May 10, 1869 was a turning point in American history. After seven years of arduous work, tens of thousands of man-hours, incredible risk, and hundreds of deaths, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads finally connected at Promontory Summit, Utah, linking the country from coast to coast for the very first time. On that day, a crowd of workers and dignitaries gathered around the Jupiter and No. 119 steam engines to watch the final golden spike be driven (actually, ceremonially tapped and then later replaced) into the tracks. The impact of the Transcontinental Railroad was immediate and immense. The formerly months-long journey could now be completed in a matter of a few days, and a tidal wave of people and goods surged into the American frontier, transforming the landscape forever.
Every year, people gather for reenactments of the momentous occasion, but for the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike, Utah is planning a party of special magnificence. And by that we mean a month full of events and exhibits around the state courtesy of the Spike 150 Commission and dozens of partnering organizations. “These celebratory events honor our shared history and inspire us that great things are possible with vision, hard work, ingenuity, dedication and collaboration,” says Doug Foxley, Co-Chair of the Spike 150 Commission.
Sesquicentennial Festival at Golden Spike National Historic Site
The main commemoratory festival (May 10-12) will, of course, take place at the Golden Spike National Historic Site (6200 North 22300th Street West, Corinne) at Promontory Summit.
Festivities kick-off with the arrival of the Jupiter and #119 replica steam engines arrive at 8:15 a.m. (site opens to the public at 8 a.m.) on May 10. The official opening ceremony (11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) features a keynote address from renowned presidential scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham, who will offer his perspective on the historical significance of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. His remarks will be followed by the world premiere of As One, a new musical inspired by the Golden Spike era. Written and directed by award-winning composer, producer, and songwriter Stephen Nelson; lyricist and vocalist Anjanette Mickelsen; and choreographed by Jennifer Park Hohl, As One features five original compositions and a chorus and band comprised of 250 elementary school students from Utah’s 29 counties.
Festival Area Activities
After the opening ceremony, visitors can enjoy a variety of activities, including historical re-enactments, performances from local artists and musicians, interactive exhibits, demonstrations, food trucks, merchants, and more. Highlights include the Frontier Camp where exhibits and storytellers bring the lives of long-gone railroad workforce to life and the STEM Innovation Summit where young innovators can imagine where we’ll soar to by 2069 using today’s aviation, rocketry, and drone technology.
Note: Access to the historic site is only possible by private car or chartered bus, with each car requiring a ticket purchased online in advance. Fee per vehicle is $20 on May 10 and $10 on May 11-12. The sesquicentennial festival is open May 10 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., May 11 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and May 12 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Events in Summit and Wasatch Counties
If you’re looking for another nearby adventure to add to your day, Utah’s most famous piece of land art, the Spiral Jetty, is only half an hour drive from the historic site. Pro-tip: Hit this spot in the evening, sunsets are ridiculously spectacular over the Great Salt Lake.
Whistle Stop in Echo, May 8
Big Boy No. 4014, one of Union Pacific’s historic steam locomotives, rolls into Echo (3525 S. Echo Rd,) as part of Spike 150 revelry. Summit County’s festivities begin at 8 a.m. with live music and food trucks and chug along with the train’s arrival (9:20 a.m.), and it's departure for Morgan at 9:40 a.m. If you’re feeling particularly sprightly, this presents the perfect opportunity for a morning bike ride or walk on the Historic Rail Trail, which ends/starts in Echo.
Zhi Lin: “Chinaman’s Chance” on Promontory Summit
From now through June 2, visit the Kimball Art Center to see the work of internationally acclaimed artist Zhi Lin. Lin’s art explores the lost history of the Chinese workers who labored for years on the railroads, often doing the most dangerous work. In conjunction with the exhibit, the Kimball will also host several related events including a free panel discussion Art, Activism, and Immigration (May 11). Visit the Kimball Art Center website for more details.
The Chinese Helped Build the Railroad--The Railroad Helped Build America Exhibit
Part of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project from Stanford University, this traveling exhibit features stories from thousands of Chinese migrants who worked tirelessly on the Transcontinental Railroad. Make sure to check it out while it’s on display at the Park City Library (May 1-11).
Screening of “The Chinese Exclusion Act”
On May 2 at 7 p.m., join Park City Film for a free screening of The Chinese Exclusion Act. Directed by award-winning documentary filmmakers Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu, this film grapples with what it means to be American, examining history and impact of the unconstitutional 1882 law that banned Chinese immigrants and prevented Chinese nationals from becoming citizens.
Heber Valley Railroad
Don’t want to drive out all the way to Promontory Summit? Head over to Heber on May 10 (5:30 - 9:30 p.m.) for a Golden Spike celebration at the Heber Valley Railroad, featuring live music, trivia, and fireworks. You’ll have the opportunity to dress in period clothes, pose in front of the steam locomotive for fun photos, dance around a bonfire, and more.
If you’re interested in attending other 150th Golden Spike Anniversary events and exhibits happening around the state, head on over to spike150.org