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Driving the Last Spike
At Promontory, 1869

By J. N. Bowman

Courtesy of the California Historical Society
California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2,  June 1957, pp. 96-106,  and Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, September 1957, pp. 263-274.

Copyrighted, 1957, by the California Historical Society.  Personal educational web viewing only.  The California Historical Society does not assume responsibility for statements of fact or opinion made by contributors.

Courtesy of the California Historical Society, Marlene Smith-Baranzini, Associate Editor, California History, and Edson T. Strobridge.  Reproduced by permission.  Substitute illustrations.

Golden Spike at the Stanford University Museum
THE GOLD SPIKE. Head very smooth except for indentations... 
Instead of being sharp, point is blunt, about 1/8 inch wide where 
nugget was broken off to make souvenirs.  Courtesy National Park Service.

IN JULY 1954, THE GOVERNOR'S OFFICE referred to the state archives a letter of inquiry as to a second gold spike used upon the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory on May 10, 1869. In preparing an answer to the letter, a number of problems arose, especially regarding the tradition that a silver sledge made the impressions on the head of the gold spike, that this spike was "driven," and that it was the last one driven. The following is the result of that study (see Conclusion, below). But because of the conflicting stories of the events of that day written by persons present at the ceremonies, the various factors involved will first be considered.

The Source Material. There are extant no official or public records of the day's events, so that reliance must be placed on the statements of the persons present who sent dispatches then or later, or who wrote items or gave interviews at later dates. Over 20 newspapers had 1 or more reporters present; 3 persons present wrote diaries; and G. M. Dodge, S. D. Dillon, A. L. Bowsher, and David Lemon wrote stories or gave interviews long afterwards. Published accounts have been written from tradition or from some of these stories, and so are of secondary value. The existing contradictions may be explained by the statement of H. Beadle in the Utah Daily Reporter, 2 days after the events took place: namely, that no arrangements had been made for the ceremony and at the last minute a few items of procedure were laid down. "As it was, the crowd pushed upon the workmen so closely that less than 20 persons saw the affair entirely, while none of the reporters were able to hear all that was said"; and he "regrets that the noise and confusion prevented us from hearing their addresses." C. R. Savage and Bowsher stated later that they did not see the whole of the ceremony as they were both too busy. Much of the data of the dispatches, especially the copies of the speeches and of the prayer, had been secured beforehand during the 2-day delay at Ogden. Regarding the gold spike, it is evident that its prominence in all these stories is due to its intrinsic value, to the prominence of the donor, and to its having been the "last" spike. The general confusion may also be seen in the fact that the reporters, with one exception, did not note the position of the sun or of the shadows cast, and so do not speak in terms of the actual cardinal points. Their statements must be read in terms of the photographs taken at the time by the 3 official photographers, and also by what may be considered as reasonably possible.1

The Gold Spike. The gold spike was presented by David Hewes of San Francisco, who had become wealthy by leveling the sand ridges and dunes and filling in the water lots. His offer to provide a gold spike was accepted by President Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific R.R. The spike was made and finished by Schulz, Fischer & Mohrig, San Francisco, with a rough gold nugget attached to its end or point. It was reported as 6 inches long, weighing 18 ounces and valued at $350. Its actual description is: 5 5/8 inches long (overall) and 17/32 inches square, 14.13 ounces in weight, 14.292 specific gravity, 13. 377 ounces approximate gold, and 17.6 carats fine. It was inscribed on all 4 sides with the names of the officers and directors, the donor and the salutation, and on the top were the words "The last Spike." The inscription has been printed many times. The spike was on exhibition in San Francisco and later in Sacramento before going to the "front." After the ceremony it was removed from the "last" tie, brought back to California, and returned to the donor in whose possession it remained until it was given in 1892, as part of his art collection, to Stanford University. In 1936 the university deposited the spike in the Wells Fargo Bank, San Francisco, with arrangements for its exhibit daily in the history room; on November 1, 1954, it was returned to the university where it now reposes in the museum.

The spike shows no sledge marks on the head nor any abrasions on the sides or edges as the result of driving in and removal from a tie; the point now shows the irregular edge where the nugget was broken off to be turned into souvenirs; this edge is the length of the width of the spike and is about 1/8 inch wide, indicating the difficulty that would have been experienced had it actually been driven into a tie. The only markings on the spike are the indentations on the head, which tradition says were made by the silver hammer when it was driven into the tie as the last spike. Nor are there any claw marks on or under the head to indicate its removal from a tie. Also there is nothing in connection with the spike to indicate that it is not now in the condition it was in in 1869 when it was returned to Hewes from Promontory. Any markings, sledge marks, claw marks, abrasions on the sides and edges made on that day would have been as highly regarded as the spike itself.2

Miniature Gold Spike Souvenir presented by David Hewes to Benjamin Cox

Miniature Gold "Last Spike" Watch Fob
Presented by David Hewes to his
brother-in-law, Benjamin Cox.
Courtesy Marci Mayer and Bruce C. Cooper.
[Witherells' Image of another Hewes watch fob]

The Second Gold Spike. This spike was overshadowed by the Hewes spike because of its less intrinsic value and because its donor was less well known. Its existence was mentioned by a number of newspapers in both San Francisco and Sacramento when it was on exhibition, but after that it was not mentioned as such during the presentation of the 4 ceremonial spikes, and was only included anonymously as one of the "two gold spikes" used on that day. It was presented to President Stanford by Frank Marriott, proprietor of the San Francisco News Letter. It was described as about 5 inches in length, weighing about 9 1/2 ounces and valued at about $200, and was inscribed: "With this spike the San Francisco News Letter offers its homage to the great work which has joined the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This month — May, 1869." Unfortunately no copies of the News Letter of May 1869 are known to be in existence, therefore all knowledge of it rests on the notices in the other papers.

