For the first time in almost 150 years, the “crown jewels” of railroading are back together again — a trio of gold and silver spikes that (literally and figuratively) united a deeply divided country after the Civil War. The site of their reunion: Omaha.
First, let’s backtrack a little.
On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah, to complete the Transcontinental Railroad, a merger of east and west that transformed the country within days. For example, travel from New York to San Francisco was reduced from six months to 10 days, and at a fraction of the cost.
The meeting of the lines was, to put it mildly, a momentous event. And momentous events, as we know, call for shiny objects.
On that day at Promontory, four ceremonial spikes (two gold, one silver, one gold, silver and iron) were hammered into a wood railroad tie that joined the lines. Before the festivities ended, the four fancy spikes (each 5 to 6 inches in length) were removed and replaced with regular iron ones.
The four spikes were then scattered about the United States, each taking a different path across the rest of American history. One spike was lost, possibly in an earthquake, but the other three still exist.
The three spikes are now on display at Joslyn Art Museum’s “The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West,” created in partnership with Union Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs. The photos in the exhibit, along with one of the three spikes, come from the Union Pacific Museum’s collection.
Patricia LaBounty, Union Pacific Museum’s curator, said the tap-tap-tap of one of the special spikes being hammered into wood was “heard” from coast-to-coast.
“There is,” she said, “an argument to be made that the events at Promontory were the first mass media event.”
One hundred years before hundreds of millions gathered around TVs and radios to experience the moon landing, the golden spike sent what was effectively the first live broadcast.
At the ceremony, one of the spikes (the “last spike”) was wired to the transcontinental telegraph line so the nation could “hear” it being tapped into the tie. When the job was done, a Western Union telegrapher sent the message: “D-O-N-E.”
“That told the entire nation at the same time that the railroad was completed,” LaBounty said. “There were parades on either coast. The Liberty Bell was rung.”
Getting these three historically significant spikes to Omaha took some doing, said Toby Jurovics, Joslyn’s chief curator. Though one spike was close by.
The Union Pacific Railroad Museum has had its spike — a gold, silver and iron composite referred to as “the Arizona spike” — since 2003. It’s on permanent loan from the Museum of the City of New York.
Presented by the Arizona territory, the spike was inscribed: “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.”
The other two remaining spikes are on loan from the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.
One is the original golden spike — “the last spike.” Its creation was prompted by a San Francisco contractor, who delivered the spike to former California Gov. Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad, who took the spike to Promontory. One side of the spike reads: “May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”
The other spike, the extant third spike, a silver spike, came from Nevada.
There was also a fourth spike, the missing spike, a gold spike of lower quality. But no one knows what happened to it.
It was supposedly given to Union Pacific’s chief engineer after Promontory, but he made no note of it in his writings.
“There were rumors,” LaBounty said, “that it was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. But nobody knows.”
In any case, nearly 150 years after the fact, three out of four ain’t bad.
LaBounty said she hopes this exhibit and the spikes themselves remind us of our pivotal place in history.
“Council Bluffs has much to be proud of, being established as mile marker zero (the eastern terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad) by Abraham Lincoln,” she said. “Omaha has much to be proud of, being that first mile of track laid by Union Pacific. This is where it began for us. And I think it’s a unique time to celebrate that fact within our own community and what it did in this area and how it changed us as a people and a place.”
Once the exhibit wraps at Joslyn (on Jan. 6), it will travel to Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City, and then to Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California.
But for the spike reunion, Omaha is the end of the line. That display will not travel with the exhibit, each spike heading back home.