Re-enactment of driving of Golden Spike Engine 119

Actors prepare Engine No. 119 for the re-enactment of the driving of the Golden Spike. (Photo credit: Carissa Rogers)

Just another lawn-mowing day in the life of a Northern Utah teenager.

One hot summer afternoon as a kid, I was mowing the front yard when a car pulled over in front of my house.  The passenger rolled his window down and motioned me over.  I stopped the mower and went to the car, which contained two elderly couples.

The man driving the car said “hello” and I could tell from his accent he wasn’t a Utah native. In my teenage “you’re interrupting my lawn mowing but how can I help you” voice, I said “hi” back.

He asked, “Do you know the directions to the Golden Spike monument?”  I said yes, and told him to “go straight until the stoplight, turn right, and drive for the next half-hour.” Small-town life (and only one stoplight in town).

Then he asked, “Is it worth seeing?”  As a teenager without appreciation for the historic impact of the completion of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad, I replied with the ’80s version of “meh.”

And off they went, but not before the man said “well, I’m from Chicago and everybody comes to see the Sears Tower but it’s nothing spectacular.”

As he drove away I thought about how much I’d like to visit Chicago someday. (I’ve now visited multiple times, but still haven’t ascended the now-Willis Tower.)

So What’s The Big Deal About a Golden Spike?

The Golden Spike Monument marks the location where railroad officials laid the final track in Promontory, Utah – with a golden spike – completing the first transcontinental railroad service in the United States on May 10, 1869.  Building infrastructure for coast-to-coast travel was a remarkable achievement. The transcontinental railroad opened the door to more efficient and speedy transportation of goods and people. And all this in what was still a very young and very large undeveloped country.

Golden Spike Champagne Photo

The famous “Champagne Photo” taken by Andrew J. Russell on May 10, 1869. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

Before transcontinental rail service, getting from New York to California could take a few months. But within a few years after the driving of the golden spike and initiation of coast-to-coast rail service, the same trip could take less than a week.

After decades of discussion, funding and labor shortages, plus impacts of the Civil War, construction got serious.  The Central Pacific railroad company started building eastward from Sacramento while the Union Pacific railroad company began in Omaha building westward.  The builders overcame significant challenges with the geological and engineering requirements for the railroad’s construction, but the rails finally met in Northern Utah in spring 1869.

Completion of the railroad meant that the frontier was finally open.  Westward expansion would accelerate.

What’s There to do at the Golden Spike Historic Site?

The site consists of two main parts.  First is the obligatory Visitors Center.  Second is the landscape outside, the actual site where the two rails met and where the golden spike entered the earth at the end of a sledgehammer.  There are two theaters at the Visitors Center, offering information about the history of the construction of the transcontinental railroad and life in the U.S. in the 1850s and 60s.

There’s a small gift shop (of course) with trinkets, books, coloring books and souvenirs of all sorts.

Outside the Visitors Center is a large area where visitors can view the Jupiter and No. 119 steam locomotive replicas (weather and mechanics permitting). Guests also can walk around the rails, and check out displays about the Westward expansion.

You can also take short car tours through both the East Grade and West Grade.  There is also a hiking trail (the Big Fill Trail) that allows visitors an up-close view of parts of the two rail companies’ railroad lines.

When’s the Best Time to Visit the Golden Spike Monument?

May is an ideal time to visit the monument, for historical and weather reasons. Each year on May 10, the site hosts a re-enactment of the joining of the rails. Many guests visit the site dressed in period costumes from the 1860s. The two steam locomotive replicas meet nose-to-nose on the rails, actors recite the speeches given on that momentous day in 1869, and the actors pound the final spike into the ground.

Every year on May 10 the driving of the Golden Spike is re-enacted at the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory, Utah.

Every year on May 10 the driving of the Golden Spike is re-enacted at the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory, Utah. (Photo credit: Carissa Rogers)

Then, all visitors who dressed in period costumes gather together for a re-creation of the famous photograph of the handshake between Leland Stanford (representing Central Pacific) and Thomas Durant (representing the Union Pacific).

I’ve been to the May 10 anniversary celebrations a few times (a couple times as a youth, and once with my kids), and they are great picture-taking and people-watching opportunities.

The replica steam engines run regularly from early May to mid-September (riding not permitted) and can also be viewed in the engine houses.  The site hosts special events during wintertime too, but only on a limited schedule.

Is the Golden Spike National Historic Site Good for Kids?

Yes, assuming the kids in question aren’t tied to an electronic device 70% or more of the time. The Visitor’s Center is accessible to guests of all ages, and it’s a pretty simple story.  Before the U.S. turned 100 years old, two railroad companies worked as fast as they could from East to West, and from West to East, to build a railroad that would reach from sea to shining sea.  (Or something like that.)

Happy kids and dad at Golden Spike historic site.

Happy kids (and one very intrigued by the big train engines) at the Golden Spike National Historic Site. (Photo credit: Carissa Rogers)

Older kids might appreciate the mechanics of steam engines and the planning and engineering that went into building a railroad over some very difficult and inhospitable terrain. Other older kids will be intrigued by the railroad companies’ importation of foreign labor (mostly Chinese) to perform the very painstaking and heavy labor of moving and forging iron and pounding it into the dirt to ensure it would never move.

What Else to Know:

  • Let’s put it this way: the railroad companies in 1869 didn’t give much thought to site selection in terms of convenience. The Golden Spike National Historic Site is in a very remote part of Northern Utah, near the tip of the Great Salt Lake.  There’s only one way in or out (Highway 83).  GPS is not reliable as of this writing, so it’s best to (1) take a map and (2) follow the road signs.  (The good news? Except for the anniversary events on May 10 each year, you won’t have much of a traffic problem.)
  • Distance from nearest city = 27 miles (Tremonton) or 32 miles (Brigham City)
  • Distance from nearest airport = 90 miles (SLC International)
  • You’ll drive on a paved road to the site, but there are no gas stations, fast food restaurants, or grocery stores within twenty miles. The Visitor’s Center had snack food and soda vending machines, but that can always change.
  • The area around the monument is sparsely populated – you likely won’t have cellular service near the site.
  • The Golden Spike site is high mountain desert – temperatures in summer can be in the upper 90s (F), and quite cold in the wintertime (teens). Plan accordingly and be sure to pack snacks and water for the car.
  • Pets on leashes are ok!