The only direct reference to the fate of the second gold spike, so far found, is the statement in the Sacramento Bee that Dodge received this spike while Stanford received the gold spike and the silver sledge. Its fate beyond this point is unknown.3

The Nevada Silver Spike. This spike, mentioned by all reporters, had been ordered suddenly and presumably by Commissioner J. W. Haines early in May 1869; the order was given to the E. Ruhling & Co., assayers, Virginia City, who provided the silver and supervised its manufacture by Robert Lodge of the Dowling Blacksmith Shop on May 5th. During the forging, the papers reported that over 100 persons each struck 1 or more blows with sledges. It was said to be about 6 inches long, 3/4 inches square with a 11/, inch head, weighed 10 1/2 ounces (one paper said 10 1/4), and was made from 25 ounces of silver. The assayer reported its fineness as "50 gold and 942 silver." It was in a somewhat rough condition, unpolished, and bore only the stamp of "E. Ruhling & Co." When completed, it was taken by C. von Gorder in a buggy 20 miles to Reno, where he arrived just in time to catch the delayed Sacramento special to Promontory, and was there handed to Commissioner Haines. After the ceremony, its return to Nevada was reported 3 days later: that G. T. Gage arrived in Virginia City "early yesterday [May 11] bringing with him the Nevada silver spike driven at the point where the connection was made between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads. After a train passed over them both the gold spike of California and silver spike of Nevada were taken out and iron spikes substituted. The last spike will be carefully preserved." Within 10 days the spike was somewhat remodeled, the "E. Ruhling & Co." stamp was removed, and it was polished and inscribed with "To Leland Stanford President of the Central Pacific Railroad. To the iron of the East and the gold of the West Nevada adds her link of silver to span the continent and wed the oceans.... It was placed in a neat case fashioned to fit it" and was on exhibition on May 23 in the Nye & Co. store, jewelers. Beyond this point its story was lost until it turned up in Stanford University's museum. The university reports an absence of evidence as to when and by whom it came into its possession. From the salutation of the inscription it may be inferred that, at once or at an early date, it was sent to Stanford who treasured it with the silver sledge, and together they came in the 1890's to the new university where they were joined by the gold spike when it arrived from the Hewes heirs.

The silver spike is identical in length and size to the Hewes gold spike with a slight difference in the head, and has the above inscription on one side but with no other wording. The spike shows no evidence of sledge marks on the head nor claw marks under the head, nor scratches on the sides and edges from having been driven into and pulled out of a tie; but the head has about 8 small prick marks which might have been made by some pointed instrument — not by a sledge — or may have been made in packing for transportation.4

The Arizona Iron-Silver-Gold Spike. The reporters record the presentation of this spike by Gov. A. K. P. Safford but give no description or data as to the spike itself. One Arizona paper, however, quotes the San Francisco Bulletin as stating that on an unmentioned date there had been exhibited at D. W. Laird's jewelry store at 610 Market

a beautiful spike which will be presented to the Central Pacific Railroad Company as Arizona's tribute to the great triumph of the age. The spike is six inches in length, three-quarters of an inch thick and is 1 1/2 inches across the head, and weighs 10 1/4 ounces. The gold and silver used are of the finest quality and the workmanship is very creditable. The following inscription is engraved upon this the last spike: "Ribbed with iron, clad in silver and crowned with gold Arizona presents her offering to the enterprise that has banded a continent, dictated a pathway to commerce. Presented by Governor Safford."

The reporters indicate that Arizona Territory itself was unaware of the spike: "Our new governor A. K. P. Safford was present at the laying of the last rail and driving of the last spike. We are told that he presented in the name of the Territory a spike of gold, silver and iron with an appropriate sentiment." The governor had been newly appointed and on May 10, 1869, had not yet been in his new district; in fact he did not reach it until July 8. The spike was removed with the others when the laurel tie was replaced after the ceremony, but what became of it is unknown, even by the present Arizona authorities. It could be inferred that it was returned to the governor, who brought it back to California with him on his way by boat from San Francisco to San Diego, in transit overland to Yuma and his new station.5

Other Ceremonial Spikes. The report in Leslie's mentions 2 gold and 2 silver spikes furnished by Montana, Idaho, California, and Nevada, but without identification as to which state gave which type. There was also a tradition that Utah presented one; however, no evidence has been found of any spikes other than those already noted, and the present authorities in these states report no knowledge on the subject. The rumor no doubt resulted from the confused and congested reporting conditions of that day.6

The Lemon Spike. On August 13, 1954, the iron spike of David Lemon arrived at the history room of the Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco from Illinois, where it had been preserved since 1869 by Lemon, his son and assigns, the latter presenting it in 1954 to the bank to be placed beside the gold spike with which it was closely associated. It is an ordinary iron spike of its day, 5 1/2 inches long and roughly 1/2 inch square, with one side of the head raised by the claw which removed it from the tie. The small glass-topped box containing the spike also contained the following affidavit:

To Whom It May Concern: This is the original and last iron spike driven in the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad on May 10, 1869. As fireman on the first engine over it, I was an eyewitness to the occasion. This spike was driven last, then drawn, thereby making a hole for the gold spike. Afterward the gold spike was removed and this same iron spike redriven in the hole, and by me asking Sup[erintenden]t H. M. Hoxie for this as a souvenir, Supt. Hoxie had the track foreman re-pull it and handed it to me for the service I rendered Supt. Hoxie in a former time. I have since handed it down to my son, O. E. Lemon, and it is his property. Through courtesy it will be loaned to the Whiteside-Griswold Memorial Library of White Hall for the time being. S/s David Lemon. Subscribed and sworn before me at White Hall, Ills., this 10th day of May, A.D., 1924. J. D. Rowe, Notary Public.

The following statement accompanied the spike

To Whom It May Concern: This spike is the property of K. W. Vanderpool, until his death, or until he otherwise disposes of it and then only to William Lee Dawdy, to whom it has been promised. It was given to me by Otis Lemon, son of the late David Lemon who was present at the gold spike ceremony and whose account of the episode is contained inside this box. S/s K. W. Vanderpool

Some questions must be raised regarding statements in the affidavit: (1) Lemon mentions that he was the fireman on the first engine over the junction but without giving the engine number, as he does in an interview in the same month in which the affidavit was signed — No. 117. From photographs taken at that time, it is known that No. 119 first crossed over the joint. (2) It would not have been the last spike driven, as the last one was driven by Stanford and Durant; it could have been the last one driven in the tie which replaced the laurel tie, especially if only one replacement was needed to accommodate the souvenir hunters. (3) The spike could not have made the hole for the gold spike, as those holes were made by an auger. Part of the iron spike is larger at the point than the gold spike, and a hole made by it would have been a very snug fit for the latter, because of the contraction of the wood after its redrawal; likewise, some marking would be expected on the sides and/or edges of the gold spike, but of which there is no indication. (4) Also this iron spike could not have been re-driven in the original hole after the gold spike had been removed, because the laurel tie, into prepared holes in which the gold and silver spikes were dropped, was removed and replaced by an ordinary tie. Undoubtedly the iron spike was driven in the replaced tie, and probably in the same position occupied by the gold spike; this is on the assumption that there was only 1 replaced tie. At least it could have been 1 of the 4 last iron spikes driven in the replacement.

