The day they drove the ‘Golden Spike’

Skip Sommer, Petaluma historian.
Skip Sommer, Petaluma historian.

It was May 10, 1869, 151 years ago, and our country was zeroed-in on a little town named Promontory, Utah.

The San Francisco Chronicle called it, “The great event of the age, which unites the Atlantic and Pacific by bonds of iron.” The Examiner said it was, “The old world joined to the new, by a single track for the lightning steed,” adding, “The great achievement will be announced to the world by the aid of the wires and battery.”

That would be the telegraph.

The “great event” under discussion was the driving of the golden spike to finally connect the Intercontinental Railroad from the East Coast to San Francisco Bay.

Henry Westin, editor of the Petaluma Journal & Argus, said it was, “The last triumph of mind over matter, with the completion of a continuous line of railroad, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for a future for America, hitherto unappreciated.”

Vice-President Colfax was quoted as saying, “You will see the infant manufactures of the Pacific States leaping forward with a gigantic stride.”

Well, it was indeed a “gigantic stride,” and it took years to complete the nearly 2,000 miles connecting Omaha, Nebraska with Oakland, California to spark the settlement of the American West. The idea had started in 1832, with surveys made up until 1855. Then, Congress was sharply divided (really?) regarding the chosen route. The Northern route thru Montana to (now) Oregon, was “too snowy.” The Southern route thru Texas and New Mexico Territory was too dangerous. So they settled on the Central Route along the Platte River via Nebraska to Wyoming.

The Civil War was looming in 1857 and the South of the country was very unsettled, so a young Illinois lawyer named Abe Lincoln was hired to consider the routes. Lincoln chose the Eastern terminus of Omaha, and later in 1862, as President, he signed the Pacific Railroad Act, authorizing two companies — the Central Pacific in the West and the Union Pacific in the Mid-West — to build a railroad from the Missouri River to Sacramento, and later, on to San Francisco Bay. Financing of this epic included government bonds to pay the railroads $16,000 per mile for track laid in level grades, and that amount soared to $48,000 per mile for track laid in mountains.

The Central Pacific Railroad was the “baby” of four men — merchants Collis Huntington and his partner Mark Hopkins, Grocer Leland Stanford and dry goods merchant Charles Crocker. These four men put up just $1,500 bucks apiece for their railroad investment. They went on to become billionaires (in today’s dollars), and were aptly dubbed “California’s Big Four.” Stanford later became Governor of California, Charley Crocker started a bank in San Francisco, and Mark Hopkins liked the hotel business.

But, how did they acquire the land?

Congress gave the railroads 203,000 square miles of government land and the railroads themselves raised bonds to buy thousands of acres more. The eventual land mass was bigger than the current State of Texas. Some of that was sold by the railroads to settlers and they weren’t very decent about choosing those buyers. The resultant settlement of the West was made for the railroads first and the settlers second. Congress had passed the Homestead Acts of 1861-63, granting 160 acres of land to encourage settlement, but it was the railroads that regulated which of the new little towns to bypass, and thus also engineered development to their own benefit.

The labor force was another story.

Central Pacific broke ground in 1863, but the Civil War didn’t end until‘65. After that, workers were recruited from ranks of discharged soldiers. The Central Pacific Railroad hired Chinese immigrants, especially for the mountain work. Crocker recruited them in China, offering $31 a month plus very basic lodging. A lot of those men perished in the dangerous work.

Laying the tracks East to West took six years to complete, with the driving of that last spike taking place on May 10 of ‘69. U.S. Grant had just been sworn in as President and with Civil War reconstruction underway, he couldn’t make the ceremony. So, Leland Stanford wielded the sledge to drive in a 17 carat golden spike and … he missed it. Twice. In front of a throng of snickering onlookers. Later, the spike was melted down into gold rings for President Grant, Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins, Crocker, and the rest.

Sonoma County in ‘69 was also asunder about something called “Women’s Suffrage” and a local paper had labeled those women as “Petticoat Nuisances.” The 15th Amendment had just passed, giving African-American men the right to vote and Wyoming had given women that same right. Frequent names in the news included Jesse James, Leo Tolstoy, Andrew Johnson, Wild Bill Hickok and Susan B. Anthony.

In August of that year, the first freight cargo reached the San Francisco Bay, but passengers were carried too. This is an 1869 letter from Petaluma’s Thomas Skillman, (for whom Skillman Lane was named).

“Here I am in Michigan, reading the Journal and Argus, six days from your office. It was a delightful trip by rail across the Continent. The road is a good one. The cars were all that anyone could desire. The sleeping cars were very fine, with all the accommodations you could have at home. The cost of the trip to Chicago was $154 and in 1849, the journey had taken me six months. Our Journal & Argus commented, ‘Our readers who came the plains across, will appreciate the contrast between the ox team and steam locomotion.’”

Well ... I can only imagine.

Of course, in ’69, Petaluma was still a horse town.

Our U.S Mail went by daily stage to Cloverdale via Healdsburg. Our California Stable was selling what it advertised as “buggies, carriages and saddle horses on shortest notice,” and Gwinn & Brainerd would sell you “Harness, saddles, whips, spurs and robes.” One Sunday, “The Rev. Stone preached a sermon on The marriage of the Oceans.” That “marriage,“ of course, would mark the beginning of the end of horsepower — via actual horses, at any rate.

(Skip Sommer is an honorary life-member of the Petaluma History Museum and Heritage Homes. You can reach him at

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