Excerpt from "The Last Tie"
Published in Overland Monthly, July 1869
"Could I refuse to share in this triumph on the great day, long prayed for, that was to witness the finishing blow to the greatest enterprise of the age?"
The completion of a railroad linking the East Coast to the western United States, in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, was a famous event in the history of the expansion of the United States to include all of America. It was also an important symbol of how the Industrial Revolution—the process of incorporating machines and factories into manufacturing goods—was reshaping American society.
Dr. J. D. B. Stillman (1819–1888) of California recognized the importance of the new rail link in his eyewitness account of the ceremony that was held to mark the occasion, when a symbolic golden spike (nail) was pounded into the last tie, to hold that last rail in place and complete the railroad connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. ("Tie" has a double meaning here, as both a connection and the square timbers on which railroad tracks lie.)
Two months after the event, Stillman's article appeared in a San Francisco magazine, the Overland Monthly. In his article, Stillman recalled the first time he traveled from the East Coast to California, thirty years earlier. Then, it took a six-month ocean voyage around the tip of South America,
and Stillman recalled feeling that he had left the United States forever. Now, the eastern and western halves of the country were connected by a railroad, making possible a trip from San Francisco to New York in a few days, instead of the weeks or months that it previously required.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad was also a symbol of the advance of the Industrial Revolution. A journey that used to rely on animals (usually horses, to ride or to pull wagons), or on wind (to propel a sailing ship), was now possible using a mechanical device—a train pulled by a locomotive that used a steam engine.
The railroad link also meant that farmers in western states could send their crops to the populated East. This development was important for two reasons: first, it offered a market for farmers who were starting new farms in the American West; it also meant that farms in the West could produce food for the rapidly growing urban population of factory workers in the East.
The expansion of railroads into the West had another impact. By connecting farms with the eastern markets, the railroads encouraged people from Europe to immigrate to the United States and set up new farms. Businessman James J. Hill (1838–1916), who made a fortune building the Great Northern Railroad across the northern tier of states a few years later, understood this very clearly. He sent representatives to Europe, particularly to countries like Sweden and Norway, to encourage new immigrants. Hill, like other railroad owners, was given land in the West by the U.S. government in order to encourage building railroads. Hill and others could sell the land they were given to immigrants who wanted their own farms (and who also would provide crops for the railroad to haul back East).
As part of the westward expansion of European settlement, new farm machines, such as the steel plow of John Deere (1837–1886) and the mechanical reaper of Cyrus McCormick (1809–1884), made farming large plots of land feasible. The expansion of railroads was a symbol of the rapid expansion of agriculture in the United States, which became one of the biggest food producers in the world at the same time it was becoming one of the biggest producers of manufactured goods.
Both the growth of large farms and the rise of urban factories marked a major change from the United States familiar to J. D. B. Stillman when he left the East for California. His recollection of that earlier time summarizes the major change in society and industry over just three decades in the middle third of the nineteenth century.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "The Last Tie":
- The completion of the transcontinental railroad was well recognized as a major event at the time. Two companies, the Union Pacific laying track from the East to the West, and the Central Pacific, laying track from California to the East, had been in a fierce competition to see which company could lay tracks faster. Moreover, people at the time seemed to fully recognize the historic significance of the event, and the ceremony in Promontory, Utah, brought out the same sort of sightseers and souvenir hunters as might attend such an event today.
- In his opening paragraph, Stillman makes a pun on the word "tie." He thought his connection ("tie") to the East had been broken when he moved to California, but even then the wooden railroad tie that would become part of the transcontinental railroad was growing in the form of a tree that would later help reestablish old personal ties.
- At one point the author mentions that ten miles of track were laid in a single day, and he reckons that each man lifted 74 tons (148,000 pounds) of rail during that one day. His list of the workers who accomplished this includes mostly Irish names. Chinese workers also played a key role in constructing the western part of the line. When many European laborers rushed off to prospect (explore) for silver in Nevada, the railroad imported workers from China, whose efforts were critical in completing the line.