On November 1, 1954, the Lemon iron spike was given by the Wells Fargo Bank to Stanford University to join the gold spike upon its return to the museum where it now keeps company with the gold and silver spikes and the silver sledge.7

The Silver Sledge. The silver "pick," maul or sledge, as described by the reporters when it was on exhibition in San Francisco and Sacramento, was "the kind used in driving railroad spikes," with a hickory handle, and made by Conroy & O'Connor; it was "heavily plated with silver which was done by Vanderslice & Co.," both San Francisco firms. It was presented by the Pacific Express Co. in whose office it was on exhibition before going to Sacramento on its way to the "front."

The sledge is now and has long been in the possession of Stanford University. The head has an over-all length of 6 3/4 inches divided into the base part, 3 inches long, with a round head 1 3/4 inches in diameter; and the pointed part 3 3/4 inches long, with a head 1/2 inch in diameter. It is stamped "Conroy & O'Connor." The silver plating now shows breaking, thus exposing the iron beneath. The 2 heads of the sledge show no evidence of blows in driving the spikes, nor of their striking the rail instead of the last spike at the first blow given by Stanford as reported. Any blow struck by this sledge must have been very gentle, serving only as a token blow. The part it may have played in the driving must have been symbolical only.8

The Laurel Tie. The ceremonial laurel tie was presented by West Evans, tie-contractor for the Central Pacific. It may have been cut by P. R. Thayer of Piedmont from trees on the side of Mount Tamalpais, yet one reporter has it coming from Santa Cruz. It was prepared and polished by Strahle & Hughes, billiard-table manufacturers in San Francisco; it was about 7 1/2 feet in length and 8 x 6 inches in width and thickness, and had an 8 x 6 inch silver plate on the top and in the center, and was without silver bands on the ends (as one reporter stated). The plate was inscribed: "The last tie laid on the completion of the Pacific Railroad, May, 1869," with the list of officers and directors, together with the names of the maker and the donor.

The tie was on exhibition in both San Francisco and Sacramento before going on the Stanford special train to Promontory. Holes were bored in it to receive the ceremonial spikes, as said above. One story, which must be questioned, has it that the holes were made by driving spikes in the proper places and that this was done on the Stanford special on the way to the "front." The holes were very probably made by a 3/4 inch auger, or larger, after arriving at Promontory and during the two-day delay in the celebration. Auger holes are mentioned by many of the reporters, but whether holes for each rail were opposite or alternate is not known; it is assumed that the holes were in the usual position for spikes. After the ceremony and after the engines had passed over it, the tie was removed and brought back to Sacramento where it remained in the railroad shop until, in 1890, it was taken to the Southern Pacific's main offices in the Flood Building, San Francisco, where it was stored in the office of one of the officials until it was burned in the 1906 San Francisco fire.9

The Iron Tie. One reporter, who was present, stated that the Union Pacific had "a fancy iron tie from the East on which the California laurel sleeper will be laid." No other reference to it has been found; yet the attitude of this line, especially that of Dodge, regarding the road holding its own ceremony, would make the existence of this tie a possibility. However, the photograph taken after the rails and ties had been placed, but before the ceremonial driving, shows no place under the joint where the laurel tie was to be placed, sufficiently deep to accommodate another tie, unless the iron tie was very thin. No reporter mentions it in connection with the tie ceremony. If an iron tie existed it must have been intended for a separate ceremony, to be conducted at this or some other time and place.10

Wiring for the Broadcasts. The reporters are in general agreement as to some sort of wiring of the hammer and the spike for broadcasting the blows over the Western Union system. Nothing has been learned as to who initiated the idea of a broadcast nor when the agreement was reached; the first notice found of such an arrangement is dated May 4 in Sacramento. The wiring work would take some time, and so must have been done, with a regular sledge and a regular spike, before the ceremony began. The reporters indicate that the wiring was actually done by F. L. Vandenberg of the Union Pacific, with the help of the Central Pacific's telegraph operator H. Sigler. The sledge was to be handled by Stanford, who was to strike the initial blow for the broadcast and who would naturally stand on his side — the south side — of the tie; consequently it would be wired to the Central Pacific line, with the spike wired to the Union Pacific wires. The regular telegraph wires were also connected with the key of the operator who made the systemwide broadcast.

A. J. Russell, Laying of Last Rail, NARA
Stage setting before ceremony, showing C.P. wood-burning Jupiter on the left, and coal-burning U.P. 119 
on the right.  "Wild" flag on Jupiter and national emblem above man on pole indicate strong breeze blowing 
at the time.  End of C.P. ceremonial rail about an inch below U.P. rail at joint, below which is shown place 
for laurel ceremonial tie; ties are untamped.  Telegrapher's table stands near rail joint on ground, below level
of rail.  Engines show no decorations.  Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

For the details of the wiring, the reporters' stories — that the wires were connected to the silver sledge and to the gold spike — must be questioned. The time factor as recorded and reported in Washington, D. C., would not permit the wiring of these 2 objects after their presentation, if the stories were questioned for no other reasons. As indicated above, the congestion and confusion of the unprepared ceremony made careful observation by the reporters impossible. So reliance must be placed on the statement of A. L. Bowsher, the Union Pacific general foreman of telegraph, even though his statement was made 57 years later. Also Bowsher's narrative seems reasonable and in conformity with the other events. The sledge, according to him, was one in regular use; on the head was wired a sheet of copper to improve the contact, to which the wires were attached, twisted around the handle and run to the Central Pacific line. The spike was a regular spike with the head "carefully polished" to provide a good contact; it was partly driven into the tie next south of the laurel tie, and connected with the Union Pacific wires. In 1926 Bowsher drew a sketch of the wiring of the sledge and the spike for Earl Heath of the Southern Pacific public relations office. Whether these wires were connected directly with the wires of the two roads, as they very probably were, or to the key of the operator is unknown.11

