“We have got done praying. The spike is about to be presented.”
That was the Morse code statement wired from near Promontory Summit, Utah, to cities nationwide on May 10, 1869, only moments before the final blows came and, as The New York Times put it the next day, “the continent was spanned with iron.”
The prayer referred to was one offered by the Rev. John Todd of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In it, he gave God credit for the work that captivated the nation’s attention and would mean so much to its future. “We rejoice that thou hast created the human mind with its power of invention, its capacity of expansion, and its guardian of success,” he said, adding, “... thou hast brought this mighty enterprise, combining the commerce of the East with the gold of the West to so glorious a completion.”
Many people in the 19th century saw God’s hand in the scientific and engineering marvels that were transforming their world quickly and in ways more dramatic even than what the 21st century’s rapid pace of invention is bringing. Modern Americans would do well to adopt that same attitude of thanksgiving. The proof of divine blessing lies in a backward glance over the changes of the past 150 years, and the nation needs it going forward.
Friday marks the sesquicentennial of that momentous day. It is not only proper, but encouraging, that the moment and its lessons will be remembered and celebrated, and that the workers who made it happen will be honored.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad was, in many ways, a symbol of what America was coming to stand for, even in spite of its failures and prejudices. In the crude, politically incorrect language of the day, the Chicago Tribune described this:
“The Occident and Orient, North and South, Saxon, Celt, Mongolian, each clad in his peculiar costume, met and mingled on common ground. All personal and sectional animosities, all distinctions of class, all prejudices, race and nationality were forgotten for the moment …”
Great accomplishments requiring teamwork can enoble, build pride and tear down walls of prejudice. That is another lesson to be taken from that day. America is at its best when it sets aside differences and works together.
It’s easy in today’s world of smart devices and rapid travel to forget how excited someone in the mid-19th century would have been over the way the world was shrinking. In the two decades preceding the golden spike ceremony, the telegraph had made instant long-range communication possible, railroad expansion had enhanced trade and human transportation, and the successful submersion of a transatlantic cable had made it possible to communicate with Europe in a matter of minutes.
Added to this, the transcontinental railroad would unite East and West, end the era of dangerous pioneering treks through the wilderness and begin to help heal the wounds of the just-finished Civil War. Only a few years later, the telephone, the automobile, the electric lightbulb, airplanes, radio, television and the computer would lead to greater prosperity, running on a parallel track with lifesaving medical innovations. A century later, the nation landed men on the moon.16 comments on this story
Modern Americans can’t afford to forget that, while the workers who laid the rails 150 years ago may have been primarily concerned with doing a job for money, the entire enterprise was fueled by a faith in mankind’s ability to progress and improve itself. They should not forget to be grateful for a remarkable 150 years.
“O Father, God of our fathers, we desire to acknowledge thy handiwork in this great work,” the Rev. Todd continued in 1869, “and ask thy blessing upon us … that peace may flow ... as a gentle stream, and that this mighty enterprise may be unto us as the Atlantic of thy strength, and the Pacific of thy love.”
Our hope today is that the Morse code message of that day was not true, and that, for the good of the next 150 years, we have not “got done praying.”