The one-street town of Promontory, Utah, was buzzing with activity on May 10, 1869. A crowd of one thousand people lined the streets. Reporters from nearly every paper in the country were on hand. A band from Salt Lake City raised its trombones and trumpets, ready to play. Top-level railroad executives milled about, waiting for the ceremony to begin - the ceremony that would mark the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
Work on this great project had begun a full eight years before. The Central Pacific line had started in San Francisco and built east, while the Union Pacific Railroad had started in Omaha, Nebraska, and built west. Now these two great lines were to finally meet and for the first time in history connect the eastern and western United States.
And now, the crowd - mostly Irish and Chinese laborers who had borne the brunt of the work - pushed close.
"Gentlemen," said Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, "with your assistance we will proceed to lay the last tie, the last rail, and drive the last spike."
With great pomp, Stanford picked up a silver-headed sledge-hammer, lifted it over his head, aimed at a gold spike, and swung with all his might…only to miss!
The Irish and Chinese workers howled. Stanford was getting a taste of just how hard it was to build a railroad.
Now Thomas Durant, the vice president of the Union Pacific, took up the sledgehammer, and swung a mighty blow.
He missed as well.
As a worker was hastily summoned to pound in the final spike, a telegrapher sent the signal to the nation: "It's done!"
From New York to San Francisco the country cheered as one.
Back at Promontory, two great locomotives inched forward just close enough so that the two engineers could lean forward and shake hands with each other.
A San Francisco author, Bret Harte, wrote a poem to commemorate the event:
What was it the engines said,
Pilots touching, head to head.
Facing on a single track,
Half a world behind each back?
It was the joining of two worlds: East meets West. Before the railroad, Americans thought of the West as a wilderness populated mostly by Indians. On that day the fabric of American life changed forever. Farmers and ranchers had a new, more efficient way to send their goods to market. Settlers rushed west, and western cities grew up. American finally had the technological means to grow and thrive - and become the America that we know today. For the first time in history, a vast country was made one.
Celebrations lasted for days. Chicago sported a 7-mile parade. New York ordered a hundred-gun salute in City Hall park, and business was suspended on Wall Street for the day. The residents of Buffalo ran through the streets singing "The Star Spangled Banner."
It was an astounding event, considering that those who first suggested the idea of a transcontinental railroad were written off as mad dreamers. After all, how could a railroad possibly be built across the country? Who would pay for it? Who would do the work? How would the rails cross over the Rocky Mountains?
Such skepticism was understandable. Railroads were still a relatively new phenomenon. To fully understand the immensity of the transcontinental achievement and to grasp the tremendous impact it had on the nation, it is necessary to investigate the beginnings of steam power in America.