Ties That Linked the Rails: Utah’s Role in the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Benefits

Keynote address by BYU Professor Fred E. Woods

May 10, 2016, Promontory, Utah

Fred Woods, Promontory, Golden Spike

Fred E. Woods at Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah. Photos courtesy of Fred E. Woods.

I feel honored to have been selected to provide some remarks at this annual celebration. I keenly sense my responsibility as a keynote speaker to address this vibrant topic. As a boy living in Southern California, I received an electric train set one Christmas which brought me more excitement than I can possibly articulate. I approach this occasion with that same enthusiasm.

Leonard J. Arrington argued, “More than any other single agency the railroad converted a nation of diverse sections into ‘one nation, indivisible.’”[1] Today we are now at the crossroads where a monumental task was completed involving an abundance of iron rails and wooden ties. This colossal enterprise stands as a testament to a catalytic transportation transformation. It seems appropriate it would take place in Utah Territory. Here, Utahans completed the transcontinental telegraph and later assisted in the construction of the transcontinental railroad.

Reenactment of Golden Spike ceremony, May 10, 2016.

Reenactment of Golden Spike ceremony, May 10, 2016.

When the telegraph was completed in Salt Lake City, October 1861, Brigham Young sent a clear signal to President Lincoln, “Utah has not seceded, but is firm for the Constitution and laws of our once happy country.” Less than eight years later, on May 10, 1869, hundreds gathered at Promontory to witness another coast to coast completion. The driving of the last spike of the transcontinental railroad reverberated continuity to a once broken nation.[2]

Railroad enthusiast Asa Whitney had strongly asserted that the Pacific Railroad would bring the nation “all together as one family, but with one interest – the common good of all.”[3] Promontory was selected to be the place of convergence ending an intense rivalry between the UP and the CP. What Appomattox had been to the North and South, Promontory became to the East and West. Both places were catalytic in binding a nation, now tied together in each cardinal direction.

Engine 119 heading to the Golden Spike anniversary celebration!

Engine 119 heading to the Golden Spike anniversary celebration!

The moment the final spike was struck, telegraph wires transmitted the simple but momentous communication, D-O-N-E. Instantly news of the completion spread across a nation erupting in celebration. Cannons boomed in cities from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In Salt Lake City, 7,000 gathered in the Tabernacle for the celebration. Promontory enjoyed bands from Fort Douglas and the Salt Lake City 10th Ward.[4]

As the nationwide celebrations faded, America entered an era of new prosperity with the expansion of commercial ventures. As with our transforming informational age, the uniting of the rails from the Pacific to the Atlantic suddenly brought the world much closer. Soon the first transcontinental freight train left California bound for the east coast transporting Asian teas as well as regular passenger service. Travelers could now cross the continent in a week instead of six months. Previously exorbitant overland travel costs were reduced to a mere $70.00 for emigrant rail passage.[5] Gone were the days of treacherous ocean travel via the Panama route that ended the life of railroad enthusiast Theodore Judah and others.[6] The new rail connection made America’s future promising.

Intercontinental trade began to grow extensively. Within a decade of completion, the transcontinental railroad managed to transport $50 million worth of freight across America annually. The connected rails also unlocked markets of the west coast and Asia in the east, (only 5% from Asia and 95% locally),[7] and also carried eastern goods to a blossoming west beyond the rolling waters of Old Man River. Just as the railroad promoted the expansion of commerce in America, it also stimulated intellectual life, a transfer of cosmopolitan culture, and stirred public discourse. Passengers and freight not only traveled faster, but as with the telegraph, it was a pathway for ideas and intellectual stimulation.[8]

Such benefits however, came at a costly price. Constructing the transcontinental railroad required vision, muscle, brains, sweat, and undeviating doggedness. General Wm. Sherman called it a “work of giants.” Most of all it demanded tenacious teamwork and many believed the end result would be worth it. As early as 1866, the Rocky Mountain News proclaimed, “The one moral, the one remedy for every evil, social, political, financial, and industrial . . . need of the entire Republic, is the Pacific Railroad.”[9]

The building of the railroad completed largely by manual labor. It is hard to imagine the completion of Pacific railroad without the efforts of the Chinese laborers. Charlie Crocker, in an attempt to justify why he wanted to bring Chinese workers on the construction line of the Central Pacific, simply stated, “They built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?”  Further, the CP set a record of laying 10 miles of track in one day with a workforce of 90% Chinese!

