They huddled in telegraph offices across the country, from small towns all the way up to government offices in Washington. For 27 long minutes, the whole nation seemed to fall silent. Telegraph operators were told to stand down from sending any traffic so as to keep the lines clear as everyone waited for that one special sound.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, the United States witnessed what might qualify as its first mass media event. In the century and a half to come, Americans would gather around their televisions to watch a man step onto the moon, or any number of televised spectaculars and horrors. But on the afternoon of May 10, 1869, they gathered in telegraph offices listening for a series of clicks that said nothing but also said everything.
More than half a continent away, on a remote stretch of Utah desert, an event that would transform the nation was taking place. From the west came a locomotive from the Union Pacific; from the east came one from the Central Pacific. There they sat, nearly cow-catcher to cow-catcher. Between them lay the last gap of what would soon become North America’s first transcontinental railroad. The pounding of the ceremonial “golden spike” would unite the nation, both symbolically and literally. As with many things, this was a story driven by politics, graft and, in the end, some theatrics and maybe even a little of what today we’d call “fake news.”
Being Virginians, we must start with Thomas Jefferson. His Louisiana Purchase didn’t extend all the way to the West Coast but Meriwether Lewis and William Clark went there anyway. The precise status of the Pacific Northwest remained in dispute for several decades, claimed by both the U.S. and Great Britain. Jefferson, though, was skeptical that it would wind up with either. He thought the Northwest would become “a great, free, and independent empire on that side of our continent.”
That didn’t happen, but the Mexican War did. Suddenly the United States owned a big swath of the West Coast. That was 1848. Just a week before American ownership of California became official, gold was discovered. The gold rush was on — along with a political debate about how to create a transportation network to unite a nation that spanned an entire continent. In practical terms, that meant a railroad but in even more practical terms, the question was where? In those pre-Civil War days, the North wanted a northern route. The South wanted a southern route. Nothing much got done. Then came the Civil War.
You might think that the war would have complicated things. Actually, the war simplified them. There were no longer any Southerners in Congress to object to a non-southern route. The Civil War Congress was also run by Republicans. That new political party had been formed primarily as an anti-slavery party, but it was also the national infrastructure party. One of its lesser-known planks had been to endorse a transcontinental railroad. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, which set in motion the entire enterprise. The act also settled on a route safely away from pesky Southerners.
The railroads were privately owned, but benefited from lots of government funding and free land, what today we’d call a public-private partnership. There were also lots of colorful forms of waste, fraud and abuse. Union Pacific’s main stockholder, Thomas Durant, knew in advance where the railroad would go and made a point of buying up land along the route. Today, we’d call that “insider trading.”
The government also paid the railroads by the mile so the Union Pacific made a point of building an unnecessarily winding route so as to drive up the mileage. In its first two and a half years of construction, the railroad extended just 40 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska, but Durant had already made a fortune. There wasn’t much government oversight in those days.
Construction picked up after the Civil War, and the transcontinental railroad project became a symbolic way to knit the country together again. It changed the nation both economically and demographically. The Union Pacific, working west from Nebraska, recruited lots of Civil War veterans, both Union and Confederate. But the Central Pacific, working east from what was still sparsely-populated California, had trouble finding workers. So it looked across the Pacific, and started importing workers from China — the first mass immigration from Asia. By 1880, one-tenth of the population of California was Chinese. Today, California’s population is about 14 percent Asian. That all started with the transcontinental railroad. The railroad was also a boon for another minority group — the Mormons who had settled in Utah and proved to be valuable labor pool in what seemed at the time to be the middle of nowhere.
The two railroads merged at Promontory Point, about 66 miles west of Salt Lake City. The ceremony was supposed to take place on May 8, but the train car carrying Durant was unexpectedly delayed. Some 400 Union Pacific workers blocked its path, claiming they hadn’t been paid since Jan. 1. Things got heated. The workers threatened Durant’s life. Durant promised to wire back home for the money. The striking workers were suspicious that Durant might wire for soldiers, instead — so they threatened the telegraph operator, too. The next day, $80,000 in back pay arrived, and the workers let Durant’s train car pass on through.
The ceremonies on May 10 were well-choreographed. The last two rails from the east were laid by Irish workers, the last two from the west by Chinese laborers. When people say that immigrants built this country, it’s a literal statement. Both the ceremonial “golden spike” and the silver hammer used to drive it were wired up to connect with a telegraph machine. In theory, the blows would reverberate across the country.
Durant swung the hammer for the Union Pacific; Leland Stanford for the Central Pacific. Both missed. Building a railroad isn’t as easy as it looks. The telegraph operator on the scene in Utah decided to send out a signal anyway. The people listening back east didn’t know the difference. In all, it took about nine swings for the dignitaries in Utah to drive the spike in. It’s unclear how many hit the mark.
In time, the word “done” flashed down the wire — and across the nation, fire bells rang, cannons fired and people thronged their town squares to celebrate. But not in Roanoke. We didn’t exist yet.