Promontory Point is a desolate spot on the high desert above the Great Salt Lake roughly 60 miles north and west of Salt Lake City. It’s no vacation Mecca, just rock, sand and sagebrush, but on May 10, thousands showed up for a special celebration.
It was there, 150 years ago to the day, that the rails of the Union Pacific met the Central Pacific, uniting this country economically and spiritually four years after the end of America’s bloody Civil War. Among the assemblage was the keynote speaker, historian John Meacham, along with dozens of descendants of the Chinese and Irish Americans who’d tunneled through the Sierras, built the bridges and laid the tracks that crossed the plains, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
I’d attended the 100th anniversary in May of 1969, but it was nothing compared to this year’s blowout.
Interest in a Pacific railroad went back to the 1840s. A number of routes were considered and disputed before the start of the Civil War. Much of that debate was embroiled in the issues of slavery and its expansion beyond the Southern states.
On July 1, 1862, some 15 months after the fall of Ft. Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act authorizing construction of a line going west from the Missouri River at Omaha-Council Bluffs to Sacramento, California. The Act provided construction financing through a series of land grants and 30-year government bonds to two competing railroad companies: the Union Pacific, which would build west from Omaha, and the Central Pacific, building east from Sacramento.
Both railroad companies were allowed separate financing through the sale of stock — a provision that led to subsequent corruption and tales of scandal.
Construction was delayed by the Civil War. The Central Pacific set out east from Sacramento to the Sierra’s in 1863, but the Union Pacific stalled and didn’t get out of Omaha until July 1865. The Central Pacific had the more difficult route traversing the mountains, especially given the tunneling technology of the day.
Nitroglycerin was only recently invented. It had to be mixed on the spot, which led to several accidental explosions and deaths. For a time it was banned in California, leaving tunneling crews with only black powder to do their work. Moreover, all of its construction equipment and material and locomotives and rolling stock had to be brought by ship around the Cape of Good Hope or by way of Panama.
Both companies had serious labor shortages, aggravated by the hardships and the dangers of the work. The Central Pacific imported thousands of Chinese laborers to chisel away at the mountains and blast out tunnels. The Union Pacific brought in Irish workers to grade its right of way and spike down track across Nebraska, Wyoming and Utah. Then there was Brigham Young, who lent both money and Mormon labor to the great cause.
Heading up both railroad companies were names that are embedded in American history. At the Central Pacific it was Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Henry Huntington — the “Big Four.” At the Union Pacific it was Thomas Durant, a financier whose questionable transactions led to the Credit Mobilier scandal. Its chief engineer was ex-Civil War Gen. Grenville Dodge, who in turn hired the Casement brothers, John and Jack, both Civil War officers, as contractors.
The story of the transcontinental railroad and how it transformed America from an agricultural nation to an industrial and world power is the subject of innumerable books and films.
Three books may be of special interest to students of railroad history: Maury Klein’s two-volume “Union Pacific,” Stephen Ambrose’s “Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869,” and David Bain’s “Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad.” All are available at bookstores or the Scott County Library.
We are 150 years removed and a thousand miles away from the events at Promontory. The question could be asked, what does this have to do with Prior Lake, our local issues or even tomorrow’s weather forecast? Prior Lake lost its only railroad link in 1980, an anemic, weedy branch line that’s now the right-of-way for Highway 21.
Why, in this era of algorithms, self-driving cars and climate change, would several thousand people including two senators, a governor, a congressman, two cabinet members, the Irish ambassador, a railroad CEO and clergy come to Promontory Point on May 10 to celebrate steam locomotives and the Industrial Revolution?
We were a divided country then and, perhaps, a more divided country today. In his remarks, Meacham said much of what brought people together then seems “all too elusive in our own time.”
“We, you and I, are caught in a moment of reflexive dispiritedness,” the Tribune quoted him saying. He added, though, that “our common welfare depends not on what separates us ... but what unites us.”
Symbolic challenges are as important in 2019 as they were in 1869. Then it was Manifest Destiny and the transcontinental railroad. For the Greatest Generation, it was the defeat of fascism in World War II. For mine, it was John Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon. But, like John Meacham, I wonder and worry over our dispiritedness.
Do we have a dream? Or is our challenge first to even find and agree on one?