The Meeting at Promontory Point

Promontory Point, Promontory Summit, Promontory Station - all these names were used - lay in a dry basin of sagebrush, surrounded on three sides by mountains. Construction of the Central Pacific reached there on April 30th, and the Californians had to wait another week before the Union Pacific crew came into view. On May 1st, hundreds of men assembled at the paymasters' cars of both railroads to receive their last salaries, and thousands of others learned that they would work only one more week. "The two opposing armies", wrote a newspaper correspondent, "are melting away.[38]" The end of the Great Race was near.

Only twenty-five hundred feet of ungraded land lay between the two railroads on May 7th. But that afternoon, when Central Pacific president Leland Stanford's special train pulled in for the scheduled celebration on May 8, Jack Casement came over to inform the CP's President and several other officials that the joining of the rails would have to be postponed until May 10. Casement told them heavy rains had washed out part of the UP tracks in Weber Canyon, and the special train carrying Durant, Dillon and other dignitaries would be stuck until the rails were repaired.

But that was only part of the story. On May 6, when the UP special entered Piedmont, Wyoming, an armed mob of several hundred railroad workers surrounded Durant's private car, switched it onto a sidetrack, and chained the wheels to the rails. Spokesmen informed Durant that he and his important associates would be held hostage until the men received their overdue wages. The amount demanded remains unclear because Union Pacific officials then and afterward kept very quiet about the incident. But contemporary accounts gave estimates ranging from $12,000 to $80,000 to $235,000. Although soldiers were summoned from nearby Army posts to try and free Durant, all telegrams to the military were intercepted. Durant finally surrendered and had the wages transferred from New York headquarters.

By seven o'clock Monday morning, May 10, a bright and clear day, the first curious spectators were gathered around the gap where a huge American flag flapped from a telegraph pole. Along side the grade, whiskey sellers had already set up tents to provide refreshments at premium prices. About an hour later, a construction train arrived to unload cheerful gangs of tracklayers and graders, and then pulled away again. Shortly after ten o'clock, two Union Pacific trains arrived and came to a stop a short distance from the gap. The first train was Durant's delayed three-car special, and riding with him that morning were Grenville Dodge, the Casement brothers, and several other officials and guests. Aboard the second train were four companies of the Twenty-first Infantry and its headquarters band, as well as a delegation of prominent Utah citizens with a brass band from Salt Lake City.

As these arrivals got off their trains, a gang of Chinese workmen began leveling up the gap in the roadbed. They laid the last ties and rails, hammered in the fishplates, and drove all but the last few spikes. At 11.15 the Central Pacific train rolled into view. Both Iron Horses - the CP's "Jupiter" and the UP's No. 119 - were now uncoupled and brought into facing positions across the meeting place of the rails. Soldiers stood at ease on both sides of the tracks. By this time Stanford and his men were shaking hands with the Union Pacific officials, and they began discussing the program of the ceremonies. Stanford had brought along two golden spikes, a silver spike, a combination iron, silver and golden spike, a silver-plated sledgehammer, and a polished laurel tie, but little attention had been paid to the formalities of the occasion. With Stanford and Dodge both insisting on driving the last spike, the rivalry of the Great Race persisted to the very last hour. Only five minutes before the scheduled start of the ceremony, Durant overruled Dodge and agreed to follow Stanford's program.

To facilitate communication, a wire had been attached from a telegraph pole down to a key on a table facing the gap. At 12.20, operator Shilling sent out a message announcing that the last spike would be driven in about twenty minutes. Operators throughout the country began clearing their lines. James Strobridge and Samuel Reed took up the laurel tie and placed it in position. Spectators crowded in so much, that Jack Casement had to order them back as to enable photographers to set up their equipment. Reverend John Todd, who attended the ceremony as a correspondent for two religious magazines, offered a prayer. Then the supreme moment was there. To the great amusement of the track layers, both Stanford and Durant entirely missed the golden spikes when bringing down the silverheaded sledgehammer. But eventually the spikes were put in their place. At 12.45, telegrapher Shilling tapped out "Done" and loud cheers followed. After all the precious metals were removed again, the two locomotives eased forward until they touched. Workmen as well as engineers climbed on top of them and shook hands, while photographers captured the moment. Then the Jupiter reversed its wheels and let the No. 119 cross the new junction. Next, the No. 119 backed up and made room for the Jupiter to cross the UP tracks. Steam whistles blew, and the transcontinental railroad was ready for the Iron Horses to roll (see map of US railroads in 1870).

There is little agreement among those who recorded the event on the number of people assembled there. Estimates varied from five hundred to three thousand, but judging from the photographs, the total probably was between six and seven hundred. There were brass bands, fireworks, speeches, reporters, and photographers. But virtually all of America was there in spirit that day, eagerly awaiting the news of the symbolic union of the continent by iron rails. Across the nation celebrations burst out. In Chicago, a spontaneous parade of seven miles long jammed the city streets. In New York, one hundred guns fired salutes in City Hall Park, and Wall Street suspended business for the day. In Philadelphia, flags were raised everywhere and all across the city the bells of Independence Hall and church bells could be heard. In Buffalo, the people poured into the streets to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" and fire engines assembled to blow whistles in concert. In Sacramento, thirty decorated locomotives drawn up into line screeched out a concert of joy. In San Francisco, the celebration came to an uproar that lasted well into the night. Bret Harte, a San Francisco writer, composed a long poem about the event. Part of it reads:

"Yet today we shall not quarrel
Just to show these folks this moral,
How two Engines - in their vision -
Once have met without collision.