Promontory before the crowds

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Golden Spike National Historic Site was mostly quiet on March 31. Up to 20,000 people are expected to attend the 150th anniversary celebration on May 10. Kevin P. Keefe
On the sunny, breezy last day of March, it was hard to believe the tranquil scene in front of me will be filled soon with cars, SUVs, Harleys, motor coaches, vendors, porta potties, and anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people. But that’s just what the experts predict will occur in just six weeks. 

The occasion hardly needs an explanation. For more than a year, the railroad world has been buzzing about the sesquicentennial of the driving of the last spike of the transcontinental railroad, which happened May 10, 1869, here on this barren, windswept spot known as Promontory Summit, Utah. 

Last weekend I couldn’t pass up the chance to revisit Promontory and the Golden Spike National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service. It’s a pilgrimage I first made about 15 years ago. “Pilgrimage” is the right word, given the profound, almost religious attachment some of us have to what happened here. Most historians agree: modern America didn’t exist until the Central Pacific and Union Pacific joined the nation’s continental halves on that day 150 years ago.

I was in Provo to attend the annual spring conference of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. I’m a member of the Center’s board. Our spring event is usually held at Lake Forest College near Chicago, but this year the importance of May 10 compelled us to sponsor “Conversations Transcontinental” at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. The conference coincided with the opening of “After Promontory,” a photography exhibit making the rounds at BYU and several other venues. The title comes from the Center’s new book of the same name, published in cooperation with Indiana University Press.     

On Sunday, several who attended the conference made the long drive out to Promontory. The goal was to hike a portion of both the old Central Pacific and Union Pacific rights of way, just east of the summit, part of a stretch where the two companies built approximately 200 miles of parallel track. There isn’t space here to analyze why this happened, other than to recall the last scene of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Major Clipton could have been talking about the CP and UP when he muttered, “Madness, madness.” Fade to credits.   

At any rate, we gathered at the parking lot marked Big Fill and headed out for an easy 2-mile round-trip hike along the abandoned right of way. Our informal guide was Drake Hokanson, one of the conference presenters and an essayist in the book After Promontory.

Central Pacific's 'Big Fill' west of Promontory, photographed in 2002, is a landmark that's changed little since 1869. Drake Hokanson
Author, historian, and photographer Drake Hokanson stands on the old CP right of way near Promontory. Kevin P. Keefe
Drake spent years teaching photography and non-fiction writing. He’s a formidable observer of the human imprint on the American landscape, perhaps best known for his breakthrough book Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America, first published in 1988. He’s also never at a loss for words, something all of us appreciated as we marched toward the Big Fill, a high, graceful curve CP built to get across the Spring Creek ravine. Adjacent to it, UP built the corresponding “Big Trestle,” torn down a few months later when the two lines were rationalized. 

“This is American hallowed ground,” Drake says, “like Gettysburg, or the Washington Monument, or Donner Pass. It’s part of our deep past. The entire world paid attention to this place in May 1869. To stand here again where it happened, you get some feeling of the power of history and the power of that event.” 

I certainly got that feeling. The climate and landscape of north-central Utah is such that even though erosion takes its toll, it does so slowly. Much of what’s left here, especially on the CP right of way, still looks raw, as if the tracks were pulled up here just a few years ago, not back in 1942.

After our hike the group migrated to the locomotive shop east of the NPS visitors’ center. Inside, several members of the crew were busy attending to various parts of the two 4-4-0s that regularly perform at Promontory. The replicas of CP’s Jupiter and UP’s No. 119 were built in 1979 and so have had plenty of time to acquire the sort of patina that makes them look totally authentic.

I grew up loving big power — Super Power 2-8-4s and New York Central Hudsons and machines like that — but the older I get the more I appreciate the elegance of 19th-century engines, especially the classic lines of these two beauties. On May 10, they’ll be the stars of the show, maybe in spite of UP Big Boy 4014, expected to be parked 52 miles away in Ogden.

Replicas of UP No. 119 and CP's Jupiter rest in the shop at Promontory; they come pilot-to-pilot in daily re-enactments of the Golden Spike ceremony. Kevin P. Keefe
I had a brief chat with volunteer Cole Chisam, who was polishing the check valve for the 119. He’s a young guy, at least from my perspective, and as I walked out of the shop I found myself smiling at steam’s ability to draw new generations of acolytes. Steam has that power, you know, whether it’s a 4-4-0 or a 4-8-8-4.

Promontory was so peaceful, so tranquil, that I kept putting off the urge to get back on the road to Provo. So I made another stop over at the visitors’ center and walked to the spot where Leland Stanford, Grenville M. Dodge, Thomas C. Durant, Samuel M. Montague, and hundreds of others gathered on that dusty, boozy day in 1869. It occurred to me that this is one of those rare historic shrines unsullied by 2019 America. The Alamo and Bull Run should be so lucky. 

I wasn’t finished. The young woman staffing the front desk told me the famous Ten-Mile section of track west of Promontory — where Montague and his men laid 10 miles and 56 feet of track in one a day — was inaccessible, blocked off by cattle gates until June. I got back in the car, muttered “oh, what the hell,” and headed in that direction anyway. 

Eventually I got to the east end of the Ten-Mile section and spent some time leaning against one of those gates, looking west down the gravel right of way toward the shimmering northwest arm of Great Salt Lake. Here, away from the parking lot and the tourists and the kids and accompanied only by meadowlarks and a soft breeze, it was possible to sense that day in May. 

I’ll be back in six weeks, surrounded by the cacophony of the Golden Spike celebration. I’m sure it will be fun and exciting. But I’m glad I got to see Promontory’s quiet side, just as it will remain, long after the party is over.

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