This year marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant historical events in the United States – the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah.
The Smithsonian marks May 10, 1869, as an auspicious day in both Utah and American History as Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad Company and Thomas Clark Durant, Union Pacific Railroad Company vice president, drove the last spike at Promontory, Utah, linking the eastern railroad system to California.
By joining the rails together, not only would the east and west sides of the nation meet, but Utah – and the country at large – would never be the same.
The impact of railroads on Utah’s business and economy
Utah History Encyclopedia notes how consumer goods became easier to acquire as railroads improved the ability to transport goods within the state and to and from other states.
The railroads allowed the movement of a wider variety of goods much farther distances. This affected the economy in two ways: sellers found new markets for their goods, and individuals who lived on the frontier were able to buy items that had previously been unavailable or extremely difficult to get.
By extending markets, railways also provided encouragement for more people to start businesses and to produce and sell goods. Business owners no longer had to worry about selling solely to locals; if there weren’t enough demand in town for a particular product, it could be shipped to a greater area where the demand was higher.
As consumer goods became increasingly affordable and more business was conducted with cash, this led to the establishment of more banks. The community became less rural and more commercial as stockyards, lumber yards, and breweries were built and distribution firms set up shop to receive goods for retailers.
But perhaps the biggest change of all was railroads made it much easier for people to migrate west and establish settlements. With a faster, method to migrate from other regions, the United States populated faster than even 10 years earlier.
As a community leader and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young knew how important railroads would be in tying the community together and connecting the region to the outside world, according to The Utah History Encyclopedia.
Utah had been a very isolated state before railroads brought businesses and people from all over the globe, just as Young had foreseen.
By the end of the 19th century, every aspect of society and culture was reflected in the railroad.
People celebrated them through song, literature and art. The first motion pictures featured speeding trains and virtually every form of entertainment – from popular magazines to traveling circuses and New York theater companies – traveled by rail.
For Utah, railroads brought greater cultural diversity. The Utah Division of State History notes that the transcontinental railroad completely changed the state’s population and landscape. What was once a desert outpost became a crossroads for the continent with a booming mining industry that attracted large numbers of immigrants.
Before 1869, 91% of Euro-Americans in Utah were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, after the arrival of the railroads, the population began to shift. By 1890, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made up 66% of Utah’s population.
Before the advent of railroads, transportation was primarily muscle-powered. Those were the days of the Pony Express, horse-drawn stagecoaches, and carts pulled by teams of oxen.
The country’s railroad system began to create a connected transportation network in 1830 with the debut of the first American-based steam locomotive in South Carolina.
Railroads quickly became a primary economic force as thousands of miles of track were laid in various parts of the country, and the locations of stations and tracks could determine the fate of a city or town along its route.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, which tasked the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad Companies with building a transcontinental railroad that would link the United States from east to west. For seven years, the two companies raced toward each other before meeting at Promontory Summit, Utah.
The benefits of railroads were undeniable. Train trips from New York City to Chicago were reduced to days instead of weeks, and day-long journeys through canals could be reduced to a one-hour train trip.
Travel also became less expensive. The University of Houston points out that before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by stagecoach cost $1,000, took five or six months, and involved crossing rugged mountains and arid deserts. The alternatives were to travel by sea around the tip of South America or to cross the Isthmus of Panama, then travel north by ship to California. Each route took months and was dangerous and expensive. The transcontinental railroad would make it possible to complete the trip in five days at a cost of $150 for a first-class sleeper.
Continued importance of railroads today
Though railroads no longer constitute the largest industry in America, they are still a vital part of the economy, according to an article from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As rail systems have adapted to modern technology, shipping techniques, double-stacked containers carrying loads of coal, gas and other commodities can now be tracked through GPS.
In Utah, visitors at Golden Spike National Historical Park can enjoy reenactments of the driving of the last spike ceremony May through October. Afterward, kids young and old can check out demonstrations of the steam locomotives Jupiter and No. 119. This year also includes other special events to celebrate the 150th anniversary.
To learn more about the Golden Spike 150 celebration, visit Spike150.org.