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Unknown, but possibly G.W. Laird, San Francisco, 1869

Unknown, but possibly G.W. Laird, San Francisco, 1869
Driving the last spike. The Arizona Spike—presented at the ceremony marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Commissioned and presented by Arizona Territorial Governor Anson P.K. Safford, this was one of four ceremonial spikes used to mark the "meeting of the rails" at Promontory Point, Utah on 10 May 1869. Inscribed on the shaft: "Ribbed with iron, clad in silver and crowned with gold Arizona presents her offering to the enterprise that has banded a continent, dictated a pathway to commerce. Presented by Governor Safford."
135mm (long); 25 x 20mm (head); 11 x 11mm (shaft)
Anson P.K. Safford (1830-1891) – Sidney Dillon (1812-1892) – by descent to Florence Dillon Wyckoff Whitney (1877-1960) — gift to the Museum of the City of New York, 1943.
The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West. Travelling to Joslyn Art Museum, 6 October 2018 to 6 January 2019; Utah Museum of Fine Arts: 1 February to 29 May 2019; Crocker Art Museum 23 June to 29 September 2019.
Promontory Celebration. Union Pacific Railroad Museum, Council Bluffs, Iowa, 10 May 2003 to 30 June 2018.
Gerald Ford Museum, 6 March to 24 November 2000.
Smithsonian Museum of American History, 1978.

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Carleigh Queenth
Carleigh Queenth Specialist

Lot Essay

To contemporaries, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad was the supreme marvel of the age. Stretching nearly 2,000 miles from Sacramento to Omaha, the road provided, for the first time, easy and reliable travel between California and the great industrial centers of the east, leading the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin to declare: "The States of the Pacific will not longer be divorced from the sympathies and affections of 'the old States.' The iron road will be a bond of amity as well as of commerce…." [1] Not only did the railroad reduce the time and effort required to travel across the country—eliminating the need to travel to the west coast either “around the horn” of South America or via the perilous and difficult passage via the Isthmus of Panama—it offered a new trade route to the Pacific and Asia, making the world just a little smaller.

The herculean effort, spearheaded by an act of Congress in 1863, which offered the builders subsidies as well as generous land grants to sell to new settlers, had been undertaken by two companies: the Central Pacific and Union Pacific. Headed by Leland Stanford, the Central Pacific began work in Sacramento at that start of 1863 and slowly moved eastward across the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains and into the desert toward the Great Salt Lake. The Union Pacific, under the direction of Dr. Thomas Durant, began work two years later, and had been steadily marching westward across the Great Plains from the west bank of the Missouri River at Omaha.

The "Golden Spike" (or "Last Spike") ceremony marking the completion of the world’s first transcontinental railroad was the brainchild of David Hewes, brother-in-law to Jane Stanford, the wife of Central Pacific Director Leland Stanford. Hewes had made his fortune in steam shovels to fill in wetlands surrounding San Francisco and was an early booster of the transcontinental railroad. Disheartened that there "was no proper sentiment being expressed by the people of the Pacific Coast, and especially by the great mining industries of the territories through which this railroad passed, it came to be my thought that the Central Pacific and Union Pacific should not be united except by a connecting link of silver rails”) [2]

The silver rail plan, predictably, soon fell to the wayside, and Hewes opted to commission instead a golden spike as his offering to commemorate the meeting of the two railroads. Hewes also made arrangements with Western Union to broadcast across the country, so the final hammer blows to the last spike "would have acted as a telegraph operator's fingers do…" He then arranged with General George Ord to connect the telegraph wires to the parapet guns at Fort Point overlooking the Golden Gate in order to fire as the last mallet blows were struck.[3] It was to be one of the first events in history to be brought to an entire nation live, as it happened.

