Telling history

On May 10, 1869, the Golden Spike, ceremonially driven at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory, signaled the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

The 1,907-mile contiguous railroad line had been under construction for six years. Irish immigrants working west from Iowa and Chinese immigrants working east from California. They were joined by civil war veterans, Mormons, and others seeking to earn a living in the new frontier.

History doesn’t properly record how many people built the transcontinental railroad, nor how many people died in the effort.

But on that day 145 years ago, all that mattered was that east and west had finally come together. With a few dignitaries on hand, the dirty, scraggly laborers who had sweated over those tracks came together in celebration, as captured in this photograph taken by A.J. Russell:


Of course, the liquor bottles adorning the center of the image were tastefully removed from some later prints in deference to the temperance movement.

And perhaps feeling that the photograph did not appropriately convey the true greatness of America’s manifest destiny, painter Thomas Hill illustrated this same moment in his The Last Spike (1881).

Notice anything different?


A real scholar of these things could point out all specific dignitaries who were absent from the actual event but somehow made it into the painting.

Technically, there are workers, officials, and people of different backgrounds in both images, yet the feeling of each image is vastly different. The photo is raw, the painting is clean.

I used to pass both these images, side by side in Sacramento’s California State Railroad Museum. By father would stop and point them out. This is how history is made, he’d say. And this is how history is told.

No further commentary needed.

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