Something golden at promontory summit
Many chapters ago in our great American story, there was a tedious idea to unite the nation in what seemed like an impossible plan. The plan took almost 40 years to complete, traversing many physical obstacles as well as those of political manipulation, financial self-dealing, land grabs, greed and abuse of the labor force. Sounds like headlines of current affairs, but this was the story of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
It was proposed in 1832, and the final “Golden Spike” was hammered between the connecting rails in May of 1939. Construction began during the height of the Civil War in 1863. President Lincoln, during his terms in office, would be remembered for being a great proponent of railroads and built many during his terms. Some of the railroads built would go on to help win the war for the North. Others were started as a means to unite those 26 United States of 1863. The labor force used to build this wonder was composed of immigrants, mainly Chinese and Irish. The immigrants had come to this young country in hope of finding a future in all America had promised to offer, and were also hated at the time just for being immigrants.
When the Golden Spike was driven in at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory on May 10, 1869, Ulysses S. Grant had just been inaugurated in March. President Grant was not a politician and was very indifferent to the world of politics. He wrote of the presidency to General Sherman in 1869: “I have been forced into it in spite of myself. I could not back down without, as it seems to me, leaving the contest for power between mere trading politicians, the elevation of whom, no matter which party won, would be a loss to us.” A silver hammer was used to drive the Golden Spike that revolutionized the coast-to-coast railroad and telegraph communication. The American West was brought into alignment with the Union states, and settlements and economy along its path flourished.
Fast forward almost 150 years. Amtrak still uses a section of the old rails from Sacramento through central Nevada on its daily passenger service to Chicago. Unfortunately, the railroad system of the United States pales in comparison to the railroads of Europe. The system runs at a snail’s pace in comparison to the high-speed trains of Japan. Our railroads fell by the wayside of disrepair and neglect as our love of the automobile dominated the nation. Many local rail lines have been converted to rail-trails, which is better than surrendering them to the weeds. After its initial proposal in the 1920s, the New York City Second Avenue subway has finally opened. It is the first major expansion of the subway system in 50 years.
Long-suffering commuters west of the Hudson saw great promise when the Gateway ARC Tunnel Project was proposed in 2012, only to be cancelled a few years later. This project would have brought direct train service to New York City from northern New Jersey, easing the unbearable congestion currently in place. Much like the railroads of our past political manipulations, financial miscalculations led New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie to cancel the plans. Good news is two-fold: after suffering major delays due to electrical storm damage from Superstorm Sandy and political pressure from commuters, new plans were announced by governors Christie and Cuomo in the fall of 2016. Our newest chapter of our American history began last Friday. The new president listed building, among other things, “new railways” during his inaugural speech. While the Oval Office may be draped in gold for the moment, we can only hope the new president’s words are golden.