- The ceremony surrounding the pounding in of the last spike was elaborately arranged. According to other accounts of the moment, a spike of gold, representing the California gold rush, was carefully placed in a hole that had been predrilled (otherwise, the spike made of a soft metal like gold would have been crushed by a hammer). The governor of California, Leland Stanford (1824–1893; who was also president of the Pacific Central Railroad) picked up a mallet and took a mighty swing. He missed the spike and hit the wooden tie instead. Then a vice president of the Union Pacific, Thomas Durant (1820–1885), took a swing at a special silver spike contributed by Nevada (where silver had been discovered at the Comstock Lode in 1860). Suffering from a headache because he had attended a party the night before, Durant missed both the spike and the tie. Finally a regular railroad worker hammered in the spikes and a Western Union telegraph operator sent the signal to the waiting nation: "D-O-N-E."
- The author of this article uses several devices to present his story that cannot be taken literally. He did not have a dream, or reverie, even though he describes such a moment. The article is intended to review the significant progress over thirty years, a period during which the American frontier moved from just west of the Appalachian Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Stillman's article puts the two times next to each other to emphasize the speed and extent of change brought about, in large part, by the Industrial Revolution.
Excerpt from "The Last Tie"
When we stood for the first time on the iron-bound shores of the Pacific a generation ago and looked upon their desolate mountains, after a voyage of more than half a year, we thought in our forlornhearts that the last tie that bound us to our native land was broken. We did not dream that the tie that was to reunite us, and make this our native land forever, was then flourishing as a green bay tree in our woods; but even so it was, and here, in the month of May, it lay before us, a polished shaft, and in whose alternate veins of light and shade we saw symbolized the varied experience of our California life.
Would I accept an invitation to go to the "front" and see the last spike driven? Old veterans and companions in frontier life would be there—men with whom I had hunted grizzlies in the river jungles. We had hungered and feasted together on the Plains, slept with our feet to the same fire, and fevered side by side when the miasma had shrunk the blood of our veins. Could I refuse to share in this triumph on the great day, long prayed for, that was to witness the finishing blow to the greatest enterprise of the age? California would be there with her bridal gift of gold; Nevada and Arizona were coming with their silver dowers, and a telegram from Sacramento informed me that a place would be reserved for me in the special car that was to convey the high contracting partiesof the first part to the scene of the memorable event.…
Across the bridge and out upon the plain we flew, alternate flashes of wheat fields and flowery pastures, and ghosts of treeswent by; the rumble and clatter of car wheels filled my ears and soon lulled me into a drowsy reverie, and I "dreamed a dream that was not all a dream."
I stood as a child in my father's dooryard and saw the rippling flood as it flowed for the first time over the sandy floor of that stream—small as it seemed when measured by the line, but mighty in its results—that immortalized the name of Clinton, and opened the great lakes and prairies of the west to the commerce of the Atlantic. A troop of boys, barelegged, were frolicking in the frothy current; one stoops down and catches a fish struggling half smothered, and bears him away in exultation; the booming of cannon rolls their paeans of victory from the Hudson [River] to [Lake] Erie, and back again through a wilderness, startling the black bear from its covert and awakening the land of the Iroquois with the march of a mighty people.
Again I stood amidst a group of curious, skeptical men on "Albany Hill," when a ponderous steamer on wheels was about to test the practicability of making steam a motive power on railways. They had been successful in England, and why not here? A line of road had been constructed for fifteen miles as straight as a beam of light from the sun and at water level. I heard again the fizzing of the steam and the gush of water as the machine vainly essayed to start. More fuel was supplied, the fizzing grew louder and sharper—slowly the wheels began to revolve but slipped on the track—sand was thrown on, when, with a cheer from the hopeful, the enormous black mass began to move off. The crowd grew excited and followed on, men on horseback led the way, determined to be in at the death and see how far the joke would go. Faster the iron horse moved on, faster the horsemen rode, and as the dreadful sounds redoubled, their steeds bolted the course, with staring eyeballs, terror-stricken. The locomotive was the victor; one dog alone contested the race, bounding and barking on till lost in the distance, and on the long vista, where the paralleled lines met, the black speck disappeared, leaving a film of smoke to float away among the pines.…
