“Here are your lines. Try waving around your hammer on the key words; it gives a good effect.”

The man, already in his overcoat and flat brim hat, was giving me acting tips while handing me a laminated square of paper and a silver sledgehammer. Still bewildered, I walked with him to a costume box where some other enthusiastic cosplayers helped me pick out a 19th-century wardrobe, which was rather handsome given the circumstances.

Only moments earlier I was wading through a crowd of ferroequinologists and family vacationers while trying to find a seat for the grand event — a reenactment of the “driving of the last spike ceremony” on a dusty parcel of land some 30 miles from civilization.

I had been looking forward to the jaunt all week long, especially the part where I was supposed to sit serenely with my wife while watching a troupe of quirky yet earnest volunteers replicate a bit of overlooked history. What I had not anticipated was that I would end up as one of those quirky yet earnest people, chosen at random from the herd of visitors trying to check “Golden Spike National Historic Site” off of their national parks collector’s map on a Saturday morning in August.

Serenity gave way to panic (obviously, acting isn’t my forte). I took my place beside the “regulars,” while behind me chuffed an attractive replica of the No. 119. It had just arrived — late — just as it had a century and a half ago. Only, then it had carried more than an actor on his way to a waiting audience.

The morning of May 10, 1869, brought an array of dignitaries sitting onboard their two locomotives — No. 119 from the East and Jupiter from the West — poised to bloviate and pose for the paper. The men bestowed their gifts on each other, seeking goodwill between two companies tasked with building the first transcontinental railroad.

But the real cargo they carried that morning was the promise of motion — a curiously impartial word that neither implies retreat nor prohibits improvement. It’s a harbinger of change, the value of which rests with the beholder.

That motion had its triumphs. The Jupiter engine began its life in a New York factory, then was dismantled, loaded on ship that sailed around the southern tip of South America and unloaded in San Francisco. From there, it cruised on a barge to Sacramento where it was reassembled. The journey took six months. Two months later, Jupiter took part in the ceremony that whittled down that same trip to 83 hours and 39 minutes. Goods from the Atlantic and the Pacific now flooded the country in a matter of days.

People moved more quickly, too. Within a few years, handcarts and wagon trains yielded to express trains, and towns cropped up along hundreds of miles of track. The West exploded in a manner unfamiliar to cramped eastern urbanites, distributing human capital to create new states, new parties and new political interests.

The weight of that transformation was lost on me as I stood, nervously shifting, straining to hear the other speakers over the issue of steam from the engine behind me. In my hand I held the tool that would connect a continent, yet all I could think about was not missing my introduction. Still, I smiled to myself at the fun I was having, at the pleasant nerdiness of it all, knowing that I would look back with happy thoughts.

"Chinese railroad workers greet a train on a snowy day," sketch by Joesph Becker.
"Chinese railroad workers greet a train on a snowy day," sketch by Joesph Becker. | via Wikipedia

But not everything was happy behind the facade of those trains. Motion had its casualties, too. Forgotten until the past few decades were the contributions of thousands of immigrant laborers, without whom no railroad would exist. Chinese workers in particular were the unsung heroes of the Central Pacific construction. What started as an experiment with foreign labor grew to include more than 11,000 Chinese workmen by the end of the project, and while their pay was scant and the discrimination was worse, they proved invaluable assets. One crew comprised of mostly Chinese men still holds a record for laying 10 miles of track in one day.

So quickly the West expanded, but its former inhabitants fell under the feet of its march. American painter John Gast captures well the common tale — America, clad in virtue, floats angelically westward as progress follows. Ahead of her, American Indians, bison and horses flee into the wilderness.

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And there I stood at the climax of it all, at the spot where progress met forfeiture in the name of motion, ready to deliver my lines. I managed some theatrics, to general applause, and handed my hammer to the Leland Stanford stand-in who would drive the final spike. A few taps and it was over. The telegraph operator replicated the simple sentence broadcast to the rest of the country: “DONE.”

After the reenactment of the driving of the last spike ceremony at Promontory Summit, Aug. 18, 2018.
After the reenactment of the driving of the last spike ceremony at Promontory Summit, Aug. 18, 2018. | Christian Sagers

But we are not done. The motion that once promised the future has faded into the past. No. 119 and Jupiter, the symbols of progress in their day, fetched only a $1,000 scrappers fee at the end of their lives. Cars replaced the rails, and planes replaced the cars, and so motion moves the country ever forward. Each breakthrough is a chance to unite us and push us to grasp something beyond our reach, and hopefully we see those moments as opportunities to avoid the mistakes of our forebears and build something better.

Thousands gather this weekend to celebrate a triumph in American history, but those celebrations too will fade. Still, as sure as the American spirit lives, the next celebration won’t be far down the tracks.

In no time, it seemed, my wife and I were driving away from one of the more unique events in our shared experience. Where would American motion take us next? Whatever or wherever it is, I hope I’m a quirky yet earnest participant, only this time I don’t want to be an actor. I want to be the real thing.

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