May 10, Golden Spike Day. The $10,000 bet that helped build the first transcontinental railroad

The Golden Spike was driven into America’s first transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.

Okay boys, move the Chinese out of the shot

Before the transcontinental railroad, travel from the East to the West Coast might take six months and cost at least $1,000.

If you survived, that is.

Afterward, a ride from New York to San Francisco could be over in a week, for less than $100.

In an early example of a staged media event, two locomotives sat a mere rail tie apart from each other as crowds of people looked on.

Railroad financier Leland Stanford drove a single Golden Spike into the final tie with a silver hammer.

The San Francisco News Letter said:

“Never before in our history as a nation has occurred an event in the celebration of which all could participate so heartily, and with so little of mental reservation.”

Maybe some reservations

A pile of American bison skulls in the mid-1870s. Photo: Wikipedia

The Chinese laborers had just rioted.

Workers held the Vice President of the Union Pacific hostage in his palatial train car to demand unpaid wages.

The famous telegram that echoed around the States: “Done” spelled “Doom” to the Native Americans and the buffalo.

The $10,000 Bet

Ten Miles of Track Laid in One Day (Southern Pacific Photograph)

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific were bitter rivals.

The Union Pacific crews were Irish and German immigrants, Civil War vets, freed blacks, and some Native Americans.

The Central Pacific had over 10,000 Chinese willing to work for less and in dangerous conditions.

One day the Union Pacific broke all records by laying six miles of track.

Charles Crocker and his Chinese “pets” of the Central Pacific were invited to match that.

They beat it by a mile.

Crocker declared his men would lay ten miles of rail in a day.

The story goes that Vice President Durant of the Union Pacific bet $10,000 that it could not be done and that his money was “covered.”

Advance of An Army

For about two miles, a line of men advanced a mile an hour.  

Iron cars with their load of rails and humans dashed up and down the newly-laid track.  

Foremen on horseback galloped back and forth.

The telegraph construction party kept pace with the track layers.

Alongside the moving force, teams were hauling tool and water wagons.

Chinamen with pails dangling from poles balanced over their shoulders distributed water and tea

Farther back, locomotives were waiting with their cars of materials. Five train loads were used on that day.

When one section was completed, the next material train was moved up.

In the rear, the boarding house train and quarters of officers looked like a small town stretched out.

In the valley below, continuous trains of wagons and mounted workshops moved along in parallel lines. 

It must have looked like the advance of an army.

This track-laying record has never been defeated.

Fun fact: When the dignitaries (Stanford of Central Pacific and Thomas Durant of Union Pacific) tried real hammer swings to drive in the Golden Spike, they both missed.

Sources: Mental Floss, CPRR, Smithsonianmag, Wired

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.