By John N. Vogel
PhD alum John Vogel reflects on a recent visit to an iconic historic site.
The silence at Promontory Summit was deafening.
I find the significance of silence often encountered at historically prominent places is proportional to that of the event that occurred. The impact of silence is reflected in one’s pensiveness, and how lost one can be in the event, the site of which is being observed many years later. So it was as I recently visited the National Park Service’s Golden Spike National Monument.
We all know, at least to some extent, of the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. The moment was captured in the famous photo to the left (courtesy the Library of Congress). It was that spike, in both a real and ceremonial sense, that physically united the nation–which for the first time had been tied together in a functional and intractable way. That first transcontinental connection inspired an untold number of histories that have expressed affection or derision for the railroad, as well as offered all sorts of analysis. It is unquestioned that Thomas Durant, of the Union Pacific, and Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins, all of the Central Pacific, were interested in making money with the railroad they built. But that does nothing to diminish the physical and national accomplishment that was the first transcontinental link.
That portion of the route passing through Promontory Summit was bypassed between 1902 and 1904 with construction of the Lucin Cutoff across the Great Salt Lake. The new route provided a straighter, flatter and shorter path across northern Utah than the original alignment to Ogden. Rail traffic through Promontory Summit was thereafter limited to local trains. The route was eventually abandoned and in 1942, just after the beginning of the Second World War, the track was removed for use in the war effort. Promontory Summit was designated a National Historic Site in 1957. About a mile-and-a-half of rail was re-laid in order to accommodate the replica locomotives that provide a dramatic way of commemorating the site’s history.
On the day I visited this iconic spot, the Park Service’s interpretive center closed at 5:00 PM and the parking lot was almost immediately empty. There is nothing around Promontory Summit except a few ranches off in the distance. I was alone on the high plains, waiting for the sunset that would occur three or four hours later on a partly cloudy evening. I alternately walked along the tracks, sat on a nearby bench, and read and re-read the various commemorative plaques and monuments at the site. Constant throughout the evening was the wind so common to the high plains.
As I waited for sunset, I was reminded of the classic Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel, Mutiny on the Bounty. Nordhoff and Hall wrote of a character, Roger Byam, who returned to Tahiti many years after the fateful mutiny. As he looked over the island, Byam observed that “suddenly the place was full of ghosts, shadows of men alive and dead . . .” I saw no ghosts that evening. Yet I found the spirit of all those who built that first transcontinental railroad was inescapable.
Promontory Summit is a place of unquestionable significance in the history of our nation. East and west were tangibly tied together as one and have been ever since. Yet despite the thundering importance of this place, the silence at Promontory Summit was deafening.
John N. Vogel graduated from MU in 1989 with his Ph.D. in American History. He is the President and Senior Historian of Heritage Research, Ltd., an environmental and public history consulting firm that works with states, engineering firms, municipalities and others to research and produce components needed for environmental impact statements, business and institutional histories, and legal research. He is also author of Great Lakes Lumber on the Great Plains (1993).