Tomorrow afternoon, in an attempt to lure visitors and actually make money this summer, This Is the Place Heritage Park in the foothills of Salt Lake City is planning a re-enactment of the driving of the golden spike, the act that completed the intercontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.

Technically, as we all know, the Salt Lake ceremony is about 95 miles off course, since the original golden spike was driven at Promontory Summit west of Brigham City, where, incidentally, the usual and annual ceremonial re-enactment is also scheduled to take place tomorrow.

But the governor will be at This Is the Place.

What a difference 138 years makes.


I bring this up because on May 10, 1869, the last place you would have found the leader of Utah's people, Brigham Young — he wasn't officially governor but as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he might as well have been — was at the ceremony of the golden spike.

The Mormon leader purposely stayed away from Promontory Summit that day. He left instead for southern Utah, removing himself as far as possible from the historic event.

He had 1.2 million reasons.

That is how much money he claimed the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads owed Mormon workers who helped build the railroad.

In early 1868, Brigham Young had contracted with Thomas Durant, vice president of Union Pacific Railroad, to supply thousands of local workers in exchange for wages ranging from $1 to $2.50 an hour. Later, he also contracted with Leland Stanford's Central Pacific Railroad to supply more Mormon workers. Coming on the heels of a three-year Utah drought and an 1868 invasion of crickets that stripped fields of their crops, the timing of this heavy demand for labor seemed heaven sent.

At first, the railroads paid a little, here and there. But then as the race to Promontory intensified — with the U.P. charging hard down Echo and Weber canyons from the east and the C.P. charging just as hard around the north side of the Great Salt Lake from the west — the paydays stopped altogether.

"You will be paid, be patient," Durant and Stanford told Young, who turned around and told his Mormon laborers the same thing.

But they never were.

All this is expertly chronicled in "Promontory," a Ken Verdoia-produced television documentary released a couple of years ago by KUED-TV.

Verdoia used public records, diaries, private letters and material from author David Haward Bain's best-selling book, "Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad," to compile his historical account of the ugly economic broadside that hit Utahns during the final year and a half of the building and completion of the railroad.

"Brigham Young got basically taken for a ride," says Verdoia. "For all the good he did for the area and for all the successes he had, this is one where he really had to apologize to the people."

Once the railroad was completed, the railroad executives vacated Utah in a hurry, leaving their debts, and all memories of them, behind.

Attempts by Young to recover anything — even at pennies on the dollar — were rebuffed.

One small concession by the railroads was that any Mormon who had worked on the railroad could ride free to California.

Other than that, nothing.

As history records, Brigham Young's only recourse was to open the welfare stores of the church for the people who hadn't been paid and had virtually nothing to eat.

He also suspended tithing obligations for the railroad workers. Any increase they realized, they got to keep 100 percent.

For many years, the completion of the railroad represented something of a bitter pill, and not just for Mormons left holding the bag but for numerous others along the nationwide expanse of the rails who were bilked, as it turned out, out of their land or their money and sometimes both. Over time, Stanford, Durant and their like acquired the label of "robber barons" and their enterprise became the "grand swindle."

It explains why Promontory Summit, and the driving of the golden spike, stayed mostly silent until everyone involved had died off.

But over time, memories diminished and celebrations of a grand accomplishment — a railroad from coast to coast! — were revived.

One hundred and thirty-eight years later, the driving of the golden spike represents progress, success and great prospects for the future.

Exactly what the beleaguered This Is the Place Heritage Park is looking for.

Wouldn't Brigham Young be proud?


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.