Story of the Golden Spike at Lang Station.
By GERALD M. BEST.
From the Golden Spike Centennial Souvenir Program
Sept. 5, 1976.
[Centennial Index][Story of the Golden Spike][The Chinese Contribution]
Story of the Golden Spike at Lang Station
Condensed from a forthcoming book by Gerald M. Best, noted railroad historian.
Beginning of the Rails
Railroad fever gripped the nation through the first half of the nineteenth century. A new world had been born. For the first time in the long history of mankind, he and his goods could be transported across land a speed faster than a galloping horse. People could now move over great distances in comfort; goods could be moved in quantity over those same distances.
Communities competed wildly for rail service; the men who laid the rails held the reins of political and economic power. For a while it appeared that the railroad, moving south from San Francisco toward the Colorado river, would bypass the farming town of Los Angeles, "Queen of the Cow Counties."
This tiny engine, christened the San Gabriel, was shipped by water from San Francisco to General Phineas Banning, who had long operated mule and wagon trains from the harbor at Wilmington to Fort Tejon, on the crest of the Tehachapi mountains. Banning and a partner started to build a railroad from the harbor to the city, under the banner of the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad. They had laid three miles of track, hauled in from the pier with drayhorses, before the San Gabriel and three flat cars arrived. (The San Gabriel was reported to have fallen off the Alameda wharf the year before, and had been raised and repaired. It was given to constant breakdowns.) The tracks reached halfway from the harbor to Los Angeles when word came that the Union Pacific and Central Pacific had joined their transcontinental tracks at Promontory Point, Utah. Four months later, September 9, 1869, the tracks were complete. The eight-wheeled Schenectady engines which had been ordered had not arrived, so the little four-wheel San Gabriel did all the railroad’s passenger and freight hauling with frequent time out for breakdowns until the locomotive Los Angeles was landed, six weeks later, after a seven months’ voyage around the Horn.
The San Gabriel.
A Bargain with the Railroad
The people of Los Angeles figured that their 21-mile railroad must some day, somehow, be linked to the rest of the world. Politicians and financiers engaged in loud public argument and quiet backroom deals.
The answer was worked out one day in July, 1872 in the office of former Governor Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific. With him was Charles Crocker, who had supervised the building of the railroad from California eastward, and who was president of a newly acquired subsidiary, the Southern Pacific Railroad. Another former governor, John G. Downey, a leading citizen of Los Angeles, sat down with the two and they worked out a deal for the Southern Pacific to build a line out of Los Angeles, to join with the Southern Pacific line then being built southward through the San Joaquin valley, connecting with the Central Pacific main line near Stockton. In return, the railroad would get full ownership of the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad, with rolling stock, wharf, stations, yards and rights of way to build lines to Pomona and Anaheim.
The public, of course, had to buy these properties and present them to the Southern Pacific. On November 5, 1872, the voters enthusiastically voted themselves in debt for the sake of the railroad.
The Southern Pacific bustled about in the Los Angeles area through 1873 and most of 1874, building lines to Anaheim, Pomona and San Fernando, and importing a total of eight locomotives, but there was little progress on the rails to the north.
Suddenly a rival railroad appeared on the scene, and Southern Pacific started massive construction. The route crossed two great barriers: the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and the Mojave desert; and the short but jagged and forbidding San Gabriel Range between San Fernando and Newhall.
The Great Tunnel
It was estimated that it would take two years to bore the tunnel north of San Fernando through nearly 8,000 feet of solid rock, but that surveys were being made and a large force of Chinese stone masons would soon be at work at both ends of the proposed tunnel. During those two years, contractor Charles Strobridge, who had built the Central Pacific, would reach the summit of the Tehachapi Mountains, and should be able to meet the tracklayers working north from the completed San Fernando tunnel some time in 1876.
A large force of Chinese workmen began arriving in groups of 200 in March 1875. At the foot of the mountain through which Phineas Banning and the General Edward F. Beale had made their spectacular cuts, the crews began to dig. Work was commenced at both ends for this 7,000-foot bore through solid rock, and to speed the process, the exact spot at the summit of the mountain which would be directly over the center of the tunnel was located by surveyors, and a shaft was sunk through the rock until the level of the tunnel was reached. To hoist the waste rock out of this bore, the Southern Pacific’s Sacramento shops built a large cable drum and hoisting engine which was sent in sections by ship and assembled on top of the mountain. The engine and boiler had been removed from one of the abandoned Market Street Ry. Steam cars, and as one spectator described, "It was the funniest looking contrivance you ever did see!" As soon as the shaft was completed, crews were then able to work in both directions towards the stone cutters chipping away at the north and south ends. This shortened the time required to complete the bore by a number of months.
