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Wandering the West

In its day it was the equivalent of the landing on the moon. On May 10, 1869, two railroads joined their tracks on a windy sagebrush-covered desert hillside in Utah and united a nation. As the golden spike and others were driven into the last rail, the news was telegraphed coast to coast, setting off a national celebration.

Each May 10, the ceremony is reenacted at Promontory Summit north of the Great Salt Lake. It’s a fun event for history buffs and parents with kids who are impressed by shiny, noisy trains and the hoopla surrounding the reenactment. It all takes place again Saturday, May 10, beginning at 9 a.m., with the reenactments at 12:20 p.m. and again at 2 p.m.

The Promontory site is part of the Golden Spike National Historic Site, 32 miles west of Brigham City and 124 miles from Park City. In 1979, two exact replicas of the engines that touched their cowcatchers together were delivered to the site, and they’ll be fired up and running on a circular track, coming together in time for the spike-driving reenactment.

You can also drive two loop tours. Each uses the actual road grade hand-built by Chinese laborers working from the west for the Central Pacific Railroad and by Irish laborers working from the east for the Union Pacific. Since railroads got cash and land for each mile of railroad they built, the grading crews worked way out ahead of the track layers. For 250 miles across Utah there are two parallel railroad grades. Back when the two grading crews were working only feet apart, fist and shovel fights broke out between the rival crews.

But peace was reached when the two railroads agreed to meet on the dusty Utah hillside. Central Pacific dignitaries arrived two days before Union Pacific’s delegation, which had to stop while a shoddy bridge in Weber Canyon was rebuilt. The U.P. had its board of directors and the vice president of the United States on board and didn’t want to kill them. The Central Pacific VIPs had little to do but sit in their club car and drink, and legend has it that none of them could actually hit the spike with a hammer when the time came.

May 10 is the actual anniversary reenactment but the moment is also played out every summer Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. You can’t ride the trains but they’re fun to watch chugging around.

You won’t see real trains going cross-country on Promontory Summit anymore. They started crossing the Great Salt Lake trestle, known as the Lucin Cutoff, in 1903. The original 1869 rails were pulled up and melted down for World War II. If you look in the right places, though, you’ll still see the original stone or wood culverts and bridge abutments here and there on the grades.

If you’re in the neighborhood, it’s also a good time to inspect artist Robert Smithson’s most famous earth sculpture, the Spiral Jetty, which for 1,500 feet goes out into the Great Salt Lake and spirals around several times. The jetty is 15.5 miles southwest of the Golden Spike Visitor’s Center. Ask there for directions or look them up on the Web as there are many turns and Promontory is a bad place to get lost or stuck.

If you’re starved on your return, there are two classic Utah restaurants on the way back. The Idle Isle Café in downtown Brigham City opened in 1921 on Main Street and hasn’t changed much since then with good hearty home-style cooking. In season the desserts feature locally grown Brigham peaches. Northern Utahns flock to Maddox Ranch House two miles south of town on Highway 89 in Perry. It bills itself as Utah’s original steak house and is jammed with families who’ve dined there since it opened in 1949. It’s closed Sundays and Mondays.

Incidentally, you’re not going to find the Golden Spike itself in Utah. It’s at Stanford University, which was founded by Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific.

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.

THE VITALS:

Park City Main Street to Golden Spike Historical Site: 124 miles

Web sites:

http://www.nps.gov/gosp/

http://www.spiraljetty.org

Insider tip: Take your own food and water. Make sure you’ve got plenty of gas. The nearest services are 26 miles away in Corinne.


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