And still I dreamed; the air grew larger and darker, deeper and darker yawned the canyons, the train seemed poised in mid-air, now flying through tree-tops, and now circling like an eagle the beetlingcliffs they call Cape Horn. Far below, rivers flowed like silken threads, and as silent; above us, the snowy peaks kept creeping down, and somber shadows of giant pines, whose vast trunks had withstood the storms for a thousand years, oppressed us with their gloom. We plunge into the bowels of the mountains and out at once into the sunlight and past the cheerful dwellings of men. We are cribbed in by timbers, snow-sheds they call them; but how strong! Every timber is a tree trunk, braced and bolted to withstand the snow-slide that starts in midwinter from the great heights above, and gathering volume as it descends, sweeps desolation in its path; the air is cold around us; snow is on every hand; it looks down upon us from the cliffs, up to us from the ravines, drips from overhead and is frozen into stalactitesfrom the rocky wall along which our road is blasted, midway of [up] the granite mountain. We are in pithy darkness in the heart of the mountain—the summit of the grade; out again into the light; on, on through wooden galleries mile after mile; a sylvan lake flashes out from its emerald setting among the mountains—a well-dressed gentleman touches me on the arm, and taking a cigar from his lips, asks me if I will not take luncheon. "Where are we?" I responded. "There is Donner Lake and we will soon be at Truckee.…"
At Elko [Nevada] we parted with the most of our passengers, who were bound for the White Pine country a hundred miles south of the railroad. Another night brought us to the front, where we saw the novel sight of a town on wheels. Houses built on cars to be moved as the work progressed. Here were the Chinamenwho had built more railroad in a given time than was ever done before by any people. The Central Pacific Company had been battling for years with the formidable
We arrived at Promontory Summit on Friday, under the information that the connection of the two roads would be made on the following day. The morning was rainy and dreary; two or three tents were pitched in the vicinity for the rendezvous of those ruffians who hang about on the march of industry, and flourish on the vices of men. The telegraph operators at the end of the respective lines were then within a few rods of each other, and communication was open with the officers of the Union line to the eastward of us. We were informed, after some delay, that it would be impossible for them to arrive before Monday [that is, they would be late for the ceremony]. The delay seems to have been an unavoidable one; but it was to cause a great disappointment to the people of California, whose arrangements for a celebration the next day were completed. The intelligence was sent back to Sacramento and San Francisco; and messages were returned that the celebration must take place according to the published programme; that it could not be delayed without defeating its object altogether. We all felt the embarrassment of our position keenly; but we tried to make the best of circumstances we could not control. To spend three days in this desolate spot, surrounded with sage-brush, with only such neighbors as would make it dangerous to venture away from the car, lest we have our throats cut the suspicion that we might have a spare quarter in our pockets, was not charming. The camps of the construction parties of each road had fallen back from the summit to the low ground near the lake, after the close of one of the most celebrated contests of engineering skill and energy on both sides ever known, and were resting on their arms.
One-half of our party procured a conveyance to the camps of the Union Pacific, where General Casement, their Superintendent of Construction, generously dispatched a train to convey them to Ogden [Utah]. On the following day the same gallant officer came up to the end of his track, with a special train which he put at the disposal of Governor Stanford to take the rest of us over their road. The offer was accepted, and we ran down to Weber Creek station, and an opportunity was enjoyed of viewing some of the finest mountain scenery in the world. The Wasatch Mountains rise from the plain on the west shore of the lake to the height of six thousand feet above its surface, or ten thousand feet above the level of the sea. They are very ideal of inaccessible snow-covered mountains, set off by the green fields and blushing tints of the peach orchards just coming into flower. Mr. Hart, the Central Pacific artist, who accompanied us, took some fine views of this mountain from the railway over-looking the town of Ogden. The tiderip is well marked where the currents of traffic from East and West greets the corn from Illinois, where paper is currency, and coal takes the place of Juniper trees as fuel. We feel, while looking about, that we have met half way. A genuine thunder storm seemed to have been got up for the occasion and drove us all indoors, while we were at Ogden, and cooled the air. Here we found plants common at the East, but unknown in California—as the old familiar Taraxicum or Dandelion; and Rhus toxicodendron or Poison Ivy takes the place of the Rhus diversiloba or Poison Oak.…
On the morning of the tenth, as we looked out of the car, we saw a force of Union Pacific men at work closing up the gap that had been left at their end of the road, and the construction trains brought up large numbers of men to witness the laying of the last rail. About ten o'clock the whistle announced the long-expected officers from the other side. We went over at once to meet them. In a superb piece of cabinetwork, they call a "Pullman car," we met Vice President Durant, of whom we have heard so much, with a black velvet coat and gay neck-tie, that seemed to have been the "last tie" to which he had been giving his mind, gorgeously gotten up. General Dodge was there, and he looked all business.… General Dodge on the part of the Union Pacific, and Edgar Mills on the part of the Central Pacific, were appointed to arrange the preliminaries.
