Read more about our quest to visit all 417 NPS-administered sites right here!
This was our first NPS site visit since finishing the national parks, and we were so excited to be there. A bit part of the reason we wanted to take on the 417 was to get a better handle on American history—history has never been my strong suit but I do find it fascinating and it’s much easier to learn about when you’re on site. So on our way down to St. George, we took a detour out to Promontory Point, Utah, to visit Golden Spike.
Golden Spike NHS celebrates the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a massive step forward for Westward Expansion and a meaningful (and eminently useful) symbol of the joining of East and West. Once the railroad was completed, the journey across the country took only a week—before, it was a six-month journey by wagon or horse. The railroad changed the West for good: it led to faster Native American removal, disrupted the ecosystem of the plains, nearly eradicated the bison, and signaled the end of the frontier. Shipping and settling became easier, communication faster, and industry more profitable. The West would never be the same.
We loved getting a closer look at this history and learning about how the railroad was built. In 1862, Congress authorized Central Pacific to begin building a railroad eastward from Sacramento and the Union Pacific to build westward from Omaha. The railroads were paid per mile of track laid, according to the difficulty of the terrain. While the Union Pacific was laying track over the flat plains of the Midwest, the Central Pacific had to find a way across the Sierra Nevadas, blasting 15 tunnels through Sierra granite. Both companies relied on labor from immigrants and struggled to get supplies; the Central Pacific had to get every rail, spike and locomotive shipped 15,000 miles around Cape Horn.
As each railroad company sped toward the other, Congress debated where to establish the meeting point of the tracks. While they tried to decide, the railroads rushed to grade as much track and claim as much money and land subsidies as possible; they ended up overlapping each other for 200 miles with parallel grades for tracks. Finally Congress chose Promontory Point as the spot where the tracks would join, and on May 10, 1869, a golden spike was symbolically tapped in to connect the railroads. In the end, Central Pacific laid 690 miles of track and Union Pacific laid 1,086.
A big part of our visit to Golden Spike was learning about this history through the visitor’s center exhibits and movies, and presentations by the rangers. We checked out the final stretch of track and the locomotives of the two railroads, and even got to watch the steam engines drive around the track and get put away for the night in the engine house, which was super cool!
After the train demonstration, we decided to head out to Spiral Jetty. Golden Spike is pretty far from anywhere most people are going, and Spiral Jetty is a 30-minute drive beyond it; we figured while we were all the way out there, we should go see one of the most famous earthwork sculptures in the world.
We’ve gotten mixed reviews of Spiral Jetty from the people we know who’ve been there (maybe that has something to do with the super long drive to get there?), but we thought it was super cool and there’s no denying the epicness of a giant lava-rock coil jutting out into the salt flats.
If you’re a fan of history or trains, or if you’re headed out to Spiral Jetty and want to take advantage of what else is in the area, definitely check out Golden Spike! On summer Saturdays, you can see a recreation of the May 10 spike-driving ceremony, and on most days you can catch a steam train demonstration. There’s also hiking and two driving tours (we did the East one and got to see huge fills and culverts) that are worth checking out, especially late in the day when the light across the desert is so nice :).
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