Cheers greet trains as thousands gather to mark 150th anniversary of transcontinental railroad

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PROMONTORY SUMMIT, Box Elder — The cheers went up and the crowd whistled loudly as Jupiter and No. 119 met early Friday at Promontory Summit to kick off the 150th anniversary of the wedding of the rails back on May 10, 1869.

The wind was brisk and cold, but it did not deter the thousands of people steadily flowing into the Golden Spike National Historical Park, where the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad met as one to transform a nation reeling from the aftermath of the Civil War.

Even late into the morning, the lines of cars on Golden Spike Road leading into the park stretched out beyond the turnoff from state Route 83/13.

Organizers of Spike150 said they were expecting as many as 20,000 people — all trying to get to the same patch of ground where history was made. More than 80 media organizations are credentialed to cover the event, with 200 plus individuals from countries ranging from Switzerland, China and Germany.

On this day, as it was 150 years ago, there was a blending of cultures and history as people from many faiths and ethnic backgrounds came together with a singular cause.

Craig Detienne, from Puyallup, Washington, flew in this week and stayed in Tremonton Thursday night.

“I’ve always been a train buff, since I was a kid,” he said.

Kenny Wong and his wife, Kawai Wong, both members of the American Legion Auxiliary 1291 in New York, are visiting Utah for the first time. So far they’ve said they enjoyed replacing views of skyscrapers with mountains.

“I’m so impressed,” Kawai Wong said Friday morning. “...You know of course we see a lot more people, so my first reaction was ‘Oh this place is so quiet.’”

For Kenny Wong, celebrating the 150th anniversary hits close to home — his great-grandfather was a Chinese laborer for the railroad.

“Seeing everybody here is just quite a sight,” he said.

Watching the iconic Jupiter and No. 119 trains ride in was “totally exciting, he said, and brought tears to his eyes.

“It is like paying homage,” he said. “It is quite an honor to be here.”

People in period costume ambled among the guests, including Beau Burgess, curator of the Fort Douglas Military Museum.

Burgess was playing Gen. Patrick Connor, a County Kerry, Ireland, native who established Fort Douglas, or Camp Douglas as it was known then, in Salt Lake City in 1862.

On Friday, Burgess was getting a little one-on-one help from another actor, Chip Guarente, an older United Kingdom native now living in Taylorsville.

Guarente was instructing Burgess on the proper way to salute — which varies according to era and country.

“Relax that palm,” he instructed. “Flatten it."

John Voehl, presenter and historian, roamed the site as President Abraham Lincoln.

“It’s fantastic, this is a monumental event in the history of the United States and also what it meant for the whole world to have completed a continent connected through railroad,” he said.

Lincoln, or Voehl, said just as the conflict over slavery caused the Civil War, it also delayed the start of the huge project.

For years Southern politicians blocked efforts to build the railroad in the North because of the economic benefits it would bring, Voehl explained, but in 1861 when rebel states seceded, Congress agreed on the railroad’s route.

“And that’s why I had the pleasure to sign the bill on July 2, 1862,” Voehl said, speaking as Lincoln.

On Friday, President Donald Trump released a statement recognizing the significance of the day.

"On this sesquicentennial celebration, we recognize the American ingenuity and the hard work and grit of all the workers that made the construction of this railroad and the unification of our nation possible," the statement read in part.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will address Friday's crowd later in the morning.

A wide-ranging lineup of programming will capture the milestone, including historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham, the premier performance of "As One," a new musical inspired by the golden spike era, a Chinese lion dance, Chinese American historian and author Connie Young Yu, a bison sculpture unveiling, wreath laying to recognize the railroad workers and much more.

A string of dignitaries will also make remarks, including Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert will speak and Rep. Rob Bishop is slated to give remarks on the significance of boosting the Golden Spike National Historic site to a historical park.

Union Pacific President and CEO Lance Fritz will speak ahead of the re-enactment of Jupiter and No. 119 coming together and joining the East Coast with the West Coast in a transportation accomplishment that transformed the country.

Friday's event marks the first time the Irish ambassador to the United States, Dan Mulhall, will be in Utah at the ceremony. Mulhall will deliver a celebratory toast.

The celebration continues after the ceremony and throughout the weekend in the festival area featuring:

  • “Hell-on-Wheels” itinerant town with a gambling hall, blacksmith, storyteller, and saloon.
  • Historical and educational exhibits.
  • Native American Shoshone camp.
  • Mountain man camp.
  • Innovations Summit with interactive stations from STEM and Hill Air Force Base, and a presentation by NASA astronaut Scott Tingle.
  • Steam train show and historical re-enactments.

Contributing: Lauren Bennett


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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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