The Date of Ceremony. By May 1 the Central Pacific had reached its junction point and awaited the building of the last few miles of the Union Pacific which had flood, rock and bridge difficulties in getting into the basin. The date of the Junction was set for May 8, but 2 days before this date new troubles arose for the Union Pacific at Piedmont where the car in which Dr. T. C. Durant, the vice-president, was riding was disconnected from the train and shunted onto a side line by some 400 workers (one reporter says 500) who demanded their pay, unpaid since January 1, and threatened the life of Durant and of the operator who sent Durant's wire for the money, if he, the operator, should wire for soldiers instead. The next day the $80,000 requested by Durant arrived, the men were paid and Durant released. So the ceremony was postponed to Monday May 10. Stanford and his group had arrived on May 8; the Union Pacific people kindly arranged to take those who cared to accept the offer, to Ogden during the delay. It was at Ogden that the reporters collected much of their data and copies of the prayer and speeches to be given on the 10th. During this waiting period the Union Pacific completed their line to within one rail length of the western line, built a siding and also a "Y."12

A. J. Russell, Laying of Last Rail, NARA
William Henry Jackson #714, detail. Promontory Summit, Utah, June 30 or July 1, 1869Courtesy USGS.

Hour of the Driving of the Last Spike. In the absence of present-day time zones and of the synchronizing of time pieces, some question arises as to the hour of driving the last spike. At Promontory it appears to have been about 12:45; in Virginia City it was 12:30; in Cheyenne it was 1: 53; in San Francisco "precisely" 11:46, and another reporter gave it, as 11:44:37 a.m.; in Washington, D. C. it was 2:47 when "done" was received. The slight difference is no doubt due to the lack of time-piece regulation.13

Attendance. The dispatches of the reporters show a wide divergence as to the number of people present — from 500 to 3,000, with 30,000 expected. Study of the photographs taken at the time indicates between 500 or 600 as the probable number in attendance.

The bulk of the Chinese and other workers who had completed the line by May 1 had been shunted westward to improve certain points of the line, leaving only a few, perhaps a dozen, to do the grading, lay the ties and drive the few spikes of the west rail, lay the east rail for the ceremony, and replace the laurel tie. The bulk of the Union Pacific workmen had also been shunted to eastern points for line improvement.

At Ogden the reporters learned that the U. S. 21st infantry was on its way to the San Francisco presidio. They reported 5 companies, a surgeon, and a quartermaster, and also a few cavalry officers; one reporter gave the number of soldiers as 352, and another as 500. The implication is that all of these men were present at the ceremony of driving the last spike on May 10. One reporter, however, mentions only part of the regiment as arriving at the scene in time for the driving, and this is in keeping with the number of men that can be estimated from the photographs. If all were present, which is very doubtful, only about 3 companies were on parade for the photograph. The only company which can be identified as having been present is Company K.

The number of women present also varies among the reporters — from 1 to 20. From the lists of the reporters, 21 can be identified by name. The photograph shows only 2, perhaps 3. Most of the women were the wives of officers or visitors, a few were unmarried, and four were young girls.

Two persons present indicated the closing of one period of transportation and the opening of a new one. S. V. Geltz and J. B. Kenny, Wells Fargo stage drivers, drove their last runs on their routes, the latter after 12 years of service, and the former with 8.14

Decorations. Many of the reporters speak of the bunting and decorations on the engines, coaches, and tents, and that when the engines "nosed" over the laurel tie they were joined by ribbons. A study of the photographs indicates no decorations of any kind in evidence, especially none on the engines. Only one reporter mentions a detail — that F. L. Van Denburgh raised the national emblem (on the telegraph pole near the junction) at 7 a.m.15

The Point Where Construction Ended and Maintenance Began. The logical point would seem to be when the engines passed over the joint as indicating its use for traffic, and one reporter evidently had this in mind when he wrote that "the locomotives in turn crossed over the magic tie and the union was consumated forever." But the question arises as to the replacement of the laurel tie with a regular one and spiked for the regular traffic. Maintenance implies replacements and repairs necessitated by regular use; the replacement of the laurel tie was still part of the construction-completion ceremony and its replacement was not due to impairment by traffic use. It seems reasonable to take this replacement as the end of the construction, or the last of the several replacements before regular traffic began near 5 o'clock when the Central Pacific train passed over it, in order to use the Union Pacific Y and begin its return to Sacramento. The number of replacements is not known, but the inference from the reports is that there were more than one. Each replacement meant the new driving of the last spikes, and no doubt this was done by some unknown son of Han.

The question of completion was later raised by the Union Pacific, as it was related to the company's reception of federal subsidies and the payment of 5% interest on its net earnings until the bonds were repaid. In 1879 the U. S. supreme court decided for November 6, 1869, as the date of completion. The completion for legal and financial reasons does not affect the celebration of the completion of the tracks for traffic between the east and the west.16

The Site. Promontory, also called at that time Promontory Summit, Promontory Point, and Promontory Station, was a plateau in the Promontory Mountains just north of where the range projects southward into Salt Lake. The reporters describe the basin as about 10 miles in diameter (one reporter says 3) and surrounded on 3 sides with peaks, covered with sage brush and grass, and without water which on that day had to be transported 8 miles to the point of celebration. The track ran from SW to NE through the basin and fairly close to the eastern edge; and the rails for the celebration, judging from the shadows on the photograph taken at noon, ran almost due north and south. The day was sunny with a few clouds and a slight breeze; the temperature was 69° in the shade of the Central Pacific telegraph car. By the time of the celebration, about 20 tents and shacks had been erected on both sides of the track but most of them on the west side. Both roads had laid switches; the Union Pacific had also laid a Y, and on the 10th each road had at least 2 engines and their coaches.

