We got off the train at the FrontRunner station, but our first destination was the old Union Station next door. This iteration of the station is a massive Italianate terminal built in 1924 to replace the previous station destroyed by fire. (And today anchors 25th Street, which collects a number of local restaurants and shops, coffee, brewing, venues and distinctive old-town character within walking distance of the train.)
We parked our bikes in front and headed into the Railroad Museum, one of four museums the station now houses. What pulled my attention was the museum’s model railroad, which snaked around a network of hallways and depicted in miniature the key Utah Transcontinental scenes — Promontory, Weber Canyon, Corinne, and what became known as the Lucin cutoff, the shortening of the route by bridging across the Great Salt Lake. One of the model scenes showed what may have been the most remote Utah town ever — the small community of Midway, which existed for decades on a man-made island in the Great Salt Lake to house workers maintaining the trestle bridge. The original Lucin bridge had been scrapped in favor of the present-day causeway, but some of the salvaged timbers framed the museum entryway.
After a walk and lunch on Roosters Brewing's sunny patio looking onto 25th Street, we pushed further north. Our next leg was on a bus to Brigham City, which left mid-afternoon from Ogden Station.
“It’s a long ride,” said the driver, helping us load our bikes onto the rack on the front of the bus. “But it’s a nice ride.”
We were now in Golden Spike country. As the bus ran north, we could see its different facets: the frame of I-15, of bedroom communities and jobs. The orchards and farms along U.S. Highway 89, leading into the plane trees and iconic arch on Brigham City’s Main Street. And the desert, lake and, I imagined, the remnants of the obscure Midway Island beyond. Could you still make a good living farming here? I wondered. Were these towns destined to be swallowed by the linear city of the Wasatch Front?
The end of the line was at the north end of Brigham City, a worthy destination in its own right as well as an excellent regional base camp given its proximity to Golden Spike and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. It was the furthest north UTA will take you on a bus — perhaps a good way to define the edge of the Wasatch Front. Beyond was a small, two-lane country road ambling into the countryside along the base of the Wellsville Mountains. From here we’d be cycling (read: Discovering Box Elder).
The sun was low when we rolled into Honeyville, 10 miles to the north, stopping at a motel at the town’s lone crossroads for the night. The name alone had made me want to visit here. One story had it coming from the wild beehives in the mountains to the east, raided by the town’s first white settlers. Another was that the area reminded the town’s Mormon bishop of the biblical Canaan, a land of milk and honey.
The Photos Don’t Do Them Justice
Before I left on the trip, I had done a little family research. Who was my ancestor at the golden spike ceremony, the man with the white goatee? Was he in the famous “champagne” photo, of men on the nose of each engine raising bottles to toast the meeting? Was he in the bleachers? Was he even really there that day?
My mom had a name — Oliver C. Smith, a.k.a. O.C. Smith. When I found his obituary online, my mom put it together that he was my great-great-great-great grandfather, the originator of a long line of ancestors who lived in and helped build up Rock Springs, your basic Hell on Wheels U.P. town on the Wyoming plains.
O.C. Smith was a railroad man from the beginning. Born in Massachusetts in 1825, he took charge of the construction of a railroad in Uxbridge in 1855. This was the first in a string of jobs in railroads, construction and real estate that took him from Pennsylvania to Michigan and back to Massachusetts.
He didn’t get out west until 1868, when he took the job of paymaster for the Union Pacific. The paymaster is responsible for paying the workers, which was funny, because U.P. President Dr. Thomas Durant was famous for not paying the workers. In fact, the last spike ceremony was delayed two days because Durant’s train en route to Promontory was hijacked by an angry mob of workers demanding their pay (one story has this as a plot cooked up by Durant himself). Nevertheless, O.C. Smith was said to have distributed $5.3 million in payments over the building of the U.P. road from Omaha to Promontory.
He must have known Durant and Grenville Dodge, the former Union army general who was the U.P. chief engineer. And maybe even Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and the other Central Pacific honchos.
There is still enormous community pride about the Transcontinental Railroad in Bear River Valley towns like Tremonton, where a two-story, sepia-colored mural of the champagne photo lies on the side of a commercial building on Main Street, one of a series of murals downtown depicting important events. At The Pie Dump, where we stopped for breakfast the next day, the chef told us about how bright the colors of the steam train locomotives were, that you’d never know from the black and white photographs.
We arrived in Corinne midday, after a nice ride through the Bear River Valley’s rolling agricultural land. Corinne was clearly a different kind of town from the Mormon farming hamlets like Honeyville; Corinne’s blocks and buildings gave a wide berth to the railroad. It was one of the few Utah towns with a “Front Street,” where mayhem had reigned at places like the Montana House. Now Front Street, with well-kept homes and lawns, looked like any other street in a small town. The tracks still ran through Corinne but faded out after a spur to the Utah Onion Company, the adjacent Walmart distribution center asserting what now counted as freight. The town had a bar, Mim’s, next to Golden Spike Burgers, but it likely did not serve sagebrush whisky.
