Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final part of a series looking back at the history and impact of the transcontinental railroad, which was completed 150 years ago this year.
PROMONTORY — Newspaper reports from Monday, May 10, 1869, indicate there was perfect weather at the time of the ceremonial completion of the transcontinental railroad. When the golden spike was tapped into the ground at 12:32 p.m., United States flags unfurled, music from a band played and artillery fired in the air. The news was also immediately relayed through telegraph.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad has been lauded as a big deal in American history. How communities reacted to it being finished 150 years ago truly gives an idea about how big it really was for Americans.
It was the moment the eastern and western parts of the U.S. were finally connected. Here’s how people reacted the day the transcontinental railroad was completed:
In its May 11, 1869, evening edition, the Deseret News dedicated most of its paper to coverage of the moment. News of what happened ended up in the May 11 edition because there was an “unaccountable delay” in the telegraph message sent from the Deseret News correspondent stationed in Promontory, the newspaper staff wrote.
The paper gave a detailed account of what happened during the ceremony and reactions of the moment the transcontinental railroad was completed.
“We meet to celebrate a great event in connection with the history, progress and development of the United States of America,” former territory Gov. Charles Durkee told the crowd that day. “The fathers of the Republic were patriotic and progressive. They established a liberal and free government — free for enterprise, energy and progress, and we have availed ourselves, to some extent, of the high privilege bequeathed to us.”
Durkee continued by saying he hoped and believed the moment would allow free trade across the globe.
“I can very well remember the time when there was no such thing as a railroad in existence. I rode on the first that was ever made, soon after its completion; that was between Manchester and Liverpool, England. Now they spread like a network over England, France, Germany and all Europe; permeate every available place in the United States, and this is the last grand link in the mighty chain,” added John Taylor, who would later become president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1880, in another speech that day.
Other places in the state, like Mount Pleasant and St. George, also celebrated as news the railroad was completed trickled in.
The New Orleans Commercial Bulletin ran an Associated Press article noting the Pacific Railroad was finished. A second article on the front described the scene that news came across the telegraph in the paper’s newsroom.
As noted by historians, the message relayed across the country was “D-O-N-E.” The New Orleans Commercial Bulletin staff seemed to be taken back with the moment that message came across.
“A rare and interesting scene was presented yesterday at the telegraph office, when the strokes of the hammer driving the last spike of the Pacific Railroad were indicated by the successive taps in the telegraph apparatus,” staff members from the New Orleans paper wrote. “The finishing ceremony took place at noon on the railroad, but the difference of time put its announcement here at about 2 p.m. This telegraphic audition of the final hammer strokes extended, doubtless, to all parts of the United States.”
Finding the exact newspaper printed in a city 150 years ago can be difficult. Luckily, some newspapers that have survived time and have been digitized carry wire stories from other places in the country.
For example, The Jacksonville Weekly Sentinel in Jacksonville, Florida, ran a story from San Francisco, California, that recapped the moment the city found out the railroad was finished. Among other things, the message noted that it initiated trade between points east of the Mississippi River and goods from countries in Asia.
It said that a note from San Francisco read, “The Pacific Railroad Company today, at 11:45 in the forenoon San Francisco time, laid the last tie and rail, and the last spike was driven. The telegraph was attached to the City Hall bell in this city, and a fifteen inch gun at Fort Point. The first stroke of the hammer on the last spike fired the gun at the fort and range the City Hall bell. The news created great enthusiasm in the interior cities of the State. The first invoice of Japan teas by the Pacific Railroad was shipped for St. Louis today, inaugurating overland trade China and Japan.”
A wire story from Chicago also ended up in the May 11, 1869, edition of the Deseret News. It described the scene when the news the Pacific Railroad was completed came in. In Chicago, people flooded the streets in celebration “so densely packed” that businesses were forced to close for the afternoon.
“Today has been one long to be remembered in the history of this city. The demonstration in honor of the completion of the Pacific Railroad was a true uprising of the people, spontaneous and not manufactured to order,” a report from Chicago stated. “The city, all day, was decorated with flags, banners, etc., and when the bells announced that the last spike had been driven, an immense procession began to move, but owing to its enough length, it was found impossible to adhere to the programme, and the marshals guided it as best they could. Apparently, almost every vehicle in the city took part in it and nearly the total of the population turned out.”
New York City and Philadelphia
A commemoration service was held at the Trinity Church in New York. At the same time, the Liberty Bell rang in Philadelphia and reports stated it was the biggest celebration in that city since the end of the Civil War, according to a wire story that also was printed in the May 11, 1869, edition of the Deseret News.
The May 11, 1869, edition of the Boston Daily Evening Transcript, summed up the feeling upon the completion of the Grand Pacific Railroad.
“This is one of those events whose startling character no familiarity can destroy. A few ticks — hardly louder than those of a watch — tell to the listener of the advances in science and art, the invisible and half comprehended agencies which have wrought the miracles of the age,” staff wrote in the newspaper. “The fact is marvelous beyond conception; the mind almost refuses to believe what the senses testify to; and except to sordid taste, dull and almost brutal natures, an appeal is made to the sentiment of wonder, to show how much there is above and beyond the wit of man, on which well-being of the individual and the race depends.”
One of the more unique responses to the completion of the railroad came in New Hampshire. An event was held in Nashua, New Hampshire, on May 11, 1869, for “Californians, pioneers, Indianian, Oregonians, Nevadians, and all who have crossed the Plains to California, or who have resided on the Pacific slope west of Salt Lake” to congratulate the completion of the Pacific Railroad, according to the Nashua Daily Telegraph.