Not everyone benefitted from the transformative tracks. For the Native Americans, the Iron Horse led to another trail of tears: encroachment, intrusion, and infringement. Abundant buffalo herds were slaughtered by invading whites, ancestral lands lost, and thousands of Natives were thrust onto unwanted reservations. A penetrating statement spoken by a Native American in Dee Brown’s classis book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, captures the resentment of a deceived people: “the only promise the white men ever kept was to take our land, and he did.”

Nevertheless, in the name of “manifest destiny,” the train rolled on, and along with it, promises to yield big dividends. The Central Pacific leadership was made up of the big four: Crocker, Hopkins, Stanford, and Huntington, whose combined business experience was both impressive and influential. For the UP, there was Sherman, Dodge, and the Casement brothers; all former Union generals. Engineers and foreman were also Civil War veterans overseeing many Irish and German immigrants as well as ex-soldiers from both the union and confederate armies. Ambrose argued this enterprise, “could not have been done without the Civil War veterans and their experience. It was the war that taught them how to think big, how to organize grand projects, how to persevere.” The work force was made up mostly of Chinese on the CP and Irish on the UP, but critical to both were the Mormon graders under the direction of the American Moses, Brigham Young.[10]

The impact of Utah’s contribution in building the transcontinental railroad and her subsequent territorial benefits is a subject that merits attention. Keep in mind that in 1869 Mormons made up 98% of Utah’s total population.[11] In this same year, Samuel Bowles, editor and publisher of the Springfield, MA. Republican, observed, “but for the pioneership of the Mormons, discovering the pathway, and feeding those who came out upon it, all this central region of our great West would now be many years behind its present development, and the railroad instead of being finished, would hardly be begun.”[12] Further, in his book, History of Utah, Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote, “It was acknowledged by all railroad men that nowhere on the line could the grading compare in completeness and finish with the work done by the people of Utah.”[13]

The Mormon grading was not only superior, but their construction camps were conducted in stark contrast to the notorious “hell on wheels” encampments. Instead of boisterousness induced of whiskey, gambling, and soiled doves; the Mormon camp sites operated under orderly and peaceful religious governance. “Twice daily, workers and their families assembled for prayers and on Sundays they attended religious services. . . . Neither swearing nor drunkenness characterized their construction camps.”[14] Clarence Reeder, summarized the Mormon efforts to construct the railroad: “A people working together in harmony under the guidance of their religious leaders to accomplish a temporal task which they treated as though it were divinely inspired.”[15]

Music in the Mormon camps along the Union Pacific was sometimes provided by the “Rocky Mountain Glee Club,” comprised of the laborers. Home spun songs were sung by Latter-day Saints around the campfires, including this one written by Mormon grader, James Crane:

At the head of great Echo

The railway’s begun

The Mormons are cutting

And grading like fun.

They say they’ll stick to it

Till it is complete,

When friends and relations

They’re longing to meet.”[16]


Reenactment of the original Golden Spike ceremony.

Reenactment of the original Golden Spike ceremony.

Another preferred Latter-day Saint song was:


Hurrah, hurrah, the railroad’s begun.

Three cheers for the contractor, his name Brigham Young.

Hurrah, hurrah, we are faithful and true

And if we stick to it, it’s bound to go through.[17]

Gathering at Golden Spike National Historic Site.

Gathering at Golden Spike National Historic Site.

