Sunday, October 31, 2010

Celebrating the Last Spike

Stephen Ambrose's book Nothing Like It in the World tells the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad in America.

"The railroad took brains, muscle, and sweat in quantities and scope never before put into a single project," Ambrose wrote in his eminently readable history lesson.

Early in the story, Ambrose describes the moment when construction was to begin and certain California people decided that there ought to be a great ceremony. A host of dignitaries were invited to gather at the place where the first rail was to be laid.

One of those invited was Collis Huntington, perhaps the railroad's most important West Coast backer in California. But he declined, saying:

"If you want to jubiliate [celebrate] over driving the first spike, go ahead and do it. I don't. Those mountains over there look too ugly. We may fail, and if we do, I want to have as few people know it as we can ...Anybody can drive the first spike, but there are months of labor and unrest between the first and the last spike." (Emphasis mine)

Huntington was not romanced by first spikes, by premature celebration. It was the last spike in the process that grabbed his attention. Everything in between the first and last spike was his big picture, and until the picture was all filled in, he wasn't celebrating.

When construction of the railroad was finally completed in May of 1869, a last spike, a golden one at that, was pounded into place, and two locomotives (one from the east; the other from the west) moved forward until they touched.

A telegram was sent to President Ulysses S. Grant: "Sir: we have the honor to report that the last rail is laid, the last spike is driven, the Pacific Railroad is finished."

"The last rail is laid, the last spike is driven" (emphasis mine). Now maybe Collis Huntington had something to celebrate.

Gordon MacDonald, A Resilient Life, Nelson Books: Nashville, 2004, 43.

Geoff Pound

Image: “When construction of the railroad was finally completed in May of 1869…”