The munificence of private citizens of San Francisco had contributed two gold spikes, each designed to be the last one driven. Gentlemen from Nevada had contributed a silver one, at whose forging a hundred men had each struck a blow. The Governor of Arizona, also on behalf of his Territory, had one of silver. The Laurel tie that we brought with us was adjusted to its place; and in order that each gold spike should be the last, one was presented by Governor Stanford, President of the Central Pacific, to Vice President Durant, of the Union Pacific, who should drive it as the last on the latter road, while the other was to be the last on the Central road, and be driven last of all by Governor Stanford, who had thrown the first shovelful of earth at the opening of the road.
It had been arranged with Mr. Gamble, superintendent of the telegraph lines, that throughout the cities of the United States, wherever fire-alarm telegraphs were established, connection should be made with the last spike and the hammer that drove it, so that the blow should announce itself and fire cannon on the shores of both oceans at the same instant. Preparations having completed, the operator sent notice to all stations throughout the country to be ready, and the whole nation held its breath. A reverend gentleman present was invited to invoke the blessing of Almighty God upon the work. The operator announced: "Hats off, prayer is being said;" and as we uncovered our heads, the crowds that were gathered at the various telegraph offices in the land uncovered theirs. It was a sublime moment, and we realized it. The prayer ended, the silver spikes were driven. Durant drove his of gold. Stanford stood with the silver sledge gleaming in the air, whose blow was to be heard farther, without metaphor, than any blow struck by mortal man; the realization of the ancient myth of Jupiter with the thunderbolt in his hand. The blow fell, and simultaneously the roar of cannon on both shores of the continent announced the tidings: It is done! The alarm bells of the principal cities struck, one—two—three—synchronous with the strokes of the hammer; and people rushed from their houses, thinking a general alarm of fire was being rung. The cause soon became known, and banners everywhere were flung to the breeze; other bells joined in the cry of joy and of triumph. Te Deum Laudamus was sung in the churches, and the chimes rung out the national anthems. The nation made a day of it.…
The prearranged telegrams to the President of the United States, the Associated Press, and others, were sent off; and after cheering the companies and everybody interested, we adjourned to the car of Mr. Durant, when answers to our messages began to pour in from Chicago, New York, and Washington, announcing that the lines worked as intended, and that the country was in ablaze everywhere at the East.…
Years to come, the traveler as he passes the place will look out for the laurel tie and the gold and silver spikes that garnished the last rail that connected the two oceans with a continuous band of iron. Could they hope to see them there? Why, even before the officials left the spot they were removed and their places supplied with those of the ordinary material, and when the throng rushed up, the coveted prize was not there. What their fate would have been we can judge by that of their successors, which had to be replaced by new ones even before we left the spot. They were broken to pieces for relics; and the unfortunate rail itself was failing beneath the blows of hammers and stones, to be borne away in fragments as heirlooms.
What happened next …
The completion of the rail line linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States was just the start of many railroads that rapidly covered the United States in the last half of the nineteenth century. The expansion of the railroads was a key factor in the Industrial Revolution for several reasons:
- The railroads were the largest single customer for the newly developed steel industry, as steel proved more suitable for rails than iron.
- Railroads were a critical factor in creating monopolies (exclusive control by one company) in some industries. Railroads granted special discounts to some producers of coal and steel, for example, allowing them to offer their goods at reduced prices and drive their competitors out of business.
- The monopolies in turn created a public outcry and led directly to government intervention in the "free market," such as the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, which gave the federal government the right to regulate corporations.
Did you know …
On April 28, 1869, work crews of the Central Pacific Railroad laid ten miles of track in a single day. It is a record that in 2002 remained unbroken.
For more information
Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863–1869. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Bain, David Haward. Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Viking, 1999.
Hogg, Garry. Union Pacific: The Building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Walker, 1969.
Stein, R. C. The Transcontinental Railroad in American History. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.
Stillman, J. D. B. "The Last Tie." Overland Monthly, July 1869.
"The Last Spike." National Park Service. (accessed on April 11, 2003).