On January 1, 1876 the contractor for the San Fernando Tunnel announced that 2,900 feet of the tunnel had been completed, leaving 4,100 feet to go. At that rate the tunnel was sure to be completed by summer. The track had been extended from San Fernando to the mouth of the tunnel, where the stage coaches for Mojave and the north could conveniently meet the trains. Charles Crocker announced that 1,500 men and 500 animals were at work in Tehachapi Pass, the line from Caliente to Tehachapi Summit requiring the boring of 14 tunnels and the building of a giant loop to keep the grade at the required 2.2 percent.
The San Fernando Tunnel, 7,000 feet long, was the principal subject of conversation in Los Angeles as it neared completion, and one Sunday an excursion with six cars jammed with passengers made the trip to the south portal and return. Tracklaying north of the tunnel began at the end of July and soon Newhall was reached. Train service to San Francisco now began at Keene, high up in the Tehachapis near the great loop, and the track had passed Tehachapi Summit and the graders were already out on the Mojave Desert. On July 27, 1876, Crocker announced that Tunnel No. 19 in Soledad Canyon had been holed through at 223 feet and that this was the last tunnel that was needed to complete the line. The Southern Pacific announced that the rails would be joined on September 5, 1876 at a point called Lang, 43 miles from Los Angeles and 440 miles from San Francisco.
Great plans for the event were in the works in Los Angeles, and invitations were issued to 40 of the town’s most prominent citizens to accompany Supt. E.E. Hewitt to the ceremony of driving the last spike. For the officials and their invited guests from San Francisco, the Southern Pacific provided a special train to bring a party of 56, who came in style aboard three Silver Palace Sleeping Cars and the new Director’s car California. The train left Oakland Mole on the afternoon of September 4th with 56 passengers aboard. Representing the "Big Four" was Leland Stanford; Crocker was down at Lang and C.P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins were absent. Included in the party were San Francisco’s mayor A.J. Bryant, Gen. McDowell, commander of the Presidio, the editors of all the San Francisco newspapers and their star reporters. Even M.H. deYoung, owner of the Chronicle and not noted for his support of the S.P. was present. So were a number of prominent businessmen and politicians. The special reached Fresno late in the evening, and Central Pacific’s fast passenger engine No. 95, an eight-wheeler built by McKay & Aldus hauled the train over the relatively level stretch to the division point at Sumner (Bakersfield). Here a brand new, heavy ten-wheel engine No. 38, one of ten built by Schenectady that spring for the Southern Pacific, was attached to the special, then started out for the meeting point at Lang. A helper engine was attached at Caliente, at the foot of the long climb to Tehachapi Summit, from where No. 38 made it alone to Lang.
In the meantime, Governor Downey called the general committee for the railroad celebration together and last-minute arrangements were made for the reception and banquet which would be held at Union Club Hall on the evening of the 5th. The Los Angeles Star of September 3 said that the train with invited guests would leave Los Angeles station at 9 a.m. on the 5th and that "Supt. Hewitt of the railroad is happy and yet he is unhappy; happy at the event and unhappy because he can’t invite the whole community to witness the demonstration. There will be only 40 invitations!"
The train consisted of eight-wheel engine No. 25, the last of a group of five built by Schenectady in 1875 and shipped to Los Angeles by sailing vessel, and five coaches which seated about 60 persons each, enabling him to pick up a few extra passengers on the way to Lang. He had forgotten about the brass band which was a necessity for an occasion such as this, and by the time the train left Los Angeles Hewitt had 191 passengers. After stopping at the stations en route, more people boarded the train and by the time they reached the end of track near Lang, there were standees in the aisles, on the platforms and hanging on the steps. Many others made their way by horse-drawn carriages, on horseback or on foot, and were at Lang ahead of the special trains.
Quoting a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle: "Shortly after 1 o’clock, the San Francisco excursion train, having been delayed a trifle by the giving out of the air brakes, pushed its way through the narrow pass to the place of junction, near Lang Station. Our magnificent ten-wheeled engine was gaily decorated with flags and as soon as it came in sight was hailed by loud shouts by the Los Angeles group who, to the number of more than a thousand, had arrived at an earlier hour."
