May 09 2019
On May 10, 1869, a golden spike was driven into the last link joining the rails of the First Continental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. Made of 17 carat gold, and driven into a pre-drilled hole in the last ceremonial tie, it bore this inscription: “May God continue the unity of our Country, as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.”
And indeed it did. With the joining of the Union Pacific Railroad, stretching from the Missouri River near the Iowa-Nebraska border, and the Central Pacific railroad, stretching from Sacramento, California—East met West. The Unites States became truly united. As the spike was struck, a telegraph was sent around the nation, and bells rang out from coast to coast.
Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of this pivotal moment, and it is only right that we pause to recognize it. For this, Mr./Madam President, was a moment that changed the course of history in Utah, our nation, and ultimately the entire world.
With the driving of the golden spike, the arduous 6-month journey required to cross the country, costing $1000, had become a mere 10-day trip, costing only $150.
Thousands of miles of tracks were laid across the country, allowing people to migrate West and establish new settlements far more quickly and easily.
And it transformed the economy in Utah and across the nation. Goods became efficiently transported across farther distances; sellers found new markets; and buyers on the frontier and in rural areas were able to purchase items previously unavailable to them.
It spurred a boon in communications, commerce, agriculture, construction, and mining.
It started a significant new chapter in our relationship with Asia and the Pacific region; and it served as a model of innovation and prosperity for the rest of the world.
All of this came about, it’s important to note, through the perseverance and efforts of many different people working together.
It required a clear-eyed vision from President Lincoln and the federal government; and a fruitful private and public partnership which allowed the engineers, railroad companies, and local communities the freedom to do their jobs well.
And it would not have been possible without the work of the Chinese, Irish, Mormons, Civil War veterans, Native Americans, and other laborers who toiled to build these railroads.
Most of this is in the history books, as well it ought to be. Most of us have a sense of the enormous achievement that this was, the great impact it had on our nation, and the legacy it has left behind.
But what we often don’t know are the stories of the ordinary men and women behind these achievements, and the ones who have worked to preserve this great legacy. There are hidden heroes that make history; and unseen efforts of people who work to keep that history alive.
And so I’d like to take a moment to honor a few of them today.
Some of us might know the name of Theodore Judah, a railroad and civil engineer who was key to the original idea and design of connecting the railroads; and who advocated for the so-called “Central Route” for the First Transcontinental Railroad.
But less familiar is the name of his wife, Anna Judah.
While many routes were surveyed as possible paths for the railroad, Theodore Judah had an often-scoffed-at dream of laying rails through the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, from California eastward.
And Anna Judah shared Theodore’s dream of connecting the First Transcontinental Railroad. When Theodore hiked and surveyed the Sierra Nevadas, Anna hiked and worked right alongside him. She sketched and did watercolors and oil paintings of the terrain, plants and foliage; gathered and labeled minerals and fossils; and took copious notes of their travels.
After their time in the Sierra Nevadas, Theodore and Anna, like Brigham Young, knew: This is the place. Together they fell in love with the idea of the railroad taking the Central Route across the Sierra Nevadas, believing that it would be the perfect path.
So they began traveling back and forth from California, dedicating their efforts to lobbying for their dream in Washington.
Anna was sharp, charming, and tenacious; and undoubtedly Theodore’s biggest booster.
She had the idea to display an exhibit right here in the Capitol showcasing her notes and clippings, her drawings and paintings, the samples of mineral and ore that she had collected, and charts and graphs that she made understandable to laymen.
Hundreds of senators, congressmen, lobbyists, and government clerks visited her display, which helped convince the Eastern legislators of the beauty of the Western mountains, and turned their hearts to the possibility of building a railroad over them to unite the country.
Ultimately, Congress was persuaded to choose the Judahs’ proposal for the Central Route – in large part due to Anna’s efforts.
Tragically, Theodore contracted yellow fever and died before seeing the railroad completed, and even before it was started in earnest.