The junction point was the highest point of the road in the basin and was about 3 1/2 miles eastward of the end of the 10-mile-and-58-feet track laid by the Chinese in 1 day of about 12 hours, and was also a few miles south and west of the northernmost point reached by the road between Omaha and Sacramento. At the junction point the ground was quite level, especially beyond the west rail, while on the east side the photograph shows a drop of about 3 feet perhaps made by the grading.

Since the general course of the roads was east and west, the reporters at the junction referred to the north and south sides of the tracks without observing the position of the sun or its shadows cast.17

Jupiter from #119, May 10,  1869
Stage-setting for driving of last spike.
Courtesy Steve Heselton Collection.

The Stage Setting. From the photographs and the statements of a few reporters, it may be inferred that the level ground, westward of the west rail, used by the soldiers while at parade-rest and beyond whom were the tents and shacks, formed the back-stage setting for the celebration; and the slight drop from the east rail was the part held open for spectators and photographers. This would imply that the east rail was the center of the scene, while nearby were the telegrapher's table and key so as to give him an unobstructed view of the driving of the last spike which he could broadcast over his wires. This east side of the rail and the east end of the ties would be the place of honor for the driving of the ceremonial last spike and the dropping of the gold spike (Hewes) into the laurel tie. It would be here that Stanford and Durant stood on opposite sides of the tie dividing the two roads and probably on the same, outside, side of the rail.

A photograph shows this east rail to have been without spikes and fishplates, with the end of the loose rail about 1 1/2 inches below the end of the Union Pacific rail. It is below this joint that the photograph shows the open space for the laurel tie; from another photograph it is seen that the corresponding joint on the west rail is over the next and adjoining west tie.

Driving the Last Spike. Consideration may now be directed to reconstructing the actual "driving" of the gold spike and the last spike, reliance being placed on the dispatches of that day and on the statements written long afterwards by persons present. A determining factor in this reconstruction is the recorded times of the telegrapher's signals during the broadcast.

Oakland Daily Transcript, May 12, 1869No program or arrangements had been made for the celebration on either the 8th or the 10th; only two things seem to have been previously determined: the Western Union broadcast of the blows and that this should be at noon. As already noted and for the reasons given, a postponement of 2 days had been made. The rivalry of the roads was well known — to the extent that in their building they overlapped parallel tracks some 200 miles before a junction point could be agreed upon and settled by congress. It was reported that Edgar Mills for the Central Pacific and General Dodge of the Union Pacific conferred for over an hour and a half on the 10th in a vain attempt to agree on a joint program, Dodge insisting on having his own, separate celebration of driving the last spike. The impass was broken by Stanford and Durant, highest ranking officials of the 2 lines, about five minutes before the ceremony began. This delay did not interfere with the wiring of the sledge and spike and the preparation for the broadcasting of the blows.18

In spite of differences among the reporters as to the events themselves and especially as to their sequence, the central activity seems to have been the "driving" of the gold and last spikes, the laying of the last rail and placing of the last tie having been preparatory thereto. The central events must then extend from the prayer to the "done" at the last blow, the time of each event being checked by the Washington records of the broadcast: 2:20, 2:27, 2:40, and 2:47.

At about 10:30 the Chinese began the final grading for the last 2 rails, the laying of the ties and rails, the driving of the spikes, and the bolting of the fishplates of the west rail. The last and east ceremonial rail no doubt was bolted at its south end, and perhaps a few spikes were driven near this junction. Also, since the visitors were to "drive" a last iron spike and, as amateurs, they would have had difficulty in starting the spikes, it is quite likely that the Chinese started a number of the iron spikes, as Bowsher stated that the last spike was partly driven for Stanford and Durant. Several reports record the enjoyment of the crowd at the attempts of the visitors to drive their spikes. Near noon this work was finished and the officials of both roads had arrived from the east and the west. The engines, uncoupled from their coaches, were run within a short distance of the ends of their respective rails; the soldiers detrained and marched to the west side of the track where they stood at parade-rest to observe the events and to serve as a background for the stage setting — or at least they were so placed for the photographs. The broadcast wiring had been completed and the table and key for the telegraph operator had been placed at an advantageous point in front and east of the joint. The visitors had collected on all sides of the track and on the engines to the extent that the congestion was especially mentioned by one reporter.

Hart 356At about noon the stage was fairly well set, but to eliminate the congestion Jack Casement of the Union Pacific asked the crowd to withdraw from the rails so that all could see the ceremony, and, to aid in this retirement, the engines advanced closer to the rail ends. At 12:20 the operator notified the Western Union system that in about 20 minutes the last spike would be driven and that all wires should be kept clear. Casement again asked the crowd to retire somewhat for the better observation of all and to enable the photographers to take their pictures. J. H. Strobridge of the Central Pacific and S. B. Reed of the Union Pacific, both general superintendents of their respective lines, carried the laurel tie, the former holding the west end and Reed the east end, and from the east side of the east and last rail they placed it in its position under the final joint.

The central actors then took their places. Mills, who acted as master of ceremony, called the group to order, and introduced the Rev. J. Todd from Massachusetts for the invocation, which took about 2 minutes. At this point, at 12:27, the operator told the system that 3 dots would indicate the first blow and "done" the last blow, and "hats off" during the prayer. During the next 13 minutes the following events must have taken place: the ceremonial driving of the last iron spikes by H. Nottingham of the Michigan Southern & Lake Shore R.R., by W. Sherman of San Francisco and other participants, and finally by Commissioner J. W. Haines of Nevada, who also bolted the last fishplates; then came the adjustment of the laurel and other ties and their tamping after the alignment. At 12:40 the operator answered a question from the cast that "we have done praying. The spike is about to be presented." In the next 7 minutes the central events occurred. Dr. W. H. Harkness in a short talk presented the Hewes gold spike to Durant who "placed it in the auger hole prepared for it," no doubt on the outside of the east rail. No doubt also Harkness presented Durant with the second gold spike for its hole on the inside of the rail, but no reporter recorded this probable fact. Gov. F. A. Tritle of Nevada presented, with a few words, the silver spike to Stanford, who supposedly placed it in another auger hole in the laurel tie at the west rail; and Gov. A. P. K. Safford in like manner presented his ceremonial spike of iron, silver and gold, in the name of Arizona Territory, and also no doubt handed it to Stanford who similarly placed it in the last of the holes in the ceremonial tie. In about 2 1/2 minutes Stanford made his response on the acceptance of the spikes and concluded with "Now, gentlemen, with your assistance we will procede to lay the last tie, the last rail, and drive the last spike." This speech was quite evidently written in Sacramento and distributed to the reporters between the 8th and 10th, and so was not quite in keeping with the fact that the last rail and tie were already in place and the gold "last" spike already "driven."

