Ten Miles of Track

If the Golden Spike had never been driven, what might Montana, the West, even the United States itself be?

By Dave Skinner

On April 28, 1869, north of the Great Salt Lake, track gangs of the Central Pacific, Chinese and Irish 4,000 strong, laid 10 miles, plus 56 feet (two rail lengths) for good measure, of railroad track. That world record still stands, unbroken after 150 years.

Just two weeks later, on May 10, 1869, the rails of the Union Pacific, building west from Omaha, and the Central Pacific building east from Sacramento, were joined. Telegraphs were wired to a silver spike maul and a golden spike, signaling to America that our first transcontinental railroad was, as headlines screamed, “Done!”

Driving the Golden Spike fundamentally changed America. For the first time, a boxcar of freight could be loaded in New York and shipped directly to California. No more transloading, for example, to ships plying the stormy 12,000 miles around Cape Horn, or by land, to wagons traveling at a slow walk.

The Union/Central Pacific route was the first of a number of “transcontinentals,” which in turn formed a special category of railroad, initially built across western “wilderness” in order to connect existing markets, with the eventual hope that the country in between would be filled up with more customers, someday. In contrast, previous railroads had been built through settled territory, where customers already resided.

The last was finished in 1915. From north to south, with year of completion in parentheses: Canadian Northern (1915); Grand Trunk Pacific (1914); Canadian Pacific (1885); Great Northern (1893); Northern Pacific (1883); Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific (1909); Union Pacific (1869), Missouri Pacific/Rio Grande/Western Pacific (1909); Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (1897); Southern Pacific (1883).

A lot has changed in 150 years. Only two transcontinentals still run under their original name, Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific. But a lot hasn’t. All except one (the Milwaukee, abandoned in 1980) still carry trains, and it so happens that if the first trains still existed, they could run unencumbered on today’s routes. Pretty amazing, actually.

What made railroads possible? Steam power, specifically steam power on wheels. When James Watt made steam practical as a stationary source of power in 1776 (basically by figuring out how to keep the power cylinders hot and hook them up to a wheel), he achieved two things:

One, coal became more than just a source of heat. Second, the conversion of coal heat into motion made it possible for machines to do things previously impossible. So – it was only a matter of time until someone figured out how to put a steam engine on a ship (Robert Fulton, 1807), then on wheels as a “locomotive.” While not the first practical, workable locomotive, Robert Stephenson’s 1829-built Rocket was famous for good reason … it could zoom along at a screaming 30 miles per hour.

Prior to railroads, America’s economy depended on both producers and consumers being near coastal tidewater or navigable rivers. To connect the navigable Great Lakes (and what was then “the West”) to the Atlantic, the Erie Canal in New York was finished in 1825, 363 miles with 565 feet of rise and fall between Albany and Buffalo. It’s relevant to note that the canal’s peak year was 1855, with 33,000 shipments, or 90 barges a day, which were, by the way, horsedrawn. It’s also relevant to note that the New York Central between Albany and Buffalo began operating as a single railroad in 1853.

Out West, meaning west of the Mississippi, of course, canals for commercial navigation were never an option, with only a handful of rivers “navigable,” only for a short season. So, 150 years later, I find myself asking: If the Golden Spike had never been driven, what might Montana, the West, even the United States itself be?

Would Fort Benton be Montana’s capital, the only town of any size? Would Demersville ever have been founded? What about Denver? What about America? Would Canada or even the United States be a single nation coast to coast – never mind a global force for good?

Just imagine – and then, celebrate the fact you don’t have to. I just did, in Utah.

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