Golden spike, photos from the transcontinental railroad, create a powerhouse exhibit

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, November 25, 2018

OMAHA, Neb. – It’s common knowledge that on May 10, 1869, Central Pacific and Union Pacific locomotives and their entourages met at Promontory Summit, Utah, where a ceremonial golden spike was gently tapped into a laurel tie to commemorate the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The spike would become an iconic emblem marking the completion of this monumental task.

It’s also widely known that a photographer assembled those present for an image of the two locomotives, nose to nose, and with the participants exhibiting as much enthusiasm as can be captured in one moment: With champagne bottles and handshakes offered in exchange. The image would become one of the best- known photos of the 19th century.

What is less known is that there were actually four ceremonial spikes the day the completion was celebrated, and that photographers A.J. Russell (who made the famous champagne picture) and A.A. Hart (and others) were on the job for the CP and UP, documenting the construction long before May 10.

Those revelations and others are evident in a magnificent exhibit called “The Race to Promontory, The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West” at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha through Jan. 6. It’s one of the first physical observances of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the main line between Omaha and Sacramento that will culminate next May in Utah.

I visited the exhibit in Joslyn gallery 15 last week and spoke with chief curator Toby Jurovics about the images.

I expected to be overwhelmed by the display of the golden spike (which usually is on display at the Cantor art museum at Stanford University) and two of its compatriots, the silver Nevada spike (also from Stanford) and the blended Arizona spike (in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York and on long-term loan to the UP Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa). It’s the first time the commemorative spikes have been reunited, and UP Museum curator Patricia LaBounty calls them “railroading’s crown jewels.” I have to agree. They are spectacular and shine and shimmer just as you’d expect them to do. They represent a physical connection to Promontory, the event, and Promontory, the people: Leland Stanford handled them. Supposedly UP’s Grenville Dodge pocketed the fourth spike, which has never been seen since. Of all of railroading’s trappings, a spike is one of the most universal items, in use then, in use today. These three made of precious metals are indeed crown jewels.

The images are presented just as Hart and Russell produced them: Hart’s stereographs are offered with similar images side by side that can be viewed that way or with a special viewing device that creates a 3-dimensional image. Russell’s large images exhibit scenic grandeur.

Jurovics says the images speak of a time when photography was a new technology with multiple uses for the other new technology, railroading. They were created to influence government officials, dazzle investors, and sway potential customers. They are also artists on the go: Hart and Russell had to be well prepared photographers and dark room specialists who had to move from field to a waiting wagon within five minutes of making an image. You can learn more about this in a video interview with Jurovics that we will post soon. Also, the late John Gruber prepared a story about Hart, Russell, and other transcontinental railroad photographers for our special issue, Journey to Promontory, that will be available in early 2019.111

The photographic exhibit moves to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City, Feb. 1-May 26, 2019; and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif., June 23-Sept. 29, 2019. If you want the complete transcontinental railroad anniversary experience, don’t miss it. Crown jewels and the artistry of the day both related to railroading’s biggest single event are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.






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