May 10, 2014

Those who fashion a graven image are all of them futile, and their precious things are of no profit… Isaiah 44:9

Today (in addition to being my brother-in-law’s birthday) is the anniversary of a little-known but significant event in American history. Naturally, there’s a national park unit dedicated to it—and I’ve even been there!

The Golden Spike National Historic Site celebrates the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad, when the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined together in 1869. This rail link cut the time of a coast-to-coast trip from months to days. There will be a ceremony today at Golden Spike NHS, and reenactments are held twice daily every Saturday and holiday from May through Columbus Day.

But first, a little background from the Bureau of Land Management:

The Central Pacific Railroad began laying track east from Sacramento in 1863.  After tackling the rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and crossing the Great Basin [which is a national park in Nevada], the railroad reached Utah in March 1869. The Byway follows the last 90 miles of grade laid by the Central Pacific before their rails met the Union Pacific’s at Promontory Summit. As you travel west from Golden Spike National Historic Site, you can see two parallel grades. In an effort to reap greater government subsidies, the two competing railroads laid grade along side each other for over 200 miles.

On April 28, 1869, The Central Pacific crews laid 10 miles of track in one day, a record which resulted from a bet between the two railroads. The Central Pacific crews rested at Camp Victory (Rozel), just west of the back country byway information site.

Nine of every ten men who built the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese. Renowned for their reliability and industrious work ethic, they labored into Utah ten thousand strong with little more than picks, shovels, and black powder. Subsisting on tea, rice, and dried vegetables from China, they lived in segregated quarters in camps. [For more on these immigrant workers, go here.]

Note that the place where the tracks met is called Promontory Summit. The National Park Service strives to emphasize the site is not called Promontory Point, under the Golden Spike’s “FAQs” section:

Promontory Point is thirty-five miles south of Golden Spike. The correct name for this location is Promontory Summit. For unknown reasons, some reporters and railroad officials in 1869 wrote that the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point, and this falsehood has been perpetuated throughout history in textbooks, films, and all other forms of media.

A post on National Parks Traveler also mentions other misinformation regarding the golden spike ceremony, including the story of the four spikes used on May 10: two of gold, one of gold and silver, and one of silver. There was also a special silver tie into which the spikes would be driven, and a silver maul (spike hammer) with which to do it.

But all of those were for show. Central Pacific President Leland Stanford and Union Pacific Vice-President Thomas Durant merely tapped the spikes so all the objects could be preserved for posterity without any marks.

Afterwards, the commemorative items were removed and replaced with three ordinary iron pikes, an iron maul and a basic pine tie so the tracks really and truly could be joined. Stanford swung and hit the tie; Durant also took a swing and missed even the tie! It fell to a “regular rail worker” to actually drive home that last spike.

And what became of the ceremonial pieces? The gold and the silver spikes as well as the silver maul now reside at the Cantor Arts Museum at Stanford University, named after you-know-who. The gold and silver spike is owned by the Museum of the City of New York. The specially crafted tie ended up in the San Francisco offices of the Southern Pacific (into which the Central Pacific line had been reorganized; that railroad in turn merged with the Union Pacific in 1959), and burnt during that city’s 1906 earthquake and fire.

I certainly understand the symbolic importance of these articles—constructing a railroad that stretched from ocean to ocean was a great accomplishment that changed America, and seeing them helps us remember that achievement. And yet, on that day so long ago, they were useless. They were worthless to do the actual job of joining two railroad tracks.

We humans have a tendency to do that. We assign value to things that, in the end, have no real worth. As the prophet Isaiah noted, much of the stuff we sacrifice for, invest in and count as precious—possessions, careers, success—often makes us its slave, drives us crazy and catches us up in an endless cycle of futility. We try to make our “gold and silver” into what they were never meant to and can never be.

The Lord offers a better, lasting alternative: “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance. Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live…” (Isaiah 55:2, 3).

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