Spike 150 recalls an bygone era in railroad history

By Rebecca Chavez-Houck

As we travel Utah back roads in our home on wheels, I like to consider what travelers in the past thought about the sites we now enjoy visiting. I imagine that most were focused on basic daily living and only looked to their environment to provide what they needed to survive.

But we know from historical records and artifacts of those who explored Utah and the West that early settlers also took time to celebrate the changing seasons as well as the contributions of their ancestors. Festivals remind us of the sacrifice and contributions that others have made, so we are able to learn from them as well as celebrate.

This year, Utah and the nation will be commemorating a very distinct historical event—Spike 150—which recognizes the sesquicentennial (150 years) of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States. This moment in our nation’s history happened in the northwest region of our state at Promontory Summit.

Key to this year’s commemoration is an ardent effort to recognize the contributions and sacrifices of marginalized and previously ignored railroad workers. The 1969 Centennial Celebration (as well as previous events), unfortunately, missed the mark in those acknowledgements.

Central Pacific Railroad Jupiter locomotive used in the “joining of the rails” ceremony

As a preteen, Utah native Max Chang says he intentionally stayed away from the historic site, promising himself that he wouldn’t visit until the Chinese railroad workers were given their due.

“And lo and behold,” Chang says, “many years later, I’ve now been appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert to serve on Spike 150,” an initiative of Utah’s Transcontinental Railroad 150th Celebration Commission. Chang also serves as one of four board members. “My primary duty,” he says, “is to make sure that the Chinese railroad workers have their voice in history.”

Chang notes that Spike 150 intends to “widen the lens of history, to look at different perspectives from different angles, where we start to see a broader, more holistic picture.” The event will not just note the contributions of the industrial railroad giants who invested and put money into the development of the railroad, but “also the workers—not just the Chinese railroad workers—but the Mormon graders, Irish laborers, former Union and Confederate soldiers and the freed slaves who also came,” he said.

Chang believes that the United States would not have become a superpower as quickly as it did were it not for the national railway. It accelerated expansion of the West, facilitated easier transportation of goods between the two oceans and fast-tracked industrialization. “There’s so much more to it than the famous ‘champagne shot’ photo,” Chang says.

The first Transcontinental Railroad

For one thing, there were unintended consequences of racing to connect the two major U.S. railway systems. “Whether it was the use of labor, the demise of many Native Americans or impacts on the environment, landscapes and wildlife—all of this needs not to be forgotten,” Chang says.

Chang stresses the history of the Transcontinental Railroad needs to be looked at holistically. “The driving of the Golden Spike was only a moment, and things happened before it and things happened after it,” he says.

With Chang’s expanded view in mind, consider making this your year to visit Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory. You can either make a day of it or spend a few days exploring nearby points of interest. Take in the vintage steam-train engines at the engine house and, if you have time, take the auto tours where you drive the Transcontinental Railroad grade to see what workers were building in 1869.

The East Auto Tour is 2 miles long, while the West Auto Tour is 7 miles long (and where 10 miles of track were laid in one day on April 28, 1869). Consider hiking the easy 1½-mile Big Fill Loop trail to learn more about the railroad’s construction. Every few hundred yards, you’ll see a signpost with a number. You can dial a phone number, enter the signpost number and hear a message about the history of that site. Given how remote this area is, however, you may not always have cell reception.

“Glamping” tips

My husband Martin and I took some time earlier this year to look into some of the campgrounds in the Brigham City/Willard Bay area that would provide a great home base for exploring Promontory and other sites such as the Spiral Jetty. Not only are there Forest Service campgrounds in the area, but if you want to make your way up to Logan, you’ll find many on the way to Bear Lake. There are a few in the Brigham City area that lend themselves to those of us who love “glamping” and/or camping in an RV.

We began our research, of course, by first having lunch at Maddox Ranch House (1900 S. Highway 89, Perry, 800-544-5474, MaddoxFineFood.com). This steakhouse not only serves expertly aged steaks but delicious comfort food. Martin enjoyed a homemade cheddar vegetable soup and a hamburger, while I warmed my belly with Maddox’s famous fried chicken and mashed potatoes. We capped our meal with a sinful banana cream pie. It’s best to have a reservation or else arrive at 11 a.m. when they open for lunch, so you can get a table. Minutes away from Maddox is the Brigham City/Perry South KOA (1040 W. 3600 South, Perry, 435-723-5503, KOA.com/Campgrounds/Brigham-City). Across the street from an orchard, this commercial campground was founded in 1964 and provides all the basics, including gravel pads and full hookups. Close to Interstate 15 (you can access it from either exits 357 or 362), it’s about 34 miles from Promontory.

Locomotive 117 beneath the Wasatch Range at Ogden, 1869

Close to the I-15 Brigham City exit and Walmart, the Golden Spike RV Park (905 W. 1075 South, Brigham City, 435-723-8858, GoldenSpikeRV.com) provides a convenient option for those wishing to explore nearby attractions. Established in 1999, it has 38 pull-through concrete padded sites and all the needed glamping amenities.

Another RV campground where you can soak in geothermal springs is Crystal Hot Springs (8215 SR-38, Honeyville, 435-339-0038, CrystalHotSprings.net). Located 69 miles north of Salt Lake City, the campground is about 32 miles from Promontory and includes electrical and water RV hook-ups only (and a separate tent-only area). On weekends, a two-day reservation for Friday and Saturday is required with a set fee of $100, but the hot springs are just steps from the campground, so it’s well worth it.

The camping area most to our liking is the Willard Bay State Park Cottonwood Campground and the South Marina Campground (900 W. 650 North, Willard, 435-734-9494, StateParks.Utah.gov/Parks/Willard-Bay). The Cottonwood Campground sites are well shaded (with covered picnic tables) and close to the park’s nature walk (there are also cabins for rent there), while the South Marina sites are angled (vs. back-up or pull-through sites) and have access to the marina boat launch. You’ll need to your own picnic table canopy for the South Marina Campground.

The Spike 150 website (Spike150.org) contains helpful information about festival events planned for the May 10 re-enactment and beyond. Tickets for the re-enactment might be sold out by the time this goes to press, but there are additional activities at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit planned for May 11-12. As you delve into this slice of Utah history, know that there are a numerous places within close proximity where you can set up your home on wheels. See you at the campground!

Spike 150 Festival May 10-12
Golden Spike National Historic Site
32 miles west of Brigham City