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Fourth graders leading charge to return big piece of history to Utah from California

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Armstrong Academy fourth grade students and their teacher David Pendleton kick off the student-led Spikes2Utah letter writing campaign during a press conference at the school in West Valley City on Friday, April 7, 2023. The Golden Spike, the ceremonial final spike driven to join the rails of the transcontinental railroad, is not in Utah but instead housed at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in California.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Somewhere within the walls of Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center lies a very important piece of Utah’s history. And the movement to bring that piece of history back to the Beehive State is being led by a fourth grade class at Neil Armstrong Academy.

“We believe that the golden spike, the silver spike and the hammer that was used in the ceremony at Promontory ... in 1869 belong here in Utah,” said Jaden Chadwick, a fourth grader at the school.

Despite Utah playing a historic role in the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the golden spike — the ceremonial final spike driven to link the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads together and with the rest of the nation on May 10, 1869 — is not in Utah but instead housed at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in California.

During a family trip to San Francisco that included visiting the center to view the golden spike, Neil Armstrong Academy fourth grade teacher David Pendleton was disappointed to find out that there wasn’t much to the display — or even an explanation of why it was historical — associated with the golden spike, despite it being an important part of Utah and U.S. history.

“That really puzzled me because, to us, it’s a huge deal. It’s like a big part of Utah history and we learn about it each year in fourth grade,” Pendleton said.

Through this, the Spikes2Utah campaign was born.

Pendleton created a writing assignment for his students to write persuasive letters to the Cantor Arts Center to try and convince them that the golden spike deserves an honored place in Utah. Soon, this simple assignment grew into an all-out letter-writing campaign led by the students, requesting that the golden spike, silver spike, and silver maul (hammer) be returned to Utah.

“As people visit the museum at Stanford University, they might not know what the spike is when they see it,” said Ari Thomas, a fourth grader. “The spikes are really important (and) the history behind them is really important, too. It matters to us Utahns. We believe that history is calling the spikes home.”

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Armstrong Academy fourth grade students wear railroad hats as they kick off the student-led Spikes2Utah letter writing campaign during a press conference at the school in West Valley City on Friday, April 7, 2023. The Golden Spike, the ceremonial final spike driven to join the rails of the transcontinental railroad, is not in Utah but instead housed at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in California.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The class has worked with media companies and utilized billboards, radio ads, TV ads and social media to spread the word and get as many people as possible to write letters.

Pendleton said the initial goal was to get 5,000 letters from around the state — something even Pendleton’s own son believed was a lofty task.

When asked if he thought it was possible, Joseph Pendleton, another fourth grader at the school, said, “No offense to my dad, but no.”

Now, the class thinks they can get even more than 5,000 letters.

The class has shared its goal with all the schools across the state and has been working to get the general public on board with the campaign through ads, a student-designed website, a Twitter account and Facebook page dedicated to the cause, and a press conference on Friday.

“We believe that with that engagement, we can get well over 5,000 (letters),” Pendleton said, adding that the deadline to write a letter is May 10 .

Through the campaign, Pendleton said that the class has hit 21 language arts standards, along with standards in social studies, fine arts, visual technology, communication, marketing and civic engagement.

“We’re not trying to disparage or criticize Stanford University or the Cantor Arts Center in any way, but we do believe that that part of history belongs here in Utah,” Pendleton said.

If the students are successful in their campaign, the hope is that the spikes and maul will be able to eventually reside in a new building — meant to house Utah’s history — being constructed adjacent to the Utah State Capitol. Utah celebrated the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad with a ceremony attended by 38,000 people in 2019 at Golden Spike National Historical Park.

“I am so proud of these kids,” Pendleton said. “They have been working so hard over the last several weeks on this campaign, writing and brainstorming and filming and they have been awesome.”

He added, “Whether we’re successful or not in the campaign, of course, we really hope that we are, the learning that has happened along the way is just incredible for these students. They’re going to be able to draw on that hopefully for the rest of their lives.”

Anyone looking to join in on the movement can do so by submitting a letter of their own here.

“How can you bring the spikes home? You can write a letter,” said Jacob McKenna, a fourth grader at Neil Armstrong Academy. “You can write about how Utah became the crossroads of the West because of the transcontinental railroad being completed here. You can ask them to send the spikes back to Utah.”

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Armstrong Academy fourth grade student Ari Thomas holds a sign as students kick off the student-led Spikes2Utah letter writing campaign during a press conference at the school in West Valley City on Friday, April 7, 2023. The Golden Spike, the ceremonial final spike driven to join the rails of the transcontinental railroad, is not in Utah but instead housed at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University in California.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News