PROMONTORY SUMMIT, Box Elder — People from all walks of life came together Friday morning for the inaugural day of the three-day celebration marking the 150th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike.
Kenny Wong and his wife, Kawai Wong, both members of the American Legion Auxiliary 1291 in New York, are visiting Utah for the first time. So far they’ve said they enjoyed replacing views of skyscrapers with mountains.
“I’m so impressed,” Kawai Wong said Friday morning. “… You know of course we see a lot more people, so my first reaction was ‘Oh this place is so quiet.’”
For Kenny Wong, celebrating the 150th anniversary hits close to home — his great-grandfather was a Chinese laborer for the railroad.
“Seeing everybody here is just quite a sight,” he said.
He said watching the iconic Jupiter and No. 119 trains ride in was “totally exciting” and brought tears to his eyes.
“It is like paying homage,” he said. “It is quite an honor to be here.”
Friends of the Wongs', Don and Georgina Yee, who also are members of the legion auxiliary, aren't total strangers to the Beehive State.
While it is Georgina Yee’s first time in Utah, Don Yee attended elementary and middle school in Ogden but hasn’t been back to Utah since 1964.
“I see a lot of people from different area and it’s a very nice feeling seeing the railroad,” Georgina Yee said.
Don Yee doesn’t have a direct ancestral link to a Chinese railroad worker, he said, but noted he still is deeply disappointed the iconic original champagne toast photo of the completion of the transcontinental railroad didn’t include the Asian workers.
“We can bring our ancestry, the names, the history back here, be part of history — they did the work,” he said, adding that the main reason they attended the ceremony was to represent their Chinese heritage.
To kick off the ceremony, elementary-age children performed the "Chinese Lion Dance: Good Luck and Happiness," which was met with cheers from the crowd.
Connie Young Yu, author, historian, lecturer on Chinese American issues and Chinese railroad worker descendent, opened the speech portion of the ceremony, noting the erasure of an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 Chinese railroad workers from history.
She asked the crowd why these workers were denied their “rightful place” during the 100th anniversary of the golden spike. She then told the crowd that today they reclaimed their place in history, which was met with loud cheers.
“This record-setting feat on the road to Promontory is unmatched in history,” Yu said. “Let’s be proud immigrants make up America.”
Spiritual leader for the Shoshoni Nation Rios Pacheco offered a Native American prayer and blessing just before thousands of people joined the Spike 150 Chorus in singing the national anthem.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao spoke about her experience as the first person of Chinese descent to hold the Cabinet position. She expressed gratitude that she’s able to shine light on the Chinese railroad workers who "risked everything" and worked in “merciless, dangerous and harsh” conditions.
She praised the “diverse workforce” that helped complete the seminal project.
China's ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, spoke via a prerecorded video, saying the railroad "linked the country from sea to shining sea."
One record that remains unbroken today was shared several times throughout the celebration: Chinese and Irish railroad laborers once laid 10 miles of track in a single day.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told the Deseret News before the ceremony he felt the celebration helps people remember how important the railroad is.
“It’s really a once in a lifetime opportunity for us and most importantly a chance for us to remember how unique this event really was historically,” he said.
Cox said he loved to see the huge numbers of crowds traveling to attend the event.
“It really blows me away,” Cox said. “It shows how much it means, again not just to Utahns and Americans but to people across the world.”
One couple, Michael and Karen McCann, traveled from Raleigh, North Carolina, to take part in the celebration because their 16-year-old son, Chris McCann, loves trains.
There was plenty of other history roaming the historic site.
John Voehl, presenter and historian, posed as President Abraham Lincoln at the festivities Friday.
“It’s fantastic. This is a monumental event in the history of the United States and also what it meant for the whole world to have completed a completed a continent connected through railroad,” he said.
Voehl said just as the conflict over slavery caused the Civil War, it also delayed the start of this huge project — because wherever the railroad was built it brought commerce along the line with it.
For years Southern politicians blocked efforts to build the railroad in the North, Voehl explained, but in 1861 when rebel states succeeded, Congress agreed on the railroad’s route.
“And that’s why I had the pleasure to sign the bill on July 2, 1862,” Voehl said, speaking as Lincoln.
Voehl said celebrating history is crucial.
“If we don’t know where we come from, it’s difficult to know where we’re going,” he said.
The about two-hour ceremony ended with a grande finale of fireworks, the national anthem, cannon blasts and a flyover.