Upon hearing of Hewes' effort to mark the historic event others joined in the act. Frederick Marriott, publisher of the San Francisco Newsletter, commissioned a second golden spike to be presented at the meeting of the rails. Not to be outdone, a group of Nevadans commissioned a spike made of silver from the Comstock Lode. Finally, Anson Safford, the newly-appointed governor of the Arizona Territory, commissioned the present spike, fittingly composed of gold and silver, the precious metals that had attracted so many to come to the American far west, applied to a base of steel--the material that would bind the region to the rest of the nation. Safford migrated from Vermont to the California gold fields in 1850, but soon abandoned the mines and turned to politics, first in California in the state Assembly and then in Nevada where he ultimately rose to Surveyor General in 1867. In April 1869, following a lobbying campaign by his political allies, President Grant nominated Safford as governor of the Arizona Territory. Safford had yet to set foot in Arizona when he commissioned this ceremonial spike.

On the appointed day, scheduled for 8 May 1869, these four ceremonial spikes would be set into a rail tie fashioned of polished California laurel bearing a silver plaque to be set beneath the point where the rails from the two lines met. On 5 May 1869, Leland Stanford's special train departed Sacramento for Promontory Point, a junction imposed by Congress on the rival companies who had been unable to agree on common meeting point, resulting in nearly 250 miles of overlapping grades. The train arrived at Promontory on 7 May, a day before the scheduled ceremonies. But on their arrival, they received a telegraphed message from Sidney Dillon of the Union Pacific and learned the ceremony would have to be postponed until at least the 10th. Dr. Durant and his party had found his palace car decoupled from his Promontory-bound train in Wyoming by a crowd of railroad workers who hadn't been paid since January. Only after the Union Pacific secured $80,000 cash to pay them was Durant's party allowed to continue toward Promontory.

Finally, the train carrying Durant, Dillon, chief engineer Grenville Dodge, and other Union Pacific officials arrived at Promontory Summit at 10:00 am on Monday, 10 May. After some initial pleasantries between the rival delegations, hasty planning began for yet to be defined ceremonies. The deliberations, headed by Grenville Dodge for the Union Pacific and by Edgar Mills for the Central Pacific, proved as acrimonious as the rivalry between the two railroads. As the two locomotives inched toward each other and final preparations were made to wire the final iron spike to broadcast the final maul blows across the world, they could not agree on who would have the honor. Five minutes before the ceremony was to begin, U.P. chief engineer threatened to pull out of the ceremonies entirely over who would have the honor of driving the last spike—an impasse solved only when it was determined that both Stanford and Durant would drive in the two last spikes simultaneously.

While most scholars agree on the basic elements of the events of 10 May 1869, the precise order and details remain uncertain: a result of a combination hasty-preparations, poor organization, and an unruly crowd, which led to numerous contradictory contemporary accounts. It is generally believed that the ceremony began with an invocation from the Rev. Dr. John Todd of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, followed by the presentation and laying of the laurel tie and four ceremonial spikes beneath the meeting point of the last rails. In his presentation of the Arizona Spike, Safford repeated the inscription that appears on its shaft. After each spike was "driven" (or rather, gently tapped) into the pre-augured holes in the laurel tie with a silver-plated maul, Leland Stanford gave an acceptance speech for the Central Pacific and Dodge for the Union Pacific. It was then time for Stanford and Durant simultaneously drive two iron spikes to mark the completion of the railroad. Stanford’s iron spike had been wired and attached to a telegraph so the blows could be transmitted to the nation in real time. According to eyewitnesses, both men missed their spikes, hitting the rails instead, and the sympathetic telegraph operator tapped out the signal by hand. After several successful blows by the two railroad executives, the telegraph operator sent the message "D-O-N-E" and with that, the crowd roared in celebration.

The dignitaries soon left the scene while a Chinese crew replaced the ceremonial tie with a pine tie and common iron spikes -- leading one journalist to declare, most appropriately, that in reality was not Durant or Stanford, but rather it was the "Chinese who really laid the last tie and drove the last spike." Afterward, the two locomotives, the Central Pacific's Jupiter and the Union Pacific's locomotive No. 119, each took turns nosing over the newly completed junction. A general celebration among the workers onsite ensued, a moment captured by Andrew J. Russell in his iconic image of the celebration replete with the two locomotive engineers toasting each other with bottles of champagne.

