PROMONTORY SUMMIT, Utah — President Brigham Young bought five of the original 31 shares of the Union Pacific Railroad, at $1,000 each, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when the Union Pacific was organized in the 1860s to build a railroad west from Council Bluffs, Iowa.
On Friday, his successor, President Russell M. Nelson, stood under a brilliant blue Utah desert sky at the Crossroads of the West, where the tracks of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met 150 years ago today. He called the transcontinental railroad "a gargantuan accomplishment" that proved that diverse people could transform and unite a nation. Originally segregated and mistrusting, some 15,000 Chinese, thousands more Irish and 4,000 Latter-day Saints eventually came to work well together. Each group was made up of refugees and outcasts who ultimately were responsible for uniting east and west.
"These hardy laborers achieved a oneness that can guide us as a people to move forward to fulfill God's plan for this nation, the world and all of his children," President Nelson said as a blustery canyon winds fed a late morning chill during the Golden Spike Sesquicentennial celebration.
President Nelson stood in front of working replicas of the legendary locomotives Jupiter and No. 119, which arrived earlier belching steam and smoke and blowing horns. He displayed the iron spike Brigham Young commissioned upon completion of the Ogden-Salt Lake City railroad line inscribed with the phrase that resides on temples: "Holiness to the Lord."
"Brigham Young understood the importance of the railroad and had the foresight to ensure that rail served the Salt Lake Valley," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said. "That rail line allowed early settlers to reap the benefits of the railroad and thrive in this new frontier."
Young reveled in railroads. He and the Utah Territorial Legislature passed a memorial in 1852 urging Congress to construct an intercontinental railroad. Once it was underway, he made deals with the Union Pacific — for more than $2 million —and the Central Pacific to provide laborers to grade the bed for the rails on both ends of Utah.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad — a wonder of the world, said Cui Tianka, the Chinese ambassador to the United States — united a nation still healing from the Civil War.
"It is a telling example of how the Chinese and Americans can join together to get things done," Tianka said.
"When I learned of the theme of today’s celebration — 'As One,'" President Nelson said, "I thought about people — the thousands of Chinese and Irish immigrants, the newly freed slaves from the southern states, the veterans who recently fought in the Civil War, the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were trying to settle this harsh land, the Native Americans whose land was altered forever, and the many immigrants from Italy, Germany and other places that came together to build this railroad that crossed a vast country. They came together 'As One.'"
On May 10, 1869, they celebrated together with an entire nation. People waited breathlessly for the driving of the final spike, which they heard because it was attached to a telegraph line. The momentous occasion was celebrated by 7,000 at the Tabernacle on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City, about 85 miles south.
President Nelson arrived by helicopter. An SUV ferried him over a dusty path past a replica Native American Shoshone camp and an itinerant railroad workers' town. The smell of campfires wafted across the green and brown prairie grass. The occasional hawk or flock of cranes crossed the valley overhead.
Around the tracks, re-enactors dressed in 1869 uniforms, top hats and petticoats joined an estimated 15,000 people to watch Herbert, President Nelson and others ceremoniously tap a new Utah copper spike into a rail and, a little after noon, a re-enactment by the Golden Spike Association.
"All the transcontinental railroad spikes — gold, silver, iron and now copper — are symbols of how important it is to come together from various countries and cultures to celebrate our accomplishments," President Nelson said. "They are reminders of what can be accomplished when we join hands."
The railroad cut a six-month journey across the country to six or seven days. It was a boon for Utah. Part of Young's deal with the Union Pacific included allowing Latter-day Saint emigrants willing to work on the project to travel west by train for free. As soon as the Union Pacific accepted his terms, Young organized congregations to provide workers to grade, tunnel and build bridges in Echo and Weber canyons and on the Weber River Gorge east of Ogden, Utah.
Next, he sent men west to help the Central Pacific teams grade through the desert north of the Great Salt Lake.
The Union Pacific never fully paid the Latter-day Saints. At one time, he fronted $130,000 of his own funds to pay workers. After the golden spike was driven, he accepted a settlement that included track, rails and equipment to complete the Ogden-Salt Lake City line as well as additional Union Pacific stock the church held into the 20th century, according an article by author Jerry Borrowman in LDS Living.
President Nelson said the railroad connected the country in a way that has allowed generations of Americans and immigrants achieve their dreams.
"My dear friends and neighbors from Utah and throughout the world, I am pleased to join with you today to honor one of our country’s greatest achievements that was memorialized here on this spot 150 years ago," he said. "We are honored and blessed to be able to gather at this historic location to commemorate the gargantuan accomplishment and the people who made it possible."16 comments on this story
He also said joining together for the sesquicentennial re-enactment represented all that is good in the United States and world.
"This celebration today also reminds us to be true to our vision for the future. Lincoln prayed 'that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.' So, we pray today that in Jon Meacham's words, 'The Soul of America' will prevail. These hardy laborers achieved a oneness that can guide us as a people to move forward to fulfill God’s plan for this nation, the world, and all of his children."