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STRASBURG, Colorado — When Utah celebrated the 150th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike, that marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the cheering section was pretty much statewide.
But in a tiny Colorado town, not so much.
Some people there tend to think the whole thing in Utah is a historical fraud. In fact, they have their own museum dedicated to that point of view.
In Utah, every schoolkid knows the first transcontinental railroad was linked by the driving of the golden spike at Promontory on May 10, 1869.
But at Strasburg High School, 30 miles east of the Denver airport, history teacher Cliff Smith recently told his students, “There was no transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, when the golden spike was driven.”
Instead, Smith often teaches about a different date. Aug. 15, 1870.
“At 2:53 p.m., the rails met at a place just east of here,” Smith told his students. In his Strasburg-centric countertheory of the first transcontinental railroad, Smith says the honors rightfully belong to Strasburg, about 500 miles east-southeast of Promontory.
“All those monuments there. We have our own monuments,” Smith said to the class.
He is prone to calling Utah’s claim-to-fame a hoax or fake news, although usually with a bit of gentle humor in his tone.
“It’s a fraud, yes,” he said laughing.
Smith's theory is based on a little-known point about the railroad that was completed in Utah: It had a gap in the rails hundreds of miles to the east of Utah. That’s because in 1869, there still was not a railroad bridge across the Missouri River at Omaha. A passenger on the Union Pacific needed a boat ride right in the middle of a coast-to-coast journey. The trains would be ferried across the river or driven across the frozen river during winter.
According to Smith’s version of history, a true transcontinental railroad was finally completed at Strasburg in 1870. That’s because a railroad line that crossed the Missouri River on a bridge at Kansas City was completed at a site just east of Strasburg, creating one continuous set of rails running from coast to coast.
“As soon as those rails were joined, they went on to Denver and the first transcontinental railroad was joined,” Smith said to his history class.
The linkup site near Strasburg was called Comanche Crossing. For decades, Smith has maintained the Comanche Crossing Museum filled with railroad memorabilia and evidence in support of the Strasburg theory.
Naturally, it follows that Strasburg will have its own sesquicentennial celebration on August 15, 2020. In fact, a centennial celebration in 1970 drew 5,000 people to Strasburg. President Richard M. Nixon even sent a letter to Strasburg expressing gratitude for the “hardy pioneers who one century ago tied this country together by rail.” That letter is now “Exhibit No. 1” in support of Smith’s retelling of history.
Union Pacific also supported the 1970 celebration, but the company’s support for Utah’s claim is unshakably attached to the historical record.
“The first transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, as ordered by President Abraham Lincoln,” said Kristen South, the railroad’s director of corporate communications.
Railroad officials and most historians argue that the ferry across the Missouri River in 1869 and 1870 was simply a piece of the first transcontinental railroad and that no one in that era would have questioned Utah’s bragging rights.
“It was very common to go by ferry,” South said, “and that was considered part of the rail transportation.”
Smith admits his case rests on a technicality. But he wants his students to feel pride in their hometown, which they do.
“Our history is what makes us who we are,” said student Cody Smith. “It’s what made this town develop the way it did.”
Smith is good-natured about his historical dispute. He agrees that Utah, too, has a right to be proud.
“Yes, there should be a celebration in Utah,” Smith said. “But don’t forget us.”