But Anna lived to see their dream to fruition; and in fact, the driving of the last spike took place on what would have been their 22nd wedding anniversary. On the date of the ceremony, Anna visited her husband’s grave; and she wrote that there, her husband’s spirit – so long dedicated to the railroad – felt somehow near to her again.
Years later, another young woman fell in love with the history of the Golden Spike and the beginning of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Bernice Gibbs Anderson, the “Mother of the Golden Spike,” was born in Colorado in 1900 and lived the majority of her life in Corinne, Utah.
As a little girl, Bernice helped trail cattle near Promontory Summit and grew up hearing cowboy stories around the campfire, including stories about the Golden Spike. And as her granddaughter put it, she “just plain fell in love with it.”
From the time she was 19 until her death, she tirelessly dedicated her life to recognizing and preserving its history.
Bernice conceived the idea that the area around Promontory Summit ought to be set aside to commemorate the completion of the railroad. For years, she campaigned to make Promontory Summit a National Historic Monument.
She visited countless legislators, governors, commissioners, and railroad officers to raise support and funds for a monument at Promontory Summit.
A mother of six children, she also worked as a correspondent and staff writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, where she wrote historic articles and poetry about the Golden Spike.
She sent letters and invitations to members of Congress, U.S. Presidents, and Park Service Officials in hopes that they would come to recognize the importance of the site.
As president of the Golden Spike Association, she coordinated reenactment ceremonies and anniversary programs, encouraging local communities to participate in them each year.
And while some viewed her mission as unimportant and dismissed her efforts, she never gave up.
Thankfully, Bernice lived to see the fruits of her labors. After years of devoting her life to the cause, Promontory Summit was declared a National Historic Site on July 30, 1965.
And just this past March, it was re-designated as a National Historical Park, the first in Utah, allowing even more of the railroad and the surrounding area to be preserved for history going forward.
Fast forward to 2019, and we have now reached the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike. Today, another dedicated woman has been behind its Sesquicentennial Celebration, Spike 150.
Aimee McConkie – carrying the banner of Anna Judah and Bernice Gibbs Anderson – has been a driving force in her community.
A BYU graduate, wife, and mother of four daughters, Aimee has worked for fifteen years in professional association management.
In 2005, she founded Utah Venture Outdoors, a summer festival series in Millcreek, Utah. For 14 years, she has volunteered her time and resources to this event, seeking to bring the community together through recreational opportunities.
In 2017, she also launched LABELED, a 4-day film festival that seeks to break the stigma around mental health issues.
And now, she has once again brought her community together for an important cause – this time to celebrate and commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike.
Under her leadership as Director of Spike 150, there are events taking place not only around Promontory Summit, but around the entire state of Utah: events to highlight the history and legacy of the Golden Spike, events for children and families, and events for music, art, and train enthusiasts.
It has taken tremendous amounts of organization, coordination, and perseverance.
And it would no doubt make Bernice Gibbs Anderson proud. At the 1957 celebration of the Golden Spike, she said:
"This is sacred soil, dedicated to the sacrifices of the thousands who labored in the great race to build the first transcontinental railway in the shortest possible time… The destiny of this nation rode triumphant upon the rails that met at Promontory Station! The future of this site depends upon you, my friends. Will it take its rightful place in the heritage and traditions of America… or will it remain desolate and forgotten to sink into oblivion[?]"
Thanks to the work of people like Aimee McConkie, we know that the Golden Spike will not sink into oblivion, but will indeed take its rightful place in history.
Anna Judah, Bernice Gibbs Anderson, and Aimee McConkie might have lived at different times, but there is a common thread that runs throughout their stories: the triumph of ordinary people, of the hidden heroes behind so many of our great achievements in history.
Without the work of these ordinary Americans and Utahns, we never could have achieved one of the most transformative events in our nation thus far: the driving of the Golden Spike and the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
And without the work of these hidden heroes, we could not keep that legacy alive.
It is our task now to take up the banner that these women have carried – the banner of innovation, perseverance, and unity; and to ensure that our remarkable heritage lives on.
If we do, there is no telling what Utah, and our great nation, can achieve.
I yield the floor.