Thoughts On Promontory Summit

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Measured against the other spots where American history took a pivot--Fort Sumter, the Grassy Knoll, Ground Zero--Promontory Summit can seem somewhat underwhelming. The historic sight doesn't offer much more than a guest building,  an engine shed shouldering itself against the wind, and a few plaques and benches placed around the yellow plank that marks the spot where in 1869 Leland Stanford drove the last spike in the Transcontinental Railroad . The right-of-way hugs the ground and disappears until one is standing right on top of them. There isn't much, but, there doesn't need to be: These tracks have been judged to be enough of a monument in and of themselves that they need little other commemoration.

I parted ways with the Union Pacific's Boise Turn just long enough to make a visit to what is perhaps the seminal spot in American railroad history . A pilgrimage here has been on my travel list for some time.  Most history courses have attended have noted the significance of this particular place, but didn't do as much to give context for what it meant to have a railroad across the entire nation. Maybe it's just easier to contextualize a tragedy than a point in time where things stopped growing and started flourishing, maybe, as with many other aspects of railroad history, it's hard to begin learning if you don't already have a good working knowledge of the industry.

The driving of the last spike into this line was both a logistical victory--crossing an entire continent at any previous point in history would have taken weeks or months-- as well as a cultural one. The railroad's presence began to close the frontier, allowed settlements to flourish in places that otherwise would have defeated them with a lack of available resources. The completion of the transcontinental railroad also foreshadowed the information age. Telegraph lines put up beside the tracks marked the first time in all of history that individuals on either side of a continent could speak with each other instantly. Railroads were revolutionary as much in moving people and cargo as they were in speeding up the transfer of information, and up to the present day, the industry would continue to be on the cusp of emerging telecommunications technologies.  

Promontory Summit itself is about a half an hour's drive away from any other signs of civilization. Thus far, the site has escaped the tourism-centered clutter that barnacle many other historic sites. In some ways, the isolation of the place seems fitting: It gives a clear sense of how untamed the land was at the time the route was completed, and how much human effort was spent to lay that iron ribbon. On the other hand, though, it seems strange that so much of the history of our nation was charted on this corridor, and yet,  the spot itself remains removed from the civilizations that it supported. 

The nearest venture to the historic site is a jet propulsion laboratory owned by NASA, five or six miles to the east. That feels strangely appropriate. Both ventures pressed into the unknown, harnessed some of the most innovative and most dangerous technology of their day, and promised to unlock entirely new realms for exploration.

I arrived at Promontory Summit about two weeks too early to watch the Park Service fire up the replicas of the Jupiter and 119 for reenactments for the Last Spike ceremony. (For some unknown and unforgivable reason, both of the original locomotives met an ignominious fate at a scrapper's torch sometime in the early 1900s. The faithful replicas were built in the 1970s.) The shop is open for tours, though, and members of the public are free to walk around and observe the final preparations to get the locomotives ready.  Half a dozen men and women volunteering with Americorps are doting over the two locomotives, polishing brass, touching up paint, inspecting the running gear, replacing the apparatus in the cabs.

After we share a conversation about the early injectors installed on the 119, the shop foreman goes to great pains to make it clear that the volunteers are essential to keeping the Jupiter and 119 reincarnations in working order. Their operating schedule would have to be reduced if performing their routine care fell to the paid employees retained to operate and perform more specialized repairs on the engines.  
Losing the volunteers isn’t an abstract fear. Americorps is among the programs slated to lose funding under the budget proposed by the current administration. The park employees could, in theory, find a comparable number of volunteers in nearby Brigham City and Salt Lake City, but organizing a workforce themselves would be far less efficient than working in tandem with the civil service organization. Americorps’ involvement provided more benefits than work hours alone, the foreman said: Few of the volunteers had any interest in railroads or steam locomotives when they began the assignment, but after a time, they realized the value of preserving railroad history.

Promontory Summit feels too remote, too out of the way to be caught up in contemporary politics, but, then, railroads have always been central to the things that make us us. The one takeaway from this is that the planning, building, operation and preservation of the Transcontinental Railroad and Promontory Summit brought so many people together. Far more than other national historic sights, it is a symbol of unity.  

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