Who Actually Drove the Golden Spike?

The Golden Spike was the last nail, made out of solid gold, added to the Transcontinental Railroad to commemorate its completion. But, who was the person that drove the Golden Spike into place, signifying to all in attendance that the railroad was complete?

The Golden Spike was driven by the former California Governor and Central Pacific President Leland Stanford to celebrate the joining of the Pacific and Union railways, connecting the east and west sides of the US.

 For a long time in America’s history, railroads were the best and most efficient way to travel, so completing a railroad line this large was a big deal. So, read on to find out more about the Golden Spike and its connection with the Transcontinental Railroad, as well as the history of the railroad itself.

golden spike
Thomas Hill

Who Was Responsible For Driving the Golden Spike?

On May 10th, 1869, in Promontory, Utah, a special ceremony took place. The Golden Spike was driven into the railroad by former California Governor Leland Stanford to celebrate the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad or Pacific Railway. The spike was supposed to be driven by Union Pacific Vice President Thomas Durant, but he was ill from a hangover, so Stanford did it instead.

After several years and 200,000 miles worth of tracks, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad were joined to create the Transcontinental Railroad, connecting Omaha, Nebraska to Oakland, California.

David Hewes, a well-known contractor at the time, wanted there to be a special item to mark the completion of this enormous undertaking of a construction project. So, he had a Golden Spike made of $400 of his own gold made by William T Garatt Foundry. It weighed 14.3 ounces, was 5 ⅝ inches long, and was created from 17.8-carat gold.

In actuality, only $350 of gold was used in the actual spike, with the rest of it being attached to the spike to support it as it was driven into place. The spike was engraved on all sides:

  • The top was engraved with the words “The Last Spike.”
  • Two of the sides listed the name of the railroad officers and directors leading the project.
  • One side was engraved with “The Pacific Railroad ground broken Jan 8th, 1863 and completed May 8th, 1869.”
  • The last side was engraved with “May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great oceans of the world” presented by David Hewes San Francisco.

The creation of the Transcontinental Railroad marked a significant shift in the makeup of America. It facilitated westward expansion and allowed people to navigate the entire country more efficiently and smoothly.

transcontinental railroad

Significance of the Golden Spike

The Golden Spike celebrates the completion of this huge construction project and extends a token of gratitude to all the people who made it possible. Without the Golden Spike, the whole team behind the project would not have had anything to remember their work by as time went on.

Genuine gold was and still is very expensive and can be hard to come by. David Hughes wanted to fashion something for the remembrance of this project that would match up with how special it was, and he did.

The Myth of the Golden Spike

Many people thought the Golden Spike was a myth and did not exist. The reason for this is that most of the people in attendance at the ceremony could not hear what was being said or hear what was going on. The Golden Spike was replaced with the usual iron spikes and pinewood tie shortly after the ceremony.

The Golden Spike was not out long enough for anyone to see it, but the best explanation for its early removal was to preserve it. After the ceremony, the spike was given back to David Hewes, but in 1892 he donated it to the museum at Leland Stanford Junior University in Palo Alto, California.

The History of the Transcontinental Railroad

The Golden Spike would not exist if the Transcontinental Railroad were never finished. So, let’s take a look at how one of history’s grandest infrastructure projects came to life.

The Project Proposal

In 1845, an entrepreneur named Asa Whitney from New York presented his idea for a railroad that would run all the way to the Pacific Ocean to Congress. Efforts to lobby for the project failed due to the growing sectioning taking place in Congress, but Asa’s idea was considered by many congressmen at the time.

15 years later, in 1860, an engineer named Theodore Judah discovered the perfect starting point for the railroad to be built, the Donner Pass in Northern California. By the following year, Judah and a group of investors he gathered created the Central Pacific Railroad Company so that they could start the project.

Then Judah traveled to Washington to convince Congress and Abraham Lincoln to back his project. He was successful, and Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act into law in 1862. This was the beginning of a long journey to a finished railroad.

Central Pacific

Based on what was outlined in the Pacific Railroad Act, the Central Pacific Railroad Company would start constructing their tracks in Sacramento, California and continue moving east through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Meanwhile, the Union Pacific Railroad Company was building tracks going westward beginning from the Missouri River.

The two-track sections would meet in the middle upon completion, and both companies received 6,400 acres of land and $48,000 in bonds each time they constructed a mile of track. Essentially, the task to complete this railroad was a competition between both sides from the start.

Four businessmen headed the Central Pacific Railroad Company with no experience in building railroads: Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins. They financed the project with government funds and went through loopholes to get the greatest amount of funding they could.

Judah planned to get new investors to avoid this from happening again, but he died of yellow fever a few months after the railroad laid down its first spikes and ties in Sacramento in November 1863.

