How the railway created the modern world

If you ever visit the USA, visiting railway – or should I say railroad – sites, then prioritise on Promontory Summit, in the state of Utah. I know, I know…’re probably thinking: ’what’s this got to do with anything?’ Please, bear with me and read on!

Promontory Summit, Utah – near the famous Great Salt Lake – is hallowed ground in US railroad history as the location of the famous ‘Golden Spike’ ceremony, which marked completion of North America’s 1,912-mile trans-continental railroad, in 1869. Nearly a half century after the Stockton & Darlington Railway opened in 1825, trains finally ran across the Wild West. From sea to shining sea, by steam… the Atlantic Ocean coast was finally connected to the mighty Pacific Ocean shoreline, by steel rails.

And America was transformed… changed forever.

‘Casey Jones’ style trans-continental trains slashed the time taken to cross the USA, from about six months by those horse-drawn covered wagons you’ll recall from cowboy movies (or 25 days by stagecoach) to just four days. It was the railroad that really put ‘United’ in United States for the first time and gave it truly powerful economic, political and social heft – which supercharged the country’s development. Just as trains did in every other country they conquered. School history lessons debating whether trade followed the flag, or the flag followed trade in opening up new continents missed the crucial point that it was railways which made both possible.

On May 10, 1869, Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford drove the solid gold 17.6 carat spike into the specially prepared wooden ‘tie’ (sleeper) of polished Californian laurel supporting the rails at Promontory Summit, where the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento was finally joined to the Union Pacific Railroad, from Omaha. This is the very famous photograph of that momentous occasion at Promontory Summit on May 10 1869, with the two locomotives from east and west, meeting smokebox to smokebox for the first time, with a couple of the Chinese ‘navvies’ who built most of the line, passing bottles of beer from one engine to the other, symbolising the completion of this transformative east west link. In deference to the strong temperance feelings of the era, in some versions of this iconic picture the beer bottles were removed! Incidentally, those Chinese and Irish ’navvies’ enjoy a record which Golden Spike claims is unbeaten to this day: on April 28 1869 they laid ten miles of track in a single day.

The Golden Spike, USA
Andrew J. Russell.

It was therefore after the Promontory Summit ceremony that the USA was finally able to easily transport people, goods – and its way of life – rapidly and effectively across the mountains, plains and deserts of this massive continent. Where wobbling, canvas-covered wagon trains once crawled at snail’s pace, steam locomotives now raced, with ever heavier, longer trains. American development exploded into life.

As trains became longer and heavier, multiple engines were needed to conquer the difficult steep gradients and winding curves to Promontory Summit and thus in 1904 the last timetabled passenger train left the Summit station after the opening of a 102.9 miles realigned ‘cut-off’ route, by-passing this historic location, which entered a period of steep decline. Finally, the Southern Pacific closed and abandoned the loss-making original route on September 8 1942 and an ‘unspiking’ ceremony was held to mark the lifting of the last rail at Promontory Summit. This incredibly important piece of railway was open for just a single human lifetime of 73 years.

And that could have been the end of the story. But the American Government – unlike our own Government – fully understand, respect and are fiercely proud of their railroad history. Thus, ‘Golden Spike’ – as Promontory Summit had become known – was formally designated as a National Historic Site on April 2 1957 and authorised for federal ownership and administration by an Act of Congress, on July 30 1965. ‘Golden Spike’ is now one of many revered National Historic Sites.

“What substantive contribution is the British Government going to make to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825?”

To understand and fully comprehend the iconic importance of the US National Historic Sites program you need only browse a list of the top sites. They include: The White House, the Gettysburg Battlefield (site of the three-day 1863 battle that was a key turning point in the civil war, ultimately won by the Unionists, who forced the Southern confederacy into surrender 21 months later); the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC; the Statue of Liberty, guarding New York harbour; the Alcatraz prison Island, San Francisco; the September 11 Memorial in Manhattan; the Martin Luther King Jnr National Site; Ellis Island, New York; the Little Bighorn Battlefield; the Washington Memorial; Lincoln’s tomb; the US Capitol; the Alamo; Mount Rushmore, even Dealey Plaza in Dallas (where JFK was shot and assassinated) and Washington’s Arlington National Cemetery.

That a railroad location is treated with the same national reverence as the Lincoln Memorial, the site of JFK’s murder and Arlington Cemetery reflects great credit on our American cousins. I salute and respect them for it.

Today, the Golden Spike National Historic Park covers a thumping 2,735 acres – a huge expansion of the seven-acre park first established at the Summit in 1957. The Park was expanded by 2,176 acres in 1965, through land swaps, plus the purchase of a lengthy 15.5 mile section of abandoned trackbed. The Park reached its present size in 1980 after 23 years of growth and development. Two miles of track have been laid, linking the summit area (the Golden Spike location) and the locomotive depot. Detail matters. Even the reinstated track is an authentic recreation of 1869 rails and ‘ties.’ Incidentally, the Golden Spike itself is now displayed in the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. It had been manufactured in early 1869 especially for the event by the William T. Garrett Foundry in San Francisco. Two of the sides were engraved with the names of the railroad officers and directors involved. The ceremony was originally planned for May 8 1869 and this date is actually engraved on the spike, but the ceremony was delayed for two days by bad weather and – wait for it! – an industrial dispute that delayed the arrival of the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit

Golden Spike is a challenging museum to both access or enjoy because it’s remote (the nearest city, Corinne, is 23 miles away), it’s at an altitude of 5,000ft above sea level and summer temperatures peak at more than 32 degrees! Yet in 2019 there were over 108,000 visitors. In the summer, the iconic Golden Spike spectacle of two locomotives meeting from east and west is re-enacted, using immaculate 1979-built working replicas of passenger engine Jupiter and goods engine No. 119. Attention to detail is admirable – Jupiter burns wood as did the original, while No. 119 is a prototypical coal burner. You can even take your own car on two ‘auto tours’ over several miles of the former approaches to Promontory, which are maintained for regular cars. As the website proudly says, this enables visitors to experience a locomotive driver’s view of the railroad’s ‘cuts and fills.’ (cuttings and embankments) at 15mph. This museum is just…magnificent.

Golden Spike is run by committed and dedicated staff, many of whom appear in the official video, from which this screengrab is taken. One line towards the end of the video really caught my eye, when the presenter says: “This site is a testament to the accomplishment of what can happen when our country unites, comes together and works for the common good.” Amen to that!

Golden Spike video screengrab

Those sentiments really resonate with our interview, in Green Signals Episode 7 (Lord Peter Hendy: Railway 200 & how the railway made the modern world), by Peter, Lord Hendy of Richmond Hill, who we know best today as a very successful former two-term Transport Commissioner for London (under Mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson) and now as Chair of Network Rail, which he leads alongside CEO Andrew Haines.

In Episode 7, Peter is speaking to us, however, as Chair of Railway 200, an informal organisation he has set up to lead national celebrations throughout 2025, for the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, on September 27 1825. Those wondering why I’ve been banging on about the USA’s Golden Spike will see now where I’m heading. As the screengrab shows, it’s not merely a museum it’s a ‘National Historic Park’ and I have no idea how many tax dollars have been spent creating it since 1957 – but it’s inevitably many millions. Were our own Government to invest a quarter – 10% even – of what the Americans have spent at Golden Spike honouring the railroad’s fundamental role in creating modern America, then Darlington, or maybe Shildon, really would have a venture to likewise impress the world.

No spoilers here, but if you haven’t yet heard or seen Peter’s passionate promotion for Railway 200, then why not catch up? He makes clear that his initiative won’t be running a central programme of celebrations – or indeed any specific celebrations – but his team will lead, encourage, pump-prime and ‘lubricate’ initiatives nationwide to celebrate SDR200. He’s asking regional and local government, companies in and around the rail industry, clubs, societies and individuals – literally anyone – to help make Railway 200 really special. We’re up for that.

“Britain invented the railway and that railway created the modern world – so is our own Government going to do something meaningful and lasting?”

And let’s be clear, Railway 200 is not merely an enthusiasts jamboree (although it’s certainly that, too) – I wonder if the good people of Darlington and Shildon, encompassing the NRM’s Locomotion site at Shildon, might be considering a third 1925 and 1975 style cavalcade? We’ll see.

But equally importantly, what are the people of Cornwall, Kent, Clwyd and Kirkcaldy going to do?

Because the central point, as articulated with such proud impact at Golden Spike, is that the railway didn’t just influence the modern world, it actually created it. The world we live in today simply wouldn’t exist as it does without the Stockton & Darlington Railway. Everything changed for Britain on September 27 1825. Absolutely everything. No-one could have forecast what the SDR paved the way for.

Just over 100 years after Golden Spike, at 0256 GMT on July 21 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, joined 19 minutes later by ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. For tens of thousands of years up to 1869, American life had been largely unchanged. Within a century, President Kennedy’s NASA had audaciously won the space race to put men on the moon – and returned them safely to earth.

But it was only made possible by the stellar leap in progress that Golden Spike triggered. And Golden Spike could not have happened without the Stockton & Darlington Railway blazing the trail first: it turbo charged our Industrial Revolution and accelerated British progress – in everything – to warp speed, overnight.

So, my question to Secretary of State Mark Harper and Rail Minister Huw Merriman is this: what substantive contribution is the British Government going to make to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825?

I know that Lord Hendy’s team will do a brilliant job, providing the wider industry, the heritage sector, regional and local Government, individuals – everyone – with inspiration and leadership, to make this a celebration to remember. It will be fitting, fun and friendly and Green Signals is already signed up to do whatever we can to make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

Britain invented the railway and that railway created the modern world – so is our own Government going to do something meaningful and lasting? The Americans set a wonderful example at Golden Spike and whilst I’m not holding my breath for anything on that scale, I do think it will be shameful and pathetic if our own Government does no more than smile, nod in approval and doubtless make a few speeches.

With its hands in its pockets.

Lord Hendy has got off his backside and is working hard to do something meaningful. We’re committed to help. Our government must follow Peter’s lead.

Here’s the Golden Spike National Historic Park’s excellent website, with its superb video:

Mark…Huw…please spend six minutes over your coffee watching the marvellous video, presented by Golden Spike staff.

If they don’t inspire you both, then nothing will.