In these 7 minutes there would only be time for the driving of the last spike — the gold one had already been placed in its auger hole. On behalf of the Union Pacific, General Dodge made a much shorter response in place of Dr. Durant, who had a severe headache and after the last blow retired to his sleeper. Mills made a few remarks, followed by L. W. Coe, of the Pacific Express Co., who in a very few words presented the silver sledge to Stanford. Time would not have permitted the wiring of this sledge and the gold spike after these presentations, as is generally reported in the dispatches and stories of the reporters. Stanford may have given the gold spike or other spikes token touches with the silver sledge, but for the last spike he used the regular and wired maul, standing on the south side of the laurel tie, and no doubt on the outside of the rail, while Durant stood on the north side of the tie and also on the outside of the rail.

It is reasonable to infer that the last spike was 1 only and served both roads, and that Stanford alone used the wired sledge. If the 2 officials stood on opposite sides of the rail, the heads of the silver or regular sledges were of such length that the spike could have been driven across the 3 1/4 inch rail. Perhaps at about 12:45 the operator wired "all ready now," and, after a short pause, the 3 dots for the first blow went over the wires from coast to coast, followed by a single dot for each blow until at 12:47 "done" went out for the final blow. Stanford and Durant both missed the spike at the first blow, so the wired sledge did not work; but W. N. Skilling, the Union Pacific operator at the key, performed the task of sending the 3 dots for the first blow and one for the missed blow of Durant. Whether the final driving home of the spike was done with the wired sledge or not is not known, but probably not, and the operator would have performed his task of noting the blows on the wires. The number of blows driven is unknown; yet a San Francisco paper in a local item mentions 9, without indicating the source of the data. That number may have been correct, but surely not a larger number. Stanford and Durant gave the light token and ceremonial blows; the driving home of the spike was done by general superintendents Strobridge and Reed, but which one gave the actual last blow for the "done" is unknown.19

With the last blow there no doubt were cheers, but how many and how they fitted into the other activities are unknown. The crowd was again asked to retire so that the 3 official photographers could take their pictures. The engines advanced and "nosed" over the laurel tie, the engineers and other persons on the pilots joined hands and also broke a bottle of champagne — some say it was wine — over the tie as a christening, and pictures were taken of the "nosed" engines. One reporter indicated that Stanford and Durant stood on the pilots of the two engines and joined hands for the photographers; this, however, may be questioned. Cheers now or during this period were lustily given for the new road, for both lines, for the officers and directors of each system, for the workmen, the flag, for the President in Washington, for the ladies, and no doubt for other persons and things.

Two more ceremonies remained: the ceremonial driving of the spikes by the military officers and the ladies, and the engines crossing over the joint. Mrs. Strobridge is mentioned by name as having given a token blow on 1 of the silver spikes. The Nevada spike in the Stanford museum shows no evidence of blows on its head; the spike she struck may have been that of Arizona if it was a real blow that she gave. Mrs. Currier and perhaps other ladies also participated in this part of the ceremony.

A.A. Hart. U.S. 21st Infantry Band.  May 10, 1869.
Alfred A. Hart stereoview #359 detail, "The Monarch from the East."
showing the U.S. 21st Infantry Band in front of UPRR Locomotive #119.
Promontory Summit, UT, May 10, 1869. Courtesy National Park Service.

For the military participation, the diary of Lt. J. C. Currier of Co. K was found by Miss Irene Simpson of the Wells Fargo history room in 1954 in the possession of Mrs. Harriet Currier Hale (daughter of the Lt.) of San Mateo, California, and now of Massachusetts. That portion of the diary concerning May 10 is as follows:

We have just witnessed the laying of the last rail. Crowds began assemblying at 7 a.m. There were several thousands present and ceremonies were opened with a prayer by a minister from Mass. A covered wood tie, beautifully polished and appropriately engraved was then brought out and placed in position by the highest officials of each R.R. A spike of gold was then produced with a silver hammer. A telegraph wire was attached to the spike — at a given signal, one, two, three strokes were made with the silver hammer. The telegraph wires were so arranged that the taps were flashed to all parts of the U. S. so that eager thousands in all the great cities knew the rail was laid and the R.R. complete. Truly it was worth the trip from New Hampshire alone to see this great achievement. Two beautifully decorated engines, one of each road advanced until the guards touched — the engineers climbed out and broke a bottle of champagne across the space and shook hands. Nattie [Mrs. Currier] and I were permitted to give a stroke — I used my sword hilt. Our regiment marched up and stood at Parade rest while our pictures were taken, then our regimental band played.
A few days later the regiment arrived at the San Francisco Presidio.20

The lieutenant and the other officers used their sword hilts in giving their ceremonial blows to the ceremonial spikes; 5, perhaps, 6 blows of different strengths struck the gold spike (the Hewes) sufficiently hard to leave marks on the head. Doubts have been raised as to whether sword hilts were of such construction and their weight sufficient to make the indentations now seen on the gold spike. The Smithsonian Institution has army swords of that year with tangs protruding beyond the hilts, and their weight is quite similar to that found necessary to make similar indentations in gold bullion by the superintendent of the U. S. mint in San Francisco.21

The present Southern Pacific and Union Pacific officials have no knowledge of any instrument in use in 1869 which could have made the present indentations on the gold spike.

The concluding ceremony was the crossing over of the joint by the 2 engines. The Central Pacific Jupiter backed up from the "nosed" position and the Union Pacific engine No. 119 crossed over the junction and returned to its side while Jupiter made its crossing, thus symbolizing the completion of the construction for the traffic between the east and the west.22

In the meantime, telegrams were sent by Stanford and Durant to President Grant and many wires were received from various persons and states.