The fate of each of the ceremonial spikes and other objects following the ceremonies, like the event itself, is the subject of some confusion and conjecture. Leland Stanford is generally believed to have brought most the ceremonial objects back to California aboard his special train including the Hewes Golden Spike, the Nevada Silver Spike, the Laurel Tie and the Silver Maul. On his return to California, Stanford returned the Golden Spike to David Hewes, who in 1892 donated it to Leland Stanford Junior University in Palo Alto and is now part of the collections at Stanford University Museum of Art which also holds the aforementioned Nevada Spike and the Silver Maul. The Laurel Tie was placed on display for some time in San Francisco and is believed to have been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

The whereabouts of San Francisco News Letter's golden spike remains a mystery. Some speculated that it was returned to Marriott's newspaper and suffered the same fate as the Laurel Tie, but a brief notice in the San Francisco Bulletin claims that one of the ceremonial spikes was broken in two and the pieces given to the Union Pacific's Grenville Dodge and Sidney Dillon, leading one scholar to suggest that that spike was Marriot’s.[4] But this report may have been mistakenly referring to a large casting sprue (or slug) of gold that was attached to the bottom of the spike. (It is known that some pieces of the sprue were melted down and cast into rings and watch fobs.) [5]

The fate of the Arizona Spike remained a mystery among most scholars for the duration of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. The first writer to speculate on the whereabouts of the Arizona Spike was J. N. Bowman who surmised the spike returned with its presenter and then on to Arizona where it was lost.[6] In 1969, F. A. Ketterson, Jr., in his assessment for historically reconstructing the Promontory site for the National Park Service, first put forward the theory that the Arizona Spike was presented to Dillon based on correspondence with Sidney Dillon's great-grandson, S. Dillon Ripley, who at the time was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Ripley recalled the family tradition that the Arizona Spike had been presented to Sidney Dillon who held it to his death, but the time of writing, Ripley had been unaware of its location.[7] Unbeknownst to Ripley, the spike had remained in the family, but not through his line of descent of his grandmother Julia Elizabeth Dillon Ripley (1844-1945) but that of his great aunt Cora Almira Dillon Wyckoff (1849-1925). Cora's daughter Florence Dillon Wykoff Whitney presented it as a gift to the Museum of the City of New York in 1943. Little fanfare must have surrounded this acquisition and it was not until 1978, when it was loaned to the Smithsonian and the Associated Press published a story on the spike.[8]

Some evidence of what may have happened to the Arizona spike is found in Alfred Hart's photograph of the scene (#356 or "The Last Act"), which shows the crowd of dignitaries posed in front of the Union Pacific train with Sidney Dillon and fellow Union Pacific director John Duff holding aloft what appear to be spikes. Directly in front of them stands Anson P. K. Safford, who had presented the Arizona Spike. Andrew Russell's photograph "Laying of the last rail at Promontory Point, Utah," taken likely within minutes of Hart's, but from the side view, Sydney Dillon can be seen also holding what appears to be a spike. Duff, standing to Dillon's left, appears to be holding something in the same hand he used to hold a spike aloft in Hart's photograph. The shape of Duff's grip and the point sticking out at the bottom would suggest it may be a railroad spike. Unfortunately the photographs are not of a sufficient resolution to confirm precisely which spikes they were holding.

Interestingly, the only notices of the Arizona Spike to appear the newspapers beyond the oft-recounted presentation by Safford at the ceremony appears in the 26 May issue of the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, in a short notice titled, "Arizona's Tribute."