We were now on the U.P. grade as it headed west.
A Place That Makes Sense
Past Corinne, the blooming desert gave way to the raw desert. We skimmed the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake shorelands and saw a heron and several red-winged blackbirds in the marsh. The road rounded the tips of bare mountains and around the bend of one of them, the most enormous vehicle I have ever seen was delivering a rocket motor to the nearby Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital/ATK Aerospace) complex.
I could also see the summit. It was a depression in the Promontory Range, visible from far across the basin. Eventually, I could see what I thought were the railroad grades twisting up the hill. I could tell we were nearing the site where the nation first came together by rail.
As the Union Pacific and Central Pacific approached a meeting point, chaos ensued. Congress had not yet determined the exact joining point, and so the railroads, each hustling for every foot of the line it could claim, eventually began grading in parallel to one another. The crews were often working within a few feet of one another. The Irish crews of the U.P. harassed the Chinese crews of the C.P. — throwing frozen dirt clods, hurling pickaxes and setting off explosions near them. The railroads’ leadership bet each other in how much track could be laid in one day. In the final days of the race to Promontory, the C.P. crews put down 10 miles in one day — laying track at the pace of a person walking. As Stephen E. Ambrose writes, “The end of track…was the only place that mattered.”
The parallel grades are no more spectacular than on the climb up to Promontory, where they snake around each other on their way up the dramatic 600-foot climb to the summit. The crux of this climb was the crossing of a large ravine, which each of the railroads handled differently. The U.P. built a giant trestle bridge, “hastily,” adds the interpretive sign. The C.P., meanwhile, filled the ravine with earth dug out of the hill. In the end, the fill won out over the rickety trestle, which was dismantled soon after.
Today, you can drive, walk, or ride on these grades and see this “Big Fill” and the remnants of the “Big Trestle.” I could see the ramparts of the Big Trestle and the grade clinging to the mountainside. Up the hill, there were huge cuts through the mountain, with the excavated boulders stacked nearly on the edge of the troughs.
It was quite a climb for us, too. Juliet admirably attacked the road, much steeper than the railroad grades, but then succumbed to the support vehicle. She was waiting for me at the crest of the hill, where we looked down below us. Promontory was one of the desolate, remote, hidden engines of the West, like South Pass and Glen Canyon Dam. We could see the whole region in that line of the railroad grade in the dry valley, down to the bustling North Temple Station surrounded by construction cranes.
We rode the last few miles through the valley. We crested the last small hill, and there it was. We could see the two locomotives nose to nose, the two little engines in the huge valley. We were at the top and felt the connection to the east and to the west. The place made sense.
Participating in History
In advance of the anniversary ceremony the next morning, we camped at Kosmo, an early 20th century potash mining camp on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake and the C.P. railroad grade. Like Midway, this was a place that I could scarcely believe had been a community, but 200 people once called it home. The remnants of a pier ran out into the playa, and Juliet and I rode our bikes through the rotted posts like a slalom course. The bright sun of the day had turned to storms visible across the lake. Overnight, fine, white sand whipped under our rainfly and through the mesh of our tent.
In the morning, after pancakes and bacon from Earland’s Meats in Tremonton, we made our way back to Promontory. A small town’s worth of people had filled up the parking lot of the Golden Spike Visitor Center. Never having met a gift shop she didn’t like, Juliet navigated the swarms of people and selected one replica golden spike for herself and one for her little brother.
When I saw the locomotives set out on the tracks, I understood what the man at The Pie Dump had meant about their colors — the Jupiter and No. 119 shone in handsome black, red, blue and gold. The Bear River High School band played on one side of the stage. I thought I could pick out the men set to play Durant, Dodge and Stanford.
My great-great-great-great grandfather had been there too. As the book Brother Brigham Holds the Whip recounts, the Union Pacific paymaster, O.C. Smith, noted that on this “clear, cool, beautiful day,” he and his wife rode up to Promontory Summit to “see the last rail laid that connects the Union Pacific and Central Pacific RRds. A large crowd was there.” They stayed until 2 p.m., returning on the first train back to Echo. So — probably not in the champagne photo, but with a good seat in the bleachers.
Walking up to the locomotives, hissing with steam, Juliet approached a man with a white beard alighting the engine in period costume and informed him that her great-great-great-great-great grandfather had been the paymaster for the Union Pacific.
“Well,” he said, chuckling. “That must have been an easy job. Old Doc Durant never paid anyone.”
The re-enactment proceeded. True to this deeply parsed history, Stanford missed the spike. The last spike was actually an iron one wrapped in telegraph wire, heard around the nation.
“Bulletin! From Promontory to the country,” the man playing the telegraph operator announced. The fire alarms in San Francisco and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia had been ready. And then the final word signifying the completion of this, and the crowd chanted with him — “D! O! N! E! Done!