A meeting of steam engines at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, Utah. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

How the Golden Spike Joined America's Coasts

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May 10 (Bloomberg) -- Tomorrow happens to be National Train Day, which was designated as the first Saturday after the anniversary of the driving of the “Golden Spike.”

On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads were joined in a remote area of Utah, completing the first transcontinental railroad. This made the West Coast easily accessible for the first time, along with the vast expanse between the Pacific Ocean and the Missouri River. This region, often called the “Great American Desert,” previously had been as alien to easterners as the moon.

To most Americans, smitten with the idea of progress, the joining of the rails signaled an opportunity for faster, more comfortable travel across a huge distance and a gateway to the settlement and development of the West.

“We are the youngest of people,” the New York Herald said, “but we are teaching the world how to march forward.”

Railroads now spanned the continent, connecting its two great oceans, enabling the exploitation of mineral and other riches of the region, and improving access to the markets of the Far East.

Ending Wilderness

To a smaller group of people, the joining of the rails portended the end of a vast wilderness of rugged, largely unknown landscapes of a stark, awe-inspiring beauty. As early as the summer of 1868, a young engineer named Arthur Ferguson, working as a surveyor on the Union Pacific, scribbled in his diary, “The time is coming, and fast too, when in the sense it is now understood, THERE WILL BE NO WEST.”

As more rail lines followed, settlers arrived, towns sprang up, mines were opened or expanded, cattlemen flooded the Great Plains with their herds, farms dotted the once-empty vistas and new states were formed. The great buffalo herd was destroyed along with the tribes of American Indians who depended on them. The economic transformation of the West -- in which railroads had a central role -- was harsh and brutal and continues to haunt the national psyche.

The engine of progress took time to gather steam. For decades, the West remained economically dependent on the East; not until World War II did it begin the frantic pattern of growth that it has since enjoyed. The process started with the driving of that Golden Spike in May 1869.

(Maury Klein is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Rhode Island and the author of 16 books on American history. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Maury Klein at maurykl@verizon.net

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net