Union Pacific

In Omaha, Nebraska, Dr. Thomas Durant illegally gained control of the Union Pacific Railroad Company project. He also illegally created a company called Credit Mobilier, giving him and his investors profits without risk from the railroad construction project. Little progress would be made towards completing their side of the railroad until the Civil War ended in 1865.

completion of the transcontinental railroad
The train carrying Leland Stanford to the Golden Spike ceremony, one of the Big Four” owners of the Central Pacific Railroad.

The Creation of the Transcontinental Railroad

The Union Pacific Railroad Company started making progress on its side of the tracks in 1866, despite hostility from Native Americans who were worried about the threat the railroad would pose to their lands. They were making much faster progress than their rivals.

In fact, Charles Crocker, who was in charge of construction for the Central Pacific Railway Company, hired Chinese immigrants to help with the railroad so that they could complete work efficiently. Systemic racism meant hiring these workers was highly controversial, yet it was helpful from a business standpoint.

The immigrants were given $31 a month for helping the Central Pacific Railroad Company. Still, many of the workers died during construction because of the risks that came with building their side of the railroad through the Sierra Nevada mountains.

By 1867, more than 14,000 Chinese immigrants were helping build the Central Pacific Railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad Company, on the other hand, enlisted the help of Civil War Veterans and Irish Immigrants.

How Did Both Companies Get the Land to Build the Railroad?

Congress donated 203,000 square miles of land to start the project, and each railroad company fundraised for bond money to purchase more land. Rarely did those that started the project from either company pay out of pocket.

the last transcontinental railroad

Challenges Faced Completing the Transcontinental Railroad

Even with the support they received, both companies involved in this project faced significant hardships, including:

  • Difficulty recruiting and retaining construction crew
  • Freezing temperatures
  • Avalanches
  • Blasting through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to make tunnels
  • Conflict with Native Americans due to encroaching on their land
  • Saloons and gambling houses were built along the track for entertainment, causing construction workers to be frivolous with their money and distract themselves from work, delaying the project.
Native American Disapproval

While the railroad was a symbol of progress and gave many people hope for the future of America, this was not the case for the Native Americans whose land it was being built on. The railroad negatively affected the sovereignty of Native nations and harmed the communities indigenous people lived in as well as their culture.

Tunneling in the Sierra Nevada and Avalanches

The construction crew of the Transcontinental had to tunnel through the mountains in order to continue their tracks, but this was not an easy task. The force of the blasts created using Nitroglycerin was so strong that they could cause an avalanche. Avalanches fatally wounded or trapped hundreds of men working on the railroad.

Every project, no matter how much support it has, faces challenges. However, once they are overcome, success is that much more important. The Transcontinental Railroad was the first cross-country railroad in the United States.

Frigid Temperatures

When working in the mountains, the temperature would get so low and the snowstorms so strong that it was difficult for the crew to survive, let alone work. As a result, progress on the railroad would slow if there was bad weather, making it take longer to complete. Many workers would get sick from being exposed to such frigid temperatures.

up bigboy
Jonathan Lee

Putting the Last Spike Into Place

The competition between both sides was as strong as ever. By 1867, the Union Pacific Railroad Company reached Wyoming and completed four times more work than Central Pacific. Each side did whatever they could to get and stay ahead, even if it meant doing bad construction jobs that needed to be fixed later.

In the early months of 1869, both sides were working within a few miles of each other. As a result, President Ulysses S Grant told the companies that he was holding onto federal funding for the railroad until they could compromise on a meeting point for the two track sections. Eventually, they both decided on Promontory Summit, just north of Salt Lake City in Utah.

Then on May 10th, 1869, representatives from both companies, journalists, and a few members of the public gathered to celebrate the joining of the two railroads with the Golden Spike.

What Impact Did The Transcontinental Railroad Have On the US?

The Transcontinental Railroad had multiple benefits for the people of the United States at the time, including:

  •  Facilitating westward expansion and the creation of small and large cities
  • Reduced travel time for traveling coast-to-coast from several months of hardship to under a week
  • Improved the economy by allowing resources from one side to be shared with another with ease, allowing people to access a wider variety of goods

Without the Transcontinental Railroad, the growth of America would be at a standstill. Because of the hard work of everyone involved, the railroad was completed. Although, it is unfortunate that Native American lands were damaged to achieve it. Nevertheless, it is a feat that is remembered in history books to this day.

Does The Transcontinental Railroad Still Exist?

Thankfully, most of the original tracks completed in 1869 are still intact today. However, in 1904, the entire railroad line fell out of use due to the creation of a shorter train route that went past Promontory Summit. In 1942, the Golden Spike was undriven in a ceremony, and the railroad tracks were pulled up and used as resources for war.

Although the railroad is not the same as it was at the time of completion, its legacy lives on.


Leland Stanford drove the Golden Spike on May 10th, 1868, in Promontory, Utah, to celebrate the completed Transcontinental Railroad. Although the railroad was brought to life because of competition between two railroad companies, it is one of the most significant historical milestones in American history because of its contribution to westward expansion.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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