An estimated five thousand Utahans did “stick to it,” laboring for both the UP and the CP, whose supervisors were complimentary of the grading, trestlework, bridge-building, tunneling, and furnishing of ties completed in Utah.[18]

John J. Stewart wrote, “No state nor people figures more prominently in the story of the Pacific Railroad than do Utah and Utahans, particularly the Mormons. Mormon pioneers blazed the trail for much of the route of the railroad. The Mormon empire in the Great Basin provided much of the incentive for construction of the railroad. Mormons were among the first to petition Congress to construct the railroad. Brigham Young was one of the very first to subscribe to Union Pacific stock. Mormons provided much of the labor and capital in construction of the railroad, doing some of the surveying on Union Pacific and the grading on both Central Pacific and Union Pacific through Utah.

It was in Utah that the railroad was completed. Ogden, Utah, became the terminal point and the junction for the two railroad companies. Utah was site of one of the first branch lines on the Pacific Railroad.” The Utah Central ran 37 miles from Ogden to Salt Lake City. The last spike, driven by the American Moses, Brigham Young, had inscribed upon it (along with the mallet he used) “holiness to the Lord.” Stewart continues, “And Utah was to a peculiar degree both benefactor and beneficiary of the railroad, both as to passenger service and freight, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints utilized the railroad greatly with its missionary and immigration programs, and the mining industry could be developed extensively only with the aid of railroad facilities.”[19]

Some argued that Latter-day Saints did not want a railroad coming into Utah, the Mormon Mecca in the West, as it would disturb their cultural isolation. According to Samuel Bowles, Brigham Young was quick to respond to this claim: “It must indeed be a damned poor religion if it cannot stand one railroad.”[20] Utah’s consensus was that the benefits would outweigh the potential challenges. National newspapers boasted that Mormons would be crushed by gentile influence when the railroad reached Utah. Utah’s citizens soon recognized they would no longer be isolated, so they created programs to insulate their people. This was done through a variety of LDS church programs: a school of the prophets, the women’s Relief Society re-emerged, and agricultural and manufacturing cooperatives, enabling increased self-sufficient. In addition, the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) was established to handle the purchase and distribution of wholesale items to shore up the city of the Saints.[21]

LDS Church leader, John Taylor stated, “It has been thought and charged by some that we are averse to improvements, and that we disliked the approach of the railroad. Never was a greater mistake. We have been cradled in the cities of the new and old worlds, where we have built locomotives, steamboats, gas works, and telegraph lines. . . . We have always been the advocates of improvement of the arts, science, literature, and general progress; and whilst we abjure evils, the follies, the crimes, and many of the lamentable adjuncts of civilization, we are always first and foremost in everything that tends to ennoble and exalt mankind. . . . We meet in friendly conclave with distinguished gentlemen connected with the eastern and western divisions of the railroad. . . . We hail these gentlemen as brothers in art, science, progress and civilization. . . . We will bare our arms and nerve our muscles to aid in the completion of this great cord of brotherhood which is already reaching our borders.”[22]

LDS leader, George A. Smith noted, “We started from Nauvoo in February, 1846, to make a road to the Rocky Mountains. A portion of our work was to hunt for the railroad. We located a road to Council Bluffs, bridging the streams, and I believe it has been pretty nearly followed by the railroad. In April 1847, President Young and one hundred and forty-three pioneers left Council Bluffs, and located and made the road to the site of this city [Salt Lake City]. A portion of our labor was to seek out the way for a railroad across the continent, and every place we found that seemed difficult for laying the rails we searched out a way for the road to go around or through it.”[23]

Mormon pioneer Jacob Weiler noted, “In April, 1847, I was chosen to be one of the hundred and forty four men and three women with Brigham Young as our leader . . . . Many times when gathered around the camp fire we would plan and talk over the future of our dreary wastes through which we were traveling.  I remember more than once the possibility of a railroad to the Pacific was spoken of as being in the near future.”[24]

Brigham Young stated, “I do not suppose we traveled one day from the Missouri here, but what we looked for a track where the rails could be laid with success, for a railroad through this Territory to the Pacific Ocean. This was long before the gold was found, when this Territory belonged to Mexico. We never went through the canyons or worked our way over the dividing ridges without asking where the rails could be laid. When we came here over the hills and plains in 1847 we made our calculations for a railroad across the country. . . . We want the benefits of the railroad for our emigrants so that after they land in New York they may get on board the cars and never leave them again until they reach this city.”[25]

Golden Spike Anniversary Celebration, Promontory Summit.

