On May 10, 1869, in the middle of the desert at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory, Leland Stanford drove the last spike to complete the First Transcontinental Railroad. Although the tracks have been removed and the trains no longer pass by Promontory Summit, the location where the Golden Spike was driven is celebrated by the National Park Service for its significance in American history.
Golden Spike National Historic Site
Golden Spike National Historic Site was established in 1957 and only receives about 50,000 visitors a year. It’s quite out of the way if you want to visit, but it’s well worth it. The nearest city is Brigham City, 32 miles to the east.
The site is open daily throughout the year (except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day) from 9am to 5pm. Admission per carload costs US$7 in the summer and US$5 in the winter. If you have a National Parks pass, it’s free.
The visitor center contains a small museum about the construction of the railroad and the Golden Spike ceremony. There’s also a short film.
Some of the more important items in the museum include replicas of the Golden Spike (the original is on display at Stanford University) and the sign that was posted after 10 miles of track was laid in one day by Central Pacific workers. That occurred on April 29, 1869.
The “Last Tie”
In the area behind the visitor center, a portion of the tracks that were removed have been replaced, complete with a ceremonial “last tie” that joined the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad tracks. Reenactments of the Golden Spike ceremony take place every Saturday and on holidays at 11am and 1:30pm between May 1 and Labor Day.
The two steam locomotives facing each other are replicas of the locomotives used during the original ceremony. Coming from the east and facing west is the Union Pacific No. 119. It was built in 1868, stationed in Ogden, and scrapped in 1903. The replica was built in 1979.
Coming from the west and facing east is the Jupiter. Officially known as the Central Pacific Railroad #60, it was built in 1868 and scrapped in 1909.
Steam demonstrations take place at 1pm on most days during the summer. During the demonstrations, the locomotives move along the tracks. When I visited, the Union Pacific No. 119 was used.
Also located behind the visitor center are monuments dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike and memorials to Chinese and Irish workers. More than ⅔ of the 4,000 workers were Chinese and another significant portion was Irish. Both groups faced discrimination, however, the Chinese workers were paid less than the Irish and were not provided food and board while the Irish were.
A visit to the site can be done in about an hour if you’re there for the steam demonstration, but there are other outdoor activities. They include two auto tours (closed in winter) and a short trail. We ended up doing both auto tours but skipping the trail.
West Auto Tour
The West Auto Tour is a 14 mile loop in which you can drive right on the original Central Pacific grade. It passes the point where 10 miles of track were laid in one day.
East Auto Tour
The East Auto Tour is a two mile drive along the original Union Pacific grade. It passes through the Last Cut and Chinese Arch, a natural rock formation, before descending the steepest mile of railroad grade in Utah.
Big Fill Loop Trail
The Big Fill Loop Trail is a 1 ½ mile walking trail that starts on the Central Pacific grade and returns on the Union Pacific grade. It allows you to walk onto Central Pacific’s Big Fill, where workers filled in a 500ft wide ravine. Drill marks where workers blasted away at stone are supposedly visible. We stopped at a pullout to get a look at the Big Fill and Union Pacific’s Big Trestle.