The Los Angeles Star’s reporter said: "On arriving at the point of junction at Lang Station the entire working force of the road some 4,000 strong was seen drawn up in battle array. Swarms of Chinese and scores of teams and drivers formed a working display such as is seldom seen. The secret of rapid railroad building was apparent at a glance. The spot selected for the ceremony was on a broad and beautiful plain surrounded by undulating hills on the one side and the rugged peaks and deep gorges of the San Fernando mountains on the other. The scene was one worthy of the painter’s pencil, but by some strange oversight, no photographer was present and the picture presented will live only in the memories of those whose good fortune it was to be present."
The Chronicle reporter resumed: "There were nearly 4,000 people on the ground, nearly 3,000 being Chinese employees of the railroad who with their picks, shovels and bamboo hats arranged on either side of the track looked on with wondering eyes and jabbering away like so many parrots."
Your historian would like to note at this point that this group of 4,000 formed the railroad workers only; another 1,000 or more were the spectators who gathered at various vantage points to view the scene. The crossties had already been laid, and everything finished except the laying and spiking down of the rails.
"The laying of the remaining 1,050 feet of track and the connecting of the through line was done as soon as the railroad officials and invited guests could alight from the San Francisco train and take their places. Charles Crocker superintended the work in person," continued the Chronicle reporter.
The crossties were neatly lined up at proper spacing for 1,050 feet, two spikes were laid at each end of each crosstie, and the surveyor’s guideline was in place. To impress the spectators, the Chinese graders and stone masons were lined up in rows on each side of the roadbed. What a showman Crocker was what a pity we have no photographs of this inspiring sight! Each tracklaying gang had a long, four-wheeled push-car loaded with between 35 and 40 rails, with eight track layers, a foreman and several relief men as was the custom of those days.
The Chronicle resumes: "After Crocker gave the signal and the locomotives whistled, in an instant all was excitement. The air was full of dust, steel rails and iron mauls hammering in the spikes. All the tracklayers were Caucasians and the Chinese simply looked on and cheered their favorite crew. For a time, neither party gained any advantage, when the railcar of the San Francisco gang ran off the track, and with a wild yell the Los Angeles gang reached the junction just one rail in advance of their opponents. This triumph was hailed with cheer after cheer, the San Francisco gang joining in good humoredly in the hurrah. The San Francisco side was then spiked down and thoroughly complete, and the accomplishment of this feat was hailed with as loud shouting as with the reaching of the junction. The time occupied was between 5½ and 6 minutes. As the rails met, the band from Los Angeles struck up a lively air and amid the frantic shouts of the crowd and a cloud of dust which obscured everything and everybody, Charles Crocker stepped to the front."
The Los Angeles Star’s reporter continues the story: "After the cheering had subsided and the crowd had been induced to stand back a short distance, Gov. Downey introduced L.W. Thatcher to Col. Crocker as the public spirited jeweler who had manufactured the gold spike and silver hammer to be used in the ceremonies. Col. Crocker thanked him for his appropriate gift, and said the company would treasure them in its archives as souvenirs of the great event.
"The spike is of solid San Gabriel gold, the same in size as ordinary railroad spikes; the hammer is of solid silver with a handle of orange wood. Taking the hammer in one hand and the spike in the other, Col. Crocker said, ‘Gentlemen of Los Angeles and San Francisco, it has been deemed best on this occasion that the last spike to be driven should be of gold, that most precious of metals, as indicative of the great wealth which will flow into the coffers of San Francisco and Los Angeles when this connection is made, and is no mean token of the importance of this grand artery of commerce which we are about to unite with this last spike. This wedding of Los Angeles with San Francisco is not a ceremony consecrated by the hands of wedlock, but by the bands of steel. The speaker hopes to live to see the time when these beautiful valleys through which we passed today will be filled with a happy and prosperous people, enjoying every facility for comfort, happiness and education. Gentlemen, I am no public speaker, but I can drive a spike!"
Suiting the action to the word, Mr. Crocker inserted the spike in the hole prepared for it, and with six blows of the silver hammer drove it to its resting place and the railroad connection between the two great California communities was an accomplished fact.
In 1976 the spike rests in the vaults of the California Historical Society in San Francisco. It weighs 9¼ ounces, is 5-7/16 inches long and is engraved as follows. Side 1 Last Spike; Side 2 Connecting Los Angeles; Side 3 And San Francisco; Side 4 By Rail. On the head is engraved the date, Sept. 5, 1876.
There followed speeches by mayors of both cities and former governors.