Golden Spike Anniversary Celebration, Promontory Summit.

The thousands of European converts gathering to an American Zion in weeks, rather than months, was chief among the railroad benefits. With the transportation revolution of steam power, instead of a 54 day voyage from Liverpool to New Orleans or 38 days of ocean travel to New York, the passage across the Atlantic was reduced to only eleven days and over America in just a week.

Initially, employment on the railroad provided Utah an immediate solution to a devastating problem. In 1868, Mormons first contracted to work for the Pacific railroad at a time when an insect infestation had brought the Saints to their knees. Crops were ruined, farmers were out of work, families need to be fed, and there was a shortage of cash. Work on the railroad was a God-send.

Lewis Barney wrote, “The grasshoppers put in their appearance and destroyed our Crops it seemed that every avenue was Closed And the saints Cut off from supplies But the Lord who had brought them safe through all their troubles had not forsaken them For at this Critical time President Young was requested to take a heavy contract on the union pacific Railroad which he accepted this gave the Saints Labor for which they got Cash Clothing and provisions.”[26] In late May of 1868, Orson Pratt writing to Brigham Young stated, “Much of our wheat in this settlement is eaten off by the grasshoppers; consequently several are ready to go to work on the rail road.”[27]

In addition, Milando Pratt recalled, “The grasshoppers had eaten up my crop. . . . These pestilential migrators were no respecters of alighting places when night overtook them, for they would settle down upon the Great Salt Lake which pickled them in its briny waters by the hundreds of thousands of tons and then cast their carcases ashore until a great wall from 2 to 5 ft. in depth and from 3 to 9 or 10 ft. in width of these inanimate pests was formed for miles around the lake’s shore. And oh what a stench did this lifeless mass make. . . . Great clouds of grasshoppers flew over these Intermountain vallies, and would darken the sun like a misty fog, and when night overtook them, they would alight upon the ground and devour the crops wherever within their reach. This grasshopper plague was the incentive cause . . . to cease farming and go to railroad work.”[28]

Along with employment, there was the hope of an expanded market to transport local goods to a national market. Further, steel tracks could transport large granite stones for the Latter-day Saint temple, a distance of 20 miles from Little Cottonwood Canyon to Salt Lake City. Instead of taking several days to carry a load of stone from the quarry, it took about an hour. In addition, with increased visitors to Utah, the Mormons hoped that prejudices would soften towards the City of the Saints.[29]

Hope was realized when Mrs. Frank Leslie (wife of the famed New York publisher) took a trip by rail to Utah the following decade. Leslie perceived the impressive industry of the Saints that made the desert blossom as the rose and observed that Utah’s citizens were “‘better fed, better dressed, and better mannered’ than other Westerners, and lived in neater cottage, amid flowers and garden produce in profusion.” Although she could not yet come to grips with the practice of polygamy, Leslie admitted, “roses are better than sage-brush, and potatoes and peas preferable as a diet to buffalo grass. Also schoolhouses, with cleanly and comfortable troops of children about them, are a symptom of more advanced civilization than lonely shanties with only fever-and-ague and whisky therein.”[30]

But the transcontinental railroad was larger than a window to the Mormon Mecca or to benefit Utah’s inhabitants alone. It was built with the aim of producing more opportunities for all Americans to profit thereby and with the hope of generating greater national unity.  Providentially, the words engraved upon the golden spike read: “May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