"At the jewelry manufactory of D. W. Laird, 610 Merchant street, is a beautiful spike, which will be presented to the Central Pacific Railroad Company as Arizona's tribute to the great triumph of the age. The spike is six inches in length, three-quarters of an inch think, one and one half inches across the head, and weighs ten and one-fourth ounces. The gold and silver used are of the finest quality, and the workmanship is very credible."[9]

Assuming the text of the notice was current to the date of issue of the newspaper, and simply not a late insertion of something that occurred prior to the 10 May ceremony, this would suggest Dillon did not take the Arizona Spike at Promontory, but rather it returned to California by Safford. Safford, aboard Leland Stanford’s special westbound train, arrived in Reno on 12 May and he departed Virginia City on 21 May to assume his new post in Arizona. Safford's most likely route would have taken him by train to Sacramento and then by steamer to San Francisco where he would have boarded a ship bound for Los Angeles--then overland via Yuma.[10] It is quite possible that Safford could have dropped off the spike to be exhibited at Laird's on while he was in San Francisco awaiting transit to Los Angeles and the reporter made an assumption about its eventual presentation to the Central Pacific. Then later, at an unknown date, the spike was presented to Dillon instead.

However, the published notice makes no mention of the spike ever being present at the event at Promontory, which raises the possibility that the spike exhibited at Laird's was a copy of the one presented at the ceremony. If Dillon did in fact leave Promontory with the Arizona Spike, some members of the Central Pacific may have been upset and may have commissioned a copy that could remain in California. (In light of the acrimony between the two railroads, this is not unrealistic to assume.) Also considering that two additional copies of the Nevada Silver Spike were produced at the time (and one of them presented by none other than Anson Safford), and that the Hewes family had commissioned a second golden spike that was never presented at the ceremony, this is a plausible assumption.[10] But if Laird produced a copy of Arizona Spike, its whereabouts remain unknown.

The Arizona Spike stands as an evocative symbol of the national optimism that prevailed during the second half of the nineteenth century. Completed less than four years after Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, the event was viewed as a celebration of national unity after four years of a devastating civil war. As one author put it, it was “thought to be the grandest industrial accomplishment of the age…. Nowhere on earth had such a railroad been built…. That the line was finished years ahead of schedule added to the triumph. In a time when the Unite States sometimes felt itself inferior to European nations, the completion of the Pacific Railroad signaled the world that the Americans were a great and capable people.” [12]

When considered historically, the event means a good deal more. 10 May 1869 can be viewed as a critical turning point in that it marked the beginning of enormous social transformation throughout the country and the world. The new road would soon be one of several railroads across the country, further transforming the American west. The Central Pacific's use of Chinese laborers encouraged further migration to the United States from Asia, helping transform the ethnic landscape of the west coast. Settlers from southern and eastern Europe rode the same rails westward to fresh settlements in the west. Meanwhile, the often-shabby treatment of those who constructed the railroads help give rise to organized labor—a development that had a direct effect on the ceremony itself when Durant’s Promontory-bound train was held hostage by unpaid workers.

And while those roads meant progress and improvement for many, it also signaled the beginning of the end for other ways of life, most notably that of the indigenous peoples who lived along its route. The waves of settlers who began to populate the Great Plains and the Rockies stoked tensions with the native peoples of the region, setting off a series of devesting wars that resulted in most being forced onto reservations. Meanwhile, the American bison, a staple for the tribes of the Great Plains, proved to be a hazard to railroads, and those companies encouraged a slaughter that nearly rendered the species extinct, further reducing the native population’s ability to support themselves.

Even to those who benefitted, the transcontinental railroad soon became infamous. Many sections were hastily built in the race to Promontory, and sections were soon falling apart. To make matters worse, it was soon revealed that both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were padding their bills to increase profits. In 1872, The New York Sun revealed that Crédit Mobilier, the company the Union Pacific chartered to construct their portion of the road was merely a means to inflate construction costs, enabling its executives to pocket tens of millions of dollars. The scandal enveloped Washington, with numerous members of Congress implicated--yet no charges were ever filed, but it nearly drove the Union Pacific into insolvency.