After the crossing by the engines, the ceremonial spikes were lifted from their auger holes in the laurel tie and the tie itself removed and replaced with a regular tie, tamped, and spiked with regular spikes, one of which was retrieved by David Lemon. The gold (Hewes) spike and the silver hammer were taken by Stanford, and the second gold spike was given to General Dodge. The Nevada silver spike was given to G. T. Gage who took it back to that state, and the Arizona Territory spike evidently was given to Governor Safford. The tie was returned to California and placed in the Sacramento shop.

The replaced tie was quickly reduced to souvenirs by the visitors and a replacement with a new tie and last spikes became necessary. Some reporters mention further replacements in the wake of the souvenir hunters, that the Chinese also cut part of a tie into mementos, and also that even the last rail was broken up into relics by the soldiers. At least one replacement could be expected and perhaps a second. Who drove the last spike on the last replacement is unknown — possibly it was one of the Chinese workmen. After the formal ceremonial, the Central Pacific officials joined the Union Pacific group in the latter's car for a series of toasts; and one reporter stated that Strobridge gave a dinner in his car to the Chinese workmen and foreman in honor of their feat in building the road in record time.23

By 5 o'clock the higher officials of both roads had departed for the east and the west.

Such is the possible reconstruction of the events and their sequence based on the statements of those present, on photographs taken at the time, on an analysis of the probability of occurrences and their order of occurrence, and especially on the broadcast time-schedule of the Western Union office in Washington.

Conclusion. The gold (Hewes) spike was dropped into an auger hole, it was not driven; it was the first of the 4 "last" ceremonial spikes and was not the last spike driven; it was not wired for the broadcast; and the markings on its head were not made by the silver sledge or any sledge but by the tangs of the military sword hilts. There was a second gold spike from California, but what became of it after its presentation to Dodge is unknown. All the ceremonial spikes were dropped into prepared holes, none were driven. The markings on the head of the Nevada silver spike could not have been made by a sledge and what made the present pinpricks on its head is unknown. The silver sledge is silver plated and was used only for ceremonial purposes—perhaps only to touch with token blows 1, several, or all of the ceremonial spikes; it was not wired for broadcasting and shows no evidence of blows struck. The Lemon spike did not make the hole for the gold spike and was not redriven into the laurel tie; it no doubt was one of the 4 spikes driven in the tie which replaced the laurel tie, and probably occupied in it the same position that the gold spike occupied in the laurel tie. Stanford and Durant did not "drive home" the last spike; they gave the first and second, perhaps also the third and fourth blows which actually touched the last spike; the blow for "done" of the broadcast was given by either Strobridge or Reed. The last spike driven was of iron and was wired to the Union Pacific telegraph line, as the regular sledge used by Stanford was wired to the Central Pacific wire. The laurel tie with the ceremonial spikes was removed after the crossing by the engines and was replaced by a standard tie with regular iron spikes. Who drove the last of the replacement spikes is not known but probably it was one of the Chinese workmen.

The reports of the day that the gold spike was the last, that it was wired and was driven with the silver sledge which was wired, became a tradition at once, apparently because of the widespread buildup in the papers and the crowded condition of the onlookers which prevented observation of the events and their sequence; even Dodge and Dillon, whose high official standing would have entitled them to an advantageous observation point, accepted the tradition in their stories written long afterwards.

There are still a number of problems connected with the events of that day to be analyzed from the conflicting statements of those present.



1. Unless otherwise stated, citations are to San Francisco newspapers; thus: Alta for Alta California, Bull. for Bulletin, Chron. for Chronicle, Exam. for Examiner, etc. The Sacramento Bee and the Union are cited as Bee, Union respectively; the Nevada Territorial Enterprise as Enterprise. The diarists were J. C. Currier, C. R. Savage, and L. H. Eicholtz. S. D. Dillon, G. M. Dodge, E. L. Sabin, and J. D. B. Stillman, all eyewitnesses, wrote articles then or later. A. L. Bowsher and David Lemon gave interviews, much later, as to the events of that day. Most of these sources are in the Bancroft Library, Berkeley. Earl Heath and E. C. Schafer, of the public relations departments of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific respectively, have an abundance of data on the Promontory ceremonies.

After note 2, below, the year 1869 is understood, unless otherwise stated.

2. The general literature on the subject is not listed here. See Herald, May 5, 1869; Utah Reporter, May 12, 1869. Chron., May 5, 1869, alone mentions the nugget as attached to the head of the gold spike instead of to the point, and that it weighed 7 ounces. There is no evidence as to the source of the gold for the Hewes spike. Commercial dust or nuggets would imply a value Of $214-49, without the "nugget." The papers generally reported the spike's value as between $360 and $414, but without indicating whether this included the "nugget."

3. Bee, May 7 and 13; Bull., May 7; Call, May 4; Chron., May 5; Exam., May 5; Herald, May 5; Idaho World, May 13; Enterprise, May 9 and 12; Times, May 5; Union, May 5; Utah Reporter, May 12 (3 days earlier it mentioned the 2 gold spikes as having been "presented by the press of Sacramento"); Leslie's, June 5, p. 7 3; Overland, 111, 82.

4. Alta, May 12; Arizona Miner, May 7.9, June 5 and 12; Gold Hill News, May 7 and 12; Enterprise, May 6, 7, 13, and 23; Utah Reporter, May 12; White Pine News, May 13 and 23, Overland, op. cit. One reporter stated that the spike was inscribed at the time of the presentation, and gave the presentation talk practically in the words of the present inscription. From the surplus silver used in making the spike, duplicates were made by the Ruhling Co. One was presented to the editor of the Gold Hill News (May 6), and no doubt to other papers; and Governor Safford presented a duplicate to the editor of the Carson Appeal (May 11).

5. Alta, May 12; Arizona Miner, May 20 and June 13; Arizonian, July 10; Bull., May 11 and 13; Enterprise, May 9, 12, 13; Utah Reporter, May 12; Overland, op. cit. (the item in the Bull. to which reference was there made has not been located in that paper).

