Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Last Spike Connecting Los Angeles
and San Francisco by Rail, 9-5-1876

Lang | San Francisco, California

[Portrait] [Side 1] [Side 2] [Side 3] [Side 4] [Head]
Additional Views:  [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

Anthea M. Hartig, Ph.D., executive director of the California Historical Society in San Francisco, holds the golden spike driven Sept. 5, 1876, at Lang in Soledad Canyon.

One day in November 1956, an heir of C. Tempelton Crocker walked into the office of the California Historical Society, which had just moved into the Whittier Mansion on Jackson Street in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. With little fanfare and no documentation[1], this heir donated 9.25 ounces of solid gold that had been fashioned into a railroad spike of standard dimensions.

It made sense for Templeton's estate to make the donation. In 1922 Templeton had endowed the keepers of the state's history with a loan of items that had been in the Crocker family for three generations. So lavish was the endowment that it served to re-launch the organization that had come and gone in fits and starts since its birth in 1871. Upon Templeton's death in 1948, the loan became a gift.[2]

Somehow this object that walked through the doors in 1956 had escaped the earlier bulk donation. Now the oversight, if that's what it was, would be corrected.

Inscribed on the object's four lightly scratched but highly reflective surfaces were the words: "Last Spike / Connecting Los Angeles / and San Francisco / by Rail," and on its head, "Sept. 5th / 1876."

The word "5th" was slightly more obliterated than the rest of the inscription.[3] Apparently it had taken the brunt of the force as Templeton's grandfather, Charles Crocker, pounded this last spike into the last wooden tie needed to join his Southern Pacific Railroad with Leland Stanford's Central Pacific.

The driving of California's golden spike was a grand affair reminiscent of the celebration that marked the birth of the transcontinental road in 1869 when the Central Pacific met the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit in Utah.

Here, at John Lang's ranch in a section of Soledad Canyon now known as Canyon Country in the Santa Clarita Valley, was an equally remote location that had never seen such pomp and circumstance.

Politicians and newspapermen joined Stanford aboard a Central Pacific train that drove south from San Francisco while a similar entourage accompanied Crocker aboard a Southern Pacific train that drove north out of Los Angeles, its locomotive having traveled by ship from San Francisco to Los Angeles especially for the occasion. After all, prior to this date, there was no other way for it to get there.[4]

Now, twin ribbons of steel joined Los Angeles with San Francisco and by extension, with the transcontinental railroad and civilization.

The resulting news reports and images belie the work that made it possible. While Crocker, Stanford and their political friends basked in the media limelight, the predominantly first-generation Chinese immigrant track layers and tunnel diggers were held some distance away, no doubt for the dual reason of popular anti-Chinese sentiment and to avoid further inciting unemployed American workers who were already organizing politically in opposition to the roads. The Panic of 1873 had taken its toll in the form of reduced wages and massive layoffs of American road workers who resented their substitution by cheaper Chinese labor; in San Francisco, unemployment was approaching 25 percent[5] when this golden spike was driven. The nation's economic malaise would last another two decades.

Santa Clarita readers would be interested to know that by this time, Henry M. Newhall, a San Francisco merchant who made his fortune during California's gold rush — not by mining gold but by auctioning provisions that arrived at port — had already sold his controlling interest in the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad to a nascent Southern Pacific and had become a director in that company. Henry parlayed his profits into 143,000 acres of real estate[6] up and down California in places where he knew the roads were coming.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, where Henry purchased 46,460 acres of an old Spanish land grant, he deeded acreage to the Southern Pacific, whose development arm erected a depot and established a town site in Henry's name, selling parcels to new arrivals. In the process, Henry's remaining acreage rose in value.

In Soledad Canyon, the Southern Pacific "repurposed" an existing stage station built circa circa 1873 for Remi Nadeau's freighters out of the Cerro Gordo mines. The place was called Lang, for the local landowner, who operated a hotel next door to serve wayfarers. The first Lang Station burned down in an 1888 brush fire and was replaced.

As for the one and only[7] ceremonial golden spike driven Sept. 5, 1876, Charles Crocker apparently pocketed it, because it remained among his family possessions out of the public view until that November day in 1956.

Made of locally mined San Gabriel gold, history tells us the spike was fabricated at no charge by L.W. Thatcher, a jeweler and watchmaker with a shop at 67 First Street in Los Angeles.[8]

Thatcher also fabricated the hammer Crocker used to drive it. It had a head of solid silver and an orangewood handle (from an orange tree)[9], acknowledging the importance of a budding citrus industry that would explode as the new roads carried the golden state's harvests to eastern markets.

A decade later those same roads would oblige easterners' enchantment with a California fictionalized by author Helen Hunt Jackson and huckstered in no small measure by the selfsame Southern Pacific.

Today the golden spike is stored at the California Historical Society's headquarters and museum, which moved to 678 Mission Street in San Francisco in 1993. The spike is believed to have been put on display just once,[10] when the organization still occupied the Whittier Mansion.

The whereabouts of the hammer are unknown.[11]

— Leon Worden 2012


Notes

[1,2,4,7,9,11] Anthea M. Hartig, Ph.D., Executive Director, California Historical Society. Conversation with the author, May 4, 2012.

[3] Author's observation.

[5] __ "Henry George, Frederick Jackson Turner, and the Closing of the American Frontier" by Alex Wagner Lough, in California History: The Journal of the California Historical Society, Vol. 89 No. 2, 2012.

[6] __ "About Henry Mayo Newhall," Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation, 2000. Online: http://www.scvhistory.com/scvhistory/hmn-bio-foundation.htm.

[8] __ "A Golden Spike: The Story of the Completion of the Southern Pacific-San Joaquin Valley Line Between Los Angeles and San Francisco, September 5, 1876" by Marie Harrington, pamphlet published by the San Fernando Valley Historical Society, Mission Hills, Calif., Sept. 5, 1976. Online: http://scvhistory.com/scvhistory/spike-harrington-index.htm.

[10] Anthea M. Hartig, Ph.D., Executive Director, California Historical Society. Conversation with the author, May 4, 2012. The spike is stored in a secure vault at the CHS headquarters at 678 Mission Street, where the society maintains a museum with topical exhibits that are changed or "rotated" two to three times per year. Hartig hinted at future plans to create a permanent exhibit featuring iconic aspects of California history in one section of the museum, and suggested the spike might one day be displayed there.


Story and digital image (c)Leon Worden, 5-4-2012.
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