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Cheers greet trains as thousands gather to mark 150th anniversary of transcontinental railroad

PROMONTORY SUMMIT, Box Elder — Cheers went up and the crowd whistled loudly as Jupiter and No. 119 met Friday at Promontory Summit to kick off the 150th anniversary of the wedding of the rails back on May 10, 1869.

The wind was brisk and cold, but it did not deter the thousands of people who waited in long lines to get into the Golden Spike National Historical Park, where the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad met as one to transform a nation reeling from the aftermath of the Civil War.

On this day, as it was 150 years ago, there was a blending of cultures and history as people from many faiths and ethnic backgrounds came together with a singular cause.

"The transcontinental railroad is the story of America, for better or worse," said keynote speaker Jon Meacham, presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

"The story is not perfect, but then neither are we."

The idea to build a transcontinental railroad during an era of Civil War destruction came from the commander-in-chief, President Abraham Lincoln, who was buffeted by the war's horrors and divisiveness, the historian noted.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, drives a golden spike during the 150th anniversary celebration of the transcontinental railroad at the Golden Spike National Historical Park at Promontory Summit, Utah
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, drives a golden spike during the 150th anniversary celebration of the transcontinental railraod at the Golden Spike National Historical Park at Promontory Summit on Friday, May 10, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Still, the country persevered — which should serve as a lesson today when narcissistic pundits like to stress that modern America is going through its worst times now, Meacham said.

"I would rather be dealing with Facebook over Fort Sumter, wouldn't you?"

The crowds roared in response to his speech and later hooted and hollered when the re-enactment of the driving of the last spike was portrayed by actors.

Organizers of Spike 150 said an estimated 16,000 people walked into the park on Friday — all trying to get to the same patch of ground where history was made. More than 80 media organizations were credentialed to cover the event, with 200-plus individuals from countries ranging from Switzerland, China and Germany.

Those in the crowd came from everywhere as well.

Craig Detienne, from Puyallup, Washington, flew in this week and stayed in Tremonton Thursday night.

“I’ve always been a train buff, since I was a kid,” he said.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called the driving of the spike 150 years ago "the world's first mass media event," because it was carried live via the telegraph to places like Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

There were 6,000 to 7,000 people gathered at Tabernacle Square alone, he added.

Herbert, sporting a top hat, didn't skip a beat when his microphone made a loud blasting noise during his speech.

"We're truly partying like its 1869."

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the completion of the transcontinental railroad monumentally changed the country.

"It is that century's moon landing," he said, noting now that the historic site is a national historical park, Utah's branding can change.

"Move over Mighty Five, we are now the Super 6."

Mike Tomany, Jupiter engine fireman, looks out of the window during the 150th anniversary celebration at the Golden Spike National Historical Park at Promontory Summit on Friday, May 10, 2019.
Mike Tomany, Jupiter engine fireman, looks out of the window during the 150th anniversary celebration at the Golden Spike National Historical Park at Promontory Summit on Friday, May 10, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also delivered remarks.

Bernhardt said it was his hope that visitors at the site walk away inspired that if a country could complete the world's first transcontinental railroad, it could accomplish anything.

Friday's event marked the first time the Irish ambassador to the United States, Dan Mulhall, visited Utah, where he delivered the celebratory toast to honor the laborers on the railroad.

More than 10,000 of them were Irish, many among the 6 million who fled Ireland for America to escape the famine.

"Their achievement has been a source of inspiration to the Ireland they left behind."

Noting the thousands of Chinese laborers, Mulhall said many of those names are largely absent from the historical record.

It was his honor, he added, to toast the memory of all the workers.

"I salute all of those workers from many lands who built this railroad," he said, raising a glass.

Throughout the day, people in period costume ambled among the guests, including Beau Burgess, curator of the Fort Douglas Military Museum.

Burgess was playing Gen. Patrick Connor, a County Kerry, Ireland, native who established Fort Douglas, or Camp Douglas as it was known then, in Salt Lake City in 1862.

On Friday, Burgess was getting a little one-on-one help from another actor, Chip Guarente, an older United Kingdom native now living in Taylorsville.

Guarente was instructing Burgess on the proper way to salute — which varies according to era and country.

“Relax that palm,” he instructed. “Flatten it."

On Friday, President Donald Trump released a statement recognizing the significance of the day.

"On this sesquicentennial celebration, we recognize the American ingenuity and the hard work and grit of all the workers that made the construction of this railroad and the unification of our nation possible," the statement read in part.

As with any event hosting more than 15,000 people, Friday’s ceremony saw its fair share of problems.

Volunteer Patrick Jeffrey stands near the Jupiter and No. 119 engines during the 150th anniversary celebration at the Golden Spike National Historical Park at Promontory Summit on Friday, May 10, 2019.
Volunteer Patrick Jeffrey stands near the Jupiter and No. 119 engines during the 150th anniversary celebration at the Golden Spike National Historical Park at Promontory Summit on Friday, May 10, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Those lucky enough to get a front seat to the ceremony complained loudly, yelling at times, at members of the media for getting “in the way” while filming or photographing the ceremony. A small but especially vocal crowd yelled so loudly and collectively it caught the attention of the speakers on stage who paused, unsure what to do.

Denise Germann, public information officer with National Parks Service, said a few rowdy or disorderly people in such a large crowd is pretty routine.

She also said she thought crowd control went fairly well, considering how many people they had.

"For as many people that are here I think it ran very smoothly," agreed Cindy Gubler, media relations specialist with Spike 150.

Germann said the biggest issues the park service faced were medical related. One man suffered a heart attack and died Friday at the park before the festivities started.

While officials thought crowd management went well considering the high demand, some participants thought otherwise.

Husband and wife Michael and Karen McCann traveled from Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend the Spike 150 celebration.

While the two said they enjoyed the ceremony, they both said neither could see it since they were forced to sit in the back because the crowds were too big and unmanageable, they said.

They still enjoyed the celebration.

"It's a wonderful commemoration of an important event in our history and basically tied East and West coasts together," she said.

The celebration continues Saturday and Sunday featuring:

• “Hell on Wheels” itinerant town with a gambling hall, blacksmith, storyteller and saloon.

• Historical and educational exhibits.

• Native American Shoshone camp.

• Mountain man camp.

• Innovations Summit with interactive stations from STEM and Hill Air Force Base, and a presentation by NASA astronaut Scott Tingle.

• Steam train show and historical re-enactments.

Saturday's events are sold out, but Sunday still has tickets available. More information is available at spike150.org

Contributing: Lauren Bennett