Sunday, September 21, 2014


…from the Pre- to Recent History tour 
of Central Nevada and Utah

I like trains.  Always have.  Perhaps it’s the boy in me.  There’s something graceful and honest about a “Big Boy” pulling a mile of boxcars across a summit, steam chuffing out of pistons, air horn blast kicking off the canyon walls.  From about nine years of age on, the wanderlust on my shoulder whispered that I should hop on one of those box cars and see where I might end up after a week or so.  Never did it.  But perhaps this thought was the earliest vestige of the Church of the Open Road.

My favorite pastime on my first motorbike – a 1970 Honda CT 90 – was to ride the frontage roads that paralleled the Southern Pacific tracks running north out of Chico.  The road was slick and muddy.  The great fun was enhanced by the chance to wave at the engineer or fireman in the cab of a rumbling GP-40 and have the fellow wave back.  After two hours and about six miles, I’d return home completely satisfied, but eager to find another section.

I learned about the Central Pacific’s herculean effort to cross the Sierra Nevada and rocket over the basin and range while reading Oscar Lewis’s The Big Four, the first hardcover grown-up book I ever purchased.  I was ten.  Since before the popularization of the term “bucket list,” traveling that route has been something I’ve wanted to do. 

We arrived at Promontory Point and the Golden Spike National Historic Site where the National Park Service had rolled out replicas of the Central Pacific’s “Jupiter” – the original housed in Sacramento…
…and the Union Pacific’s 119.  This is where they met 145 years ago.

Stories are told of the frenetic race to grade rights-of-way sometimes parallel to one another…

…in an effort to garner rich government paydays and of Irish and Chinese gangs sabotaging the work of the others at the behest of their crew bosses.

The government stepped in declaring that the two lines should meet at Promontory Point.

Our task this day was to follow the old, abandoned CP route across the northern reach of the Great Salt Lake.  Rails mostly removed except for the immediate area of the historic site, the National Park Service and the BLM have preserved a portion of this as a Scenic Byway so that 60-year-old kids such as myself could live out long-held fantasies.

“The recent monsoon may have caused some old spikes to surface,” we’d been warned.  “Take two spares and a can of air.”

We figured one spare would have to do.

150 years ago, the most prevalent technology was simply muscle.  Lots of it.  With that muscle, the roadbed west of Promontory is, in parts, raised above the Salt Lake’s playa…

…and, in parts, cut through the ancient, melting ridges that form the lake’s boundary.

Timbered bridges still span arroyos that, seasonally, would threaten to wash out the rails.

The road slips down slope from the right-of-way. Around a gentle bend and through the sage and mustard the sign appears.  “Stop the car,” I nearly shout involuntarily.

This is the place where, on a bet, the Central Pacific crew eclipsed the 8.7-mile track laying record of the rival Union Pacific set only weeks before.  (The original sign is in the museum back at Ogden.)

I get out, wade through the brush and walk a section. On this still morning in mid-September, one can hear the echoes of dynamite blasts, pinging sledges and grunting laborers. 

It would be two hours before we would again find paved road.  Each minute, each mile rang with the epic effort expended to complete the transcontinental railroad across these vast and desolate ranges and the equally monumental result for the country.

Check one off the Bucket List.


Notes and Resources:

Information about the Golden Spike National Historic Site (and better directions than I could offer as to how to get there):
Since you’re out that way, be sure to stop at the Utah State Railroad Museum in Ogden.  Check out the renovated Union Station:

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

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