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Wednesday, July 20, 2022

July 20, 2022: UtahStudying: The Golden Spike

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Utah histories, leading up to a special weekend post on that founding community!]

On Promontory Point, propaganda photos, and the power of posterity.

On May 10th, 1869, after more than six years of extensive work from multiple directions, the nation’s First Transcontinental Railroad was formally completed at a ceremony at Utah’s Promontory Point (or Summit, as apparently the Point is a nearby but different spot; I couldn’t resist the alliteration in my topic sentence above, natch). Located in northwestern Utah, not far from the Idaho border, this spot was centrally located between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines, which thanks to tens of thousands of workers had been throughout these half-dozen years of construction gradually extending toward it from Sacramento, California and Council Bluffs, Iowa, respectively. Both the ceremony and the spot were of course far more symbolic than truly distinctive, as the entire point of the railroad was its transcontinental span and connection, not any one location (and certainly not any one spike or railroad tie along those thousands of miles). But the symbolic setting came to represent this impressive and influential achievement as a whole, and so became an important part of the evolving history and identity of Utah as well.

That symbolism wasn’t simply geographic, of course—it was also and most importantly staged. Both the May 10th ceremony and the famous A.J. Russell photograph that captured the event were extensively and elaborately planned and choreographed. They were the brainchild of a few prominent individuals, including San Francisco immigrant turned construction titan David Hewes, shopkeeper and railroad magnate Leland Stanford, and other directors of the Central Pacific Railroad in particular (which seems to have been in charge of organizing the ceremony). They brought together a great deal of materials and men, including two locomotives to “meet” symbolically and thousands of railroad workers and officials to witness the event and constitute that crowded photo opportunity. The ceremony itself featured a number of Chinese American workers, not only because of the overall central role they had played in the Central Pacific construction, but also because a few handpicked workers laid the final rails for that line not long before the ceremony. An A.J. Russell stereoview of the laying features a few of those workers; but in the more overtly posed and staged photograph, that Chinese American community is significantly minimized and absent, especially compared to their white peers.

Those inclusions and exclusions remind us of just how much the ceremony and photo were propaganda—not only for the railroad lines and companies, but for particular visions of the West and the United States. But if an individual ceremony and photograph exist at a specific moment in time, history itself is far more evolving, reflecting our memories, narratives, and understandings at least as much as those particular events and details. When it comes to Russell’s photograph, for example, researchers with (ironically enough) Stanford University’s “Chinese Railroad Workers in North America” project have identified at least two Chinese American workers present in the photo. And when it comes to the ceremony as a whole, there’s the truly wonderful 2019 ceremony, right back at Promontory Summit, which brought together descendants of Chinese American railroad workers to take a new picture and more fully commemorate their vital role in this project and these histories. That’s one of my favorite 21st century American events, and one that, like its predecessor 150 years prior, took place symbolically but significantly in Utah.

Next Utah history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

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