When East Meets West: The Last Spike of the Transcontinental Railroad

On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad lines joined 1776 miles of rail at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.
On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad lines joined 1776 miles of rail at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.

It was 150 years ago today—on May 10, 1869—that "The Last Spike" was driven into America's first transcontinental railroad. This Last Spike was made of gold, so anyone could tell it was important, but there was plenty more to get excited about.

What Railroads Can Do For You

Before the transcontinental railroad, travel from the East to the West Coast took many moons and cost at least $1000 (the equivalent of just under $20,000 today). If you journeyed overland, bandits, foul weather, or unexpected hazards might strand you in mountains, and for any number of reasons—up to and including Divine Wrath—your party might drop from thirst, hunger, or pestilence, leaving bones for strange rodents to gnaw and scatter. If you went by water, the trip would be long and you might get bored, which is a drag.

After the nation-spanning railroad was completed in 1869, a ride from New York to San Francisco could be over in a week, for less than $100. You would be free to spend the whole trip eating and sleeping in comfort, writing love letters to your mistress, and reading, instead of living harrowing tales of privation and danger. Trade benefited as much as passengers. (Think of all that freight!) Even fresh food could be transported over the rail lines. At last, the coasts were tied together.

So if the transcontinental railroad was such a great idea, why didn't they build one earlier?

First, the railroad and steam locomotive had to be invented, which didn't happen until a little into the 19th century. Then, by the time such a project was technologically and logistically feasible, the States were beginning their Great Schism, which would lead to the Civil War; and various North-South debates about the fate of the West, the future of slavery, and the routes of the rails paralyzed negotiations.

The Great Railroad Race

The Civil War actually advanced the transcontinental railroad project, since it freed up the Union to build whatever it wanted without a care for what the Southern grumblers thought. In 1862, then, Congress managed to forge the Pacific Railroad Act, which granted money and land for every mile of rail constructed toward the goal of an East-West connection.

The two companies involved were the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, racing from Omaha and Sacramento, respectively, for as many subsidized miles as they could build before the rails met. (It was a "race" because the total mileage between two points is finite, so an extra mile earned by Union meant one less for Central, and vice versa.) The Union Pacific crews were composed of Irish and German immigrants, Civil War vets, free black citizens, and some Native Americans. The Central Pacific utilized more than 10,000 Chinese employees willing to work for less and in perilous conditions—which was important for Central, since they had to climb and blast their way through the Sierras almost as soon as they left Sacramento.

The Tracks Meet at Promontory, Utah

A meeting of the engines at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, Utah
A meeting of the engines at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, Utah.

Congress made the fool's mistake of assuming some motivating rationality on the part of the railroad companies, and not just base greed, so they didn't dictate just how, when, or where the rails must meet. When Central and Union crews ran into each other in northern Utah, instead of merging the lines right away, they set off building miles of parallel grading, with each company hoping to acquire more mileage and thus more of the reward money. With a kind of paternal exasperation, then, Congress had to set a junction point; and they chose Promontory, Utah—a little tent town of railroad workers and prostitutes just north of the Great Salt Lake.

Precious Metals and Railroad Fat Cats Make Good News

Since the meeting of the rails was such a meaningful (and publicized) national event, everyone considered it fit to celebrate with extravagant ceremony. Of course, extravagance ought to involve precious metals whenever it can, so four precious spikes were donated to adorn the last tie. There was an iron, silver, and gold spike from Arizona; a silver spike from Nevada; one gold spike from the San Francisco News Letter; and the crowning spike of gold from David Hewes, a friend of Central Pacific magnate Leland Stanford (founder of Stanford University).

Hewes's spike was the first to be made, and it inspired the rest. Hearing of the grand event, Hewes was initially disappointed at a lack of symbolic (and precious metal) objects donated for the ceremony, so he got the ball rolling himself. Hewes ended up having $400 worth of his own gold, from his own hoard, cast into a spike, each side of which was engraved: two with names, one with dates, one with the motto "May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world," and the head with a simple statement: "The Last Spike."

It was not, in fact, the last spike. The precious ceremonial spikes were carefully tapped into a ceremonial tie with a ceremonial silver hammer.

When the dignitaries (Stanford of Central Pacific and Thomas Durant of Union Pacific) tried real hammer swings to seal the deal, they both missed.

One spike was rigged with telegraph wires, so the whole nation could hear the blows of the hammer—something like a "live" broadcast, but with telegraph instead of television, and no commercials—and the publicists made sure to give this one a few good dings. Adding to those taps, a single-word telegram was sent out around the States: "Done." And the nation rejoiced, from coast to coast. But after all the pomp was accomplished, the special spikes and tie were torn up and some unknown railroad workers drove regular iron spikes into a regular tie to complete the transcontinental railroad.

The Verdict

"Never before in our history as a nation has occurred an event in the celebration of which all could participate so heartily, and with so little of mental reservation," the San Francisco News Letter reported. Most spokesmen shared the sentiment. Trouble was, the Chinese laborers had just rioted, other workers had held Durant hostage in his palatial train car while demanding unpaid wages, and of course that last telegraph spelled little but "Doom" to the Native Americans, who were further compressed by the States's new belt and surely had one or two reservations about that.

All in all, it was a strange and potent spectacle, with the golden spike at its center—a scene that might symbolize much more about the many-sided America than those simple and straightforward ideals of Industry and Progress.

This post was originally published in 2009.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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Visit Any National Park for Free on September 28—or Volunteer to Help Maintain Them

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Nick Hanauer/iStock via Getty Images

By the end of September—which always seems especially busy, even if you’re not a student anymore—you might be ready for a small break from the hustle and bustle. On Saturday, September 28, you can bask in the tranquility of any national park for free, as part of National Public Lands Day.

According to the National Park Service, the holiday has been held on the fourth Saturday of every September since 1994, and it’s also the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It’s up to you whether you’d like to partake in the service side or simply go for a stroll, but there is an added incentive to volunteer: You’ll get a one-day park pass that you can use for free park entry on a different day. Opportunities for volunteering include trail restoration, invasive plant removal, park cleanups, and more; you can see the details and filter by park, state, and/or type of event here.

If you’re not sure how you should celebrate National Public Lands Day, the National Park Service has created a handy flowchart to help you choose the best course of action for you—which might be as simple as sharing your favorite outdoor activity on social media with the hashtag #NPLD.

National public lands day celebration flowchart
National Park Service

There are more than 400 areas run by the National Park Service across the U.S., and many of them aren’t parks in the traditional sense of the word; the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz Island, and countless other monuments and historical sites are also run by the NPS. Wondering if there might be one closer than you thought? Explore parks in your area on this interactive map.

For those of you who can’t take advantage of the free admission on September 28, the National Park Service will also waive all entrance fees for Veteran’s Day on November 11.

And, if you’re wishing a free-admission day existed for museums, you’re in luck—more than 1500 museums will be free to visit on Museum Day, which happens to be this Saturday.

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