For better or worse, the completion of the transcontinental railroad signaled the start of a series of profound changes. Less than six months later the Suez Canal would open, further reducing travel times between Asia and the West. Other major railroads would soon stretch across North America, Europe and Asia. Over the next several decades these railroads would help spur new industries and inventions that would transform daily life further: electric light, the telephone, recorded music, elevators, and aviation, to name just a few and set the stage for what would become known as "The American Century."

[1] 11 May 1869, p. 2
[2] Eban Putman. Lieutenant Joshua Hewes … New York: Privately Printed, 1913. p. 249.
[3] Ibid, 251
[4] "Telegraphic Despatches. Laying the Last Rail…," Daily Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, 13 May 1869, p. 3. "One of the presentations spike was afterwards cut, and half of it given to Dillon for a memento."; Edson T. Strobridge writes that the News Letter Spike, "having little importance in the day’s event and with no obligation to Frank Marriott, was donated to the two officials of the Union Pacific Railroad, neither of who were held in high regard by Stanford, his Associates or James Harvey Strobridge. One can reasonably surmise that in order to save face Dillon and Dodge both accepted the mutilated pieces of the second spike, measuring no more than 2 1/2" or so and neither remaining piece recognizable as a railroad spike much less a treasured ceremonial 'Last Spike.' General Dodge had earlier that day alienated himself by his hard headed demands on the precedence of who should drive the last spike and even: 'positively refused [a rail] connection and told the Central Pacific people that they might do as they liked, and that there should be no joint celebration.' … I can also accept the probable cause of these two pieces never again being seen, or at least identified by later historians was due to the large egos of Dillon and Dodge causing their mementos to disappear. General Dodge had caused enough problems between the CP & UP railroads by his intractable positions during their final negotiations for the final track connections and now this 'Last Spike' ceremony that he no doubt experienced a little subtle payback." See Strobridge, "Our First Transcontinental Railroad and the Last Gold Spikes at Promontory, Utah May 10, 1869. Paper written for the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, 2005.
[5] Michael W. Johnson “Rendezvous at promontory: A New Look at the Golden Spike Ceremony,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 72:1 (Winter 2004) p. 47.
[6] J.N. Bowman, "Driving the Last Spike at Promontory, 1869," California Historical Society Quarterly, 36:2 (June 1957, pp. 96-106, and 36:2 (September 1957) pp. 263-274.
[7] Ketterson Jr., "Golden Spike Historical Reconstruction," Utah Historical Quarterly, 37:1 (Winter 1969) p. 67;
[8] Associated Press, "Famed rail spike exhibited in Smithsonian Museum," Dallas Morning News, 3 May 1978, p. 4. Interestingly, a 1993 National Park Service publication places the Arizona spike at the Smithsonian, but this was mistaken as it was only on loan from the Museum of the City of New York. (See https://npshistory.com/brochures/gosp/last-spikes-1993.pdf - Retrieved 1 November 2022)
[9] San Francisco Daily Bulletin, 27 May 1869, p.3. Note that this report was repeated verbatim in the Sacramento Union, 28 May 1869, p. 3.
[10] "First Through Train," Gold Hill Daily News, Nev., 12 May 1869, p. 3; The Daily Appeal, Carson City, Nev., 22 May 1869, p. 4; Telegraphic," Daily Morning Chronicle, San Francisco, 20 May 1869, p. 2.
[11] Bowman, fn 4 “One reporter stated that the spike was inscribed at the time of the presentation, and gave the presentation talk practically in the words of the present inscription. From the surplus silver used in making the spike, duplicates were made by the Ruhling Co. One was presented to the editor of the Gold Hill News (May 6), and no doubt to other papers; and Governor Safford presented a duplicate to the editor of the Carson Appeal (May 11).” "Rail museum is new home for second golden spike," San Francicso Chronicle, 12 May 2006, pp. B1, B3.
[12] Johnson, p. 66.

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