcontinental railroad into motion).
Art as storytelling
Blumberg described himself as a “history nut.” Growing up in California, he said, he knew a fair amount about the railroad, and the contributions of the Chinese immigrants — like Yee’s ancestors — who built much of the western part of the route.
Even so, Blumberg said he learned a lot working on the sculpture.
“Each culture looks at their history through a slightly different lens,” he said. “This is a very complex story.”
The monument captures that complexity. One side depicts the impact the railroad had on Indigenous populations. The other three show faces — 74 of them — representing the groups who contributed to the railroad’s completion: Chinese and Irish immigrants, freed Black workers, Civil War veterans and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Blumberg said he worked with representatives of those groups, and consulted with the chief of the Northern Shoshone and a Stanford professor who wrote about the Chinese contributions to the railroad.
His goal was to make the images as historically accurate as possible. Even within the parameters of creating a giant railroad spike, his focus was to create “storytelling art,” he said, “trying to hear different voices, then sift through everything, and then trying to come up with what really did happen there 150 years ago. How do we show that?”
Blumberg said he was most surprised to learn that much of the railroad’s construction happened while the Civil War was going on — and how many war veterans and freed Black men worked on it.
Working on the sculpture, he said, let him reflect on and be motivated by his own heritage. His mother, of Dutch descent, was under German occupation during World War II — and her father was arrested for hiding a Jewish family; he died at the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau. Blumberg’s mother immigrated to the United States, where she met the artist’s father, a Jewish man who came to the States from Romania.
The sculpture took Blumberg three years to plan, engineer and construct. The spike has an interior aluminum structure, is covered in decorative gold, and weighs about 8,000 pounds. Blumberg has a studio staff of 5 or 6 people, and he estimated that between 35 and 45 people worked on the sculpture from creation to transportation.
Blumberg compared the artistic process to raising children.
“You create them initially, and you just pour everything — your heart and soul — into them,” he said. “But not so that you can keep them. You do all that so that you can turn them loose into the world to make their own way and start impacting the world. … It’s a very similar feeling to an artwork that is designed for the public.”