Friday marked the 150th anniversary of the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad, reminding me that a distant relative was on hand for the spike-driving ceremony that took place near Promontory Summit, Utah, where eastbound and westbound construction crews met.
While it would have been fitting to have a Steelhammer present for a spike-driving event, it was an ancestor from my Mom’s side of the family, the Wests, who watched Union Pacific Railroad Vice President T.C. Durant and the Central Pacific’s president, Leland Stanford, secure the final crosstie.
When the ceremonial golden spikes were teed up on the transcontinental railroad’s last tie, Durant and Stanford were given a nod, and both executives swung away clumsily with their sledgehammers. Gen. Grenville Dodge, construction supervisor for the Union Pacific, later recalled that both men missed their assigned spikes on their first two swings, clanging down on the rail instead, but still drawing cheers from the crowd.
A frenzy of souvenir-taking followed the low-precision spike driving. As soon as the ceremonial cross-tie was removed and replaced with a regular one, a group of men whipped out their knives and slashed away at the show tie to carve out slices of history for personal curation. A knife blade flew off its handle and pierced an artery in a bystander’s wrist, causing him to pass out from loss of blood before a doctor stopped the bleeding and started his recovery.
Chauncey Walker West, whose descendants’ organization routinely sent Mom cards inviting her to take part in family gatherings, was among those attending the ceremony.
The Mormon hierarchy that controlled Utah Territory did not want, as popular belief would have it, the railroad to bypass them, allowing members of their long-persecuted church to continue living in isolation. Improved trade, communications and connection to the rest of nation were deemed more important. In 1852, Utah’s first territorial legislature urged Congress to route the first transcontinental railroad through Utah, a position maintained in the years that followed.
West was one of several men authorized to set up subcontracting companies in behalf of the church to build rail grades, rail beds and tunnels as the construction made its way into Utah. Eventually, hundreds of Mormon men were hired, with some crews working for the Central Pacific and others for the Union Pacific.
As construction neared completion, the rail barons ran short of cash, but successfully urged the Utah contractors to keep their crews working for free in exchange for a bigger than normal payroll that would follow, thanks to additional federal subsidies, when the project was complete. The back pay and bonuses never arrived.
In a few short years, West was able to see amazing feats of engineering take shape, experience the excitement of helping open his territory to commerce with the rest of the world, and see the time it took to travel from New York to San Francisco shrink from more than 40 days to four.
Left holding an empty bag from which to pay his work crews, he also learned a bit about corporate greed, dishonesty, government waste and corruption.
After nine months passed without receiving the back pay owed to his workers by the Central Pacific, West traveled to San Francisco intending to personally extract a settlement from Stanford, a former California governor who went on to found Stanford University.
Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, he collapsed and died at age 42.