New transcontinental railroad exhibits open at Utah Capitol

New transcontinental railroad exhibits open at Utah Capitol

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SALT LAKE CITY — Two of three new exhibits highlighting different aspects of the transcontinental railroad are now open at the Utah Capitol, part of Utah's Spike 150 initiative.

The first transcontinental railroad was completed May 10, 1869, when the Union and Central Pacific railroads were joined with a golden spike at Promontory Summit in Utah — where the Golden Spike National Historic Site is today.

The first exhibit, titled "A World Transformed: The Transcontinental Railroad and Utah," explores the impact the transcontinental railroad had on individual Utahns.

"The people of Utah really contributed a lot to the transcontinental railroad," said Dan Davis, the head curator for the exhibit and Utah State University's special collections and archives photograph curator. "Utah was really important to both railroads."

The exhibit puts on display how integral Utahns were in the process, Davis said.

"Utah really is the central focus of the transcontinental railroad in a lot of ways," he said.

Another important contribution to the railroads were the Chinese railroad workers — the theme of the second exhibit on display at the Capitol.

"It's time for us to tell our ancestors' story and our Chinese immigration story," said Jie Xu, the secretary for the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association.

The association sponsored the second exhibit, which is named "Tracing the Path: Chinese Railroad Workers and the First Transcontinental Railroad."

"We try to tell their stories," Xu said. "Their story has not been told for too long. And hopefully history will remember that contribution to this magnificent work."

Chinese railroad laborers experienced countless hardships, Xu said, and he hopes the exhibit helped teach people about what they sacrificed for the railroads.

Siulin Santee, a board member for the association, helped spearhead the project and she said that while the Chinese story is important, it is not the only story to tell.

"The first transcontinental railroad was not only built by the Chinese; we have other people. We have Mormons, we have Irish, we all work together."

File photo
File photo

Santee said she wants everyone to learn from the exhibit.

"We've made the exhibit really easy for people to read — especially for school children so they can learn from it," Santee said.

She said it's important everyone understands why the transcontinental railroad still matters.

"Without the railroad, our country would not be as advanced as it is today," Santee said.

Some people have already visited the new exhibits, including Jose Garibay from Magna.

Garibay took his 2-year-old daughter, Shimmer Garibay, and his father Eliseo Garibay to visit the Capitol where they discovered the railroad exhibitions on the fourth floor.

"My dad came from Mexico and so I wanted to show him a part of Utah," Garibay said. "I just wanted to show him around."

Garibay said he found the history of the railroad interesting and enjoyed taking his father and young daughter to see the Capitol — something he said was important.

"Maybe she'll have interest working in the government someday," Garibay said.

The third exhibit, not yet on display, will be smaller than the first two and will tell the story of Edward Harriman and his involvement with the transcontinental railroad. The exhibit is titled "Death, Taxes, and an Unexpected Windfall: Edward H. Harriman's Estate and the Building of the Utah State Capitol."

Sean Estes, KSL TV
Sean Estes, KSL TV

"Mr. Harriman is kind of an unsung hero for Utah," said Brad Westwood, the senior public historian for the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts and curator for the Harriman exhibit. "He was the force behind rebuilding the Union Pacific railroad."

Westwood said he and other historians involved with the railroad exhibits wanted Harriman's story included because of his influence toward building the Capitol — money donated from his estate by his widow helped fund the project.

"That unexpected financial windfall became the catalyst for Utah building its Capitol," Westwood said.

The Harriman exhibit will open to the public Jan. 18 and a grand opening will be held for all three exhibits Jan. 23 on the fourth floor of the Capitol.


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