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What’s in the Transcontinental Railroad’s most famous photograph?

By | April 10, 2019

A rail historian describes 17 highlights you should know about in this well-known image made at Promontory

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Andrew J. Russell champagne photograph A.J. Russell
Andrew J. Russell champagne photograph A.J. Russell
1.) Samuel S. Montague, Canadian Pacific chief engineer 2.) Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific chief engineer 3.) James H. Strobridge, CP construction superintendent 4.) Unknown UP officials 5.) CP Jupiter engineer George Booth 6.) Beverages, possibly champagne 7.) UP No. 119 engineer Sam Bradford 8.) Funnel or “Yankee” stack for a wood burning locomotive 9.) Coal oil or kerosene headlight from Crerar, Adams & Co. of Chicago 10.) Same type headlight, but made by I.A. Williams’ Utica (N.Y.) Headlight Co. 11.) Check valve for water pump connected to crossheads 12.) Sagebrush 13.) Weather: Sunny and 69-degrees Fahrenheit in the shade 14.) Earth for ballast, peaked in the middle and sloping to the edge of ties 15.) CP sawn ties 16.) 56 pounds-per-yard rail that is 28 feet long 17.) Straight capped stack for a coal-burning locomotive.
Andrew J. Russell

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.

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