On the day of dedication, Reverend J. Todd of Pittsfield, Massachusetts offered a prayer stating, “Our Father and God . . . we have assembled here, this day, upon the height of the continent from varied sections of our country, to do homage to Thy wonderful name, in that Thou hast brought this mighty enterprise, combining the commerce of the east with the gold of the west to so glorious a completion. . . . We here consecrate this great highway for the good of Thy people. O God, we implore Thy blessing upon it . . .  that this mighty enterprise may be unto us as the Atlantic of Thy strength and the Pacific of Thy love.”[31]

I conclude with a hope that we remember the immense price paid by a large body of men to complete this enormous undertaking. I pay tribute to the collective calloused hands, aching arms, strained backs, and blistered feet of the men who leveled the path and laid the rails under unrelenting circumstances. Regardless of size or strength, these diverse human beings linked rails that tied the nation together and prospered the whole.  As we walk in the diversity of our daily lives, may we too leave tracks and form ties with the aim of benefitting the greater whole. Remembering our common humanity will keep our nation united and lay the rails for generations to come.


[1] Leonard J. Arrington, “The Transcontinental Railroad and the Development of the West,” Utah Historical Quarterly vol. 37, no. 1 (Winter 1969), 4.

[2] Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 368, notes, coincidentally that Theodore Judah, the railroad visionary, and his wife Ann Ferona, commenced their wedding union on this same day.

[3] David Howard Bain, Empire Express: Building the Transcontinental Railroad (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 14.

[4] Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World, 363, 366.

[5] Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World, 369.

[6] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-impact/

[7] Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World, 371.

[8] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-impact/ See also http://gtgtechnologygroup.com/transcontinental-railroad/ which notes reduced time to travel and cost.

[9] Rocky Mountain News, 1866, cited in http://www.railwayage.com/index.php/passenger/intercity/perspective-the-northeast-corridor-has-nothing-on-us%E2%80%9D.html

[10] Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World, 18-19.

[11] http://www.city-data.com/states/Utah-History.html Leonard J. Arrington, “The Transcontinental Railroad and the Mormon Economic Policy,” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 20, no. 2 (May, 1951), 157, put the LDS population for the year 1869 at about 75,000.

[12] John J. Stewart, The Iron Trail to the Golden Spike (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1969), 176.

[13] Hubert Howe Bancroft History of Utah (San Francisco: History Company, 1890), 754.

[14] http://npshistory.com/series/archeology/rmr/16/clr2d.htm

[15] Clarence Reeder, “A History of Utah’s Railroads,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah (1959), cited in Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World, 287.

[16] Wesley S. A. Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962), 270

[17] Cited in Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World, 286.

[18] Leonard J. Arrington, “The Transcontinental Railroad and the Development of the West,” Utah Historical Quarterly vol. 37, no. 1 (Winter 1969), 10.


[19] Stewart, The Iron Trail to the Golden Spike (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1969), 175.

[20] Samuel Bowles, Our New West (Hartford, CT, 1869), 260.

[21] Stewart, The Iron Trail to the Golden Spike (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1969), 184.

[22] Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, vol. 2, 238-239.

[23] Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, vol. 2, 239.

[24] Autobiographical sketch of life and labors of Jacob Weiler, cited in https://history.lds.org/overlandtravels/sources/4462/weiler-jacob-autobiographical-sketch-1892-1895, 3-4.

[25] Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, vol. 2, 240-41.

[26] Autobiography and Diary of Lewis Barney.

[27] Letter of Orson Hyde to Brigham Young, May 27, 1868, CR 1234/1, Reel 53, box 40, fd 6, CHL.

[28] Milando Pratt [Autobiographical Sketch], pp. 7-8, 12, Utah State Historical Society.

[29] http://emp.byui.edu/PyperL/New%20EM%20Lessons/EM_8.htm

[30] Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, paperback ed. 1966), 239.

[31] “The Proceedings at Promontory Summit,” Deseret News, May 10, 1869.