6. Leslie's, June 5, P. 23; Scribner's, Aug., 1892, P. 258.

7. By accident I was in the history room of the Wells Fargo Bank on Aug- 13, 1954, when the express package arrived, and I aided Miss Simpson in removing the packing and the small glass-topped box in which the spike had been preserved. E. C. Schafer (note 1 above) has kindly provided photographs of engines 117 and 119, and also other pictures by which 119 can be identified as the first one to cross the junction. After 55 years, Lemon could easily confuse the numbers 117 and 119, and also incidents of the relation of the iron to the gold spike, but he would be less likely to confuse the driving of the spike into the replaced tie.

8. Alta, May 8; Bull., May 11; Exam., May 6; Herald, May 10; Union, May 5 and 6; Times, May 10. The metal length of the typical spike maul of that day was 6 3/4 in.; the handle 33 in. (overall). Similar tools of today, according to S. P. officials, have 14- and 15-in. metal heads and 32- and 36-in. handles (overall), for use with the larger spikes and 6-in. rails.

9. Alta, May 5; Bee, May 4; Bull., May 11 and 13; Chron., May 5; Call, May 4; Exam., May 4; State Capitol Reporter, May 11; Union, May 10; Utah Reporter, May 12; Harper's, July, p. 293; Leslie's, June 5, p. 23; Calif. Hist. Soc. Quarterly, Dec. 1945, p. 368, note 5. There is a tradition that Hewes, who provided the gold spike, also provided the laurel tie or at least paid for it; but no evidence has been found to that effect. The donor was, without doubt, West Evans.

10. Alta, May 10; Sacramento Record, May 11.

11. Bee, May 4; Bull., May 11; Chicago Tribune, May 11; Chron., May 12; Times, May 12; Union, May 11; Utah Reporter, May 9 and 12; Leslie's, June 5, p. 19; Overland, op. cit-, p. 83; Eicholtz's diary, p. 61. Engineers journal, July, P. 292, says the wire was attached to the rail instead of to the spike; Deseret News, May 19, states that Supt. W. B. Hibbard of the Western Union had the wires attached. Bowsher's interview with Heath is in South. Pac. Bull., May 1926.

12. It would appear that the Union Pacific officials did not wish the Piedmont affair to be generally known, but the reporters released the story. Alta, May 16; Bull., May 10; Chron., May 11; Exam., May 12; Herald, May 10; Times, May 10; Union, May 11; Rocky Mt. News, May 7; Sacramento Record, May 11.

13. Alta, May 11, 19, and 25; Bull., May 10 and 21; Chron., May 11 (giving the first blow as of 11:44:37 a.m.); Exam., May 12; Figaro (San Francisco), May 11; Enterprise, May 11; Savage's Diary, May 4, 11; Eicholtz's diary, May 10, with his watch still set to eastern time; Leslie's, June 5, p. 19; Scribner's, Aug. 1892, p. 258; Rocky Mt. News, May 10.

14. Alta, May 11 and 12; Bull., May 10 and 13; Chron., May 11 and 12; Exam., May 11; Herald, May 12; Times, May 11 and 12; State Capitol Reporter, May 14; Enterprise, May 12; Union, May 11; Southern Pacific Bulletin, May 1926; Overland, op. cit., p. 83.

15. Enterprise, May 12.

16. Ibid.; 99 U. S. Reports, 402 ff; 25 Law Ed., 274 ff, 287 ff.

17. Alta, May 12; Arizona Miner, June 5; Bee, May 13; Bull., May 3 9 5, and 7; Chron., May 11; Deseret News, May 19; Exam., May 8 and 11; Herald, May 10 and 13; Enterprise, May 12; Times, May 11; Union, May 5; Utah Reporter, May 12; Leslie's, June 5, p. 23; Scribner's, see note 13. Yet Dodge, writing long afterwards, says "it was a bright but cold day." There is also some difference among the reporters as to the distance between the engines — 90 to 120 ft., or 2 rail lengths; this difference may have been due to the different positions taken by the engines at different times during the ceremony. The rails were 28 and 30 ft. long and 3 1/4 in. high, and the ties were laid 2400 per mile on the plains and 2500 and 2640 in the mountains. In the photograph, about 24 ft. of the last rail can be seen.

18. Alta, May 10; Bull., May 13; State Capitol Reporter, May 14; Times, May 11; Utah Reporter, May 12. Dillon in Scribner's, Aug. 1892, stated that the arrangements were made on very short notice. The last rails for the ceremony were really those of the Central Pacific. It is only by rare chance that both or even one of the stock rails would be of the proper length and require no cutting or boring for holes for the fishplates. The witnesses state that Stanford and Durant stood opposite to each other, but they differ as to whether they stood on the west (north) or east (south) side of the rail, and only one reporter speaks of their being on opposite sides of the tie. Questioned also must be the family tradition that Dr. John B. Campbell was "the one who actually drove the Gold Spike while his bosom friend Mr. Leland Stanford made the speech" (letter of June 22, 1950, from his daughter, Mrs. Blanche Salter, of Clearfield, Utah, to Miss Irene Simpson).

19. Bee, May 13; Chron., May 11 (with a local item in which 9 blows are reported); Portland Oregonian, May 11. The Rocky Mt. News of May 10 says " 3 strokes drove the spike," and the Carson telegraph office heard the indications of five blows (Carson Appeal, May 11.)

20. See Hist. Register, U. S. Army (Washington, D. C., 1903),I, 345, for career of John Charles Currier.

21. (note 1 above) learned from the dept. of the army, West Point Academy, and the Smithsonian Institution that six types of military swords were in use in 1869. M. L. Peterson of the latter organization gave the names and weights of swords in use in 1869 and a sketch of the one whose tang could have made the indentations. Ross P. Buell, supt., U. S. mint, San Francisco, in a letter of Feb. 10, 1955, stated that a 2-pound hammer, dropped 20 inches, made an indentation in a gold bullion bar similar in composition to the gold spike, which was of the same depth as the deepest indentation on the spike.

22. Some of the reporters stated that the engines were recoupled to their coaches before making the crossing, but this may be questioned as the engines alone would serve equally well for the symbolic crossing of traffic between the east and west.

23. Bull., May 13

See: Comments on J.N. Bowman's article “Driving the Last Spike at Promontory, 1869” by Bob Spude, National Park Service.PDF

"Rendezvous at Promontorry: A New Look at the Golden Spike Ceremony" by Michael W. Johnson PDF

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