WE ALL KNOW this photo made shortly after the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met at Promontory, Utah, completing the first Transcontinental Railroad.
The photograph has become the iconic image of that day.
National Park Service research says about 1,000 people were present at the Promontory ceremonies: high officials of the two railroads, invited guests, people from nearby towns who arrived on special trains, people traveling across the country by train and stage whose travel was fortuitously timed, four companies of the U.S. Army 21st Infantry Regiment on their way to California including the regimental band, and a small contingent of railroad workers.
Perhaps appropriately, this photo was taken after those high officials — Leland Stanford, Thomas Durant, and their like — had adjourned to the private cars to toast each other with champagne.
This photo features actual workers from the field who built the two railroads. One major element to note is that we’re on Central Pacific’s side of the spike ceremony — note the CP sawn crossties as opposed to UP’s hand-hewn ties. No. 119 was moved forward for the photo. The actual spike location is to the right, possibly under No. 119’s tender.
Let’s take a closer look at this image, arguably American railroading’s most famous photo. — Kyle K. Wyatt
Want to find out more about the Transcontinental Railroad?
Facts, figures, history, and more are available from our special Journey to Promontory magazine, available at our partner shop, the Kalmbach Hobby Store.