Before Utah became a state, the territory was the scene of a project that would define the development of the country: the Transcontinental Railroad. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the marriage of the east and west sections of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit.
Memorialized in iconic objects like the signed golden spike itself, this Utah state celebration wouldn’t be complete without an exhibition of the relics.
The Utah State Capitol is hosting 19th-century treasures for the Spencer Fox Eccles: Treasures of the Transcontinental Railroad Exhibition, which is free and open to the public through June 24. Here are some of the historic memories you have to see before they're gone.
19th-century gold and money
One of the greatest reasons for the investment of time, money and effort to complete the Overland Route was the first worldwide economic crisis in 1857, according to the Utah Heritage and Arts Department.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that world financial markets were interconnected enough that a failure in one could affect the others. But when the first major economic disaster struck in this shaky global context, the shockwaves traveled.
In 1857, a ship called the SS Central America departed from California laden with a staggering 30,000 pounds of gold. The ship, on route to replenish the US government’s store, sank in a hurricane. The catastrophe led to failing businesses, which led to unemployed workers in many countries. As a result, Congress decided to use state and U.S. government subsidy bonds to fund the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The railroad reached completion just 12 years after the shipwreck.
You can see remnants of this financial history at the capitol building’s Treasures exhibit. Several coins on display are the same mint as those transported by the SS Central America. Any coin enthusiast will appreciate the rarities.
The Pacific Railway Act
Because the railroad had not extended far into the territories in the West and would need a total 1,912 miles of working railroad, the transcontinental plan needed a great deal of money and land. Congress stood in a deadlock whether to endorse the railway. As it often was in that time period, the southern states opposed the idea, according to the Library of Congress.
Finally, in 1861, the government’s support and land grants went through. In the Treasures exhibit, you can see the Pacific Railway Act of July 1, 1862, signatory page which is signed by President Abraham Lincoln. This bit of history is on loan from Washington D.C.’s National Archives.
The Golden Spike
After years of work, the project came together on May 10th, 1869. Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford ceremonially struck the golden spike, connecting two parts of the country from that point on, according to Politico. This “Last Spike” is on display, on loan from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.
The inscription partly reads, “May God continue the unity of our Country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”
Visiting the Treasures of the Transcontinental Railroad Exhibition
These three must-see treasures are on display at the Utah State Capitol for only a few more weeks; it's open through on June 24. Head to the Utah State Capitol Gold Room to see these monumental relics. You can find hours and specific details on the Utah Heritage and Arts exhibition page.