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BYU history professor keynotes Golden Spike commemoration

PROMONTORY, UTAH

On the 147th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, the contribution of and benefits to the enterprise by the Mormons then living in the Utah Territory “is a subject that merits attention,” a Brigham Young University professor of Church history declared.

Fred E. Woods was the keynote speaker at the annual commemoration of the driving of the Golden Spike at this windswept desert summit north of Ogden and west of Brigham City, Utah.

Hosted by the Golden Spike National Historic Site, the commemorative program each year features the colorful replicas of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific steam engines that met face-to-face that day in 1869. Costumed performers re-enact the driving of the commemorative golden spike by officials from the two railroads, and visitors are invited to be part of a photograph imitative of a famous image that was shot that day of the crowd in attendance, posed on and around the engines.

In his address, Brother Woods captured the historic import of the undertaking. “Today, we are at the crossroads where a monumental task was completed involving an abundance of iron rails and wooden ties,” he said. “The colossal enterprise stands as a testament to a catalytic transportation transformation. It seems appropriate it would take place in Utah Territory. Here, Utahns completed the transcontinental telegraph and later assisted in the construction of the transcontinental railroad.”

Celebrations marking the completion of the railroad were held nationwide —including 7,000 people gathered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, he said. “Promontory enjoyed bands from Fort Douglas and the Salt Lake City 10th Ward.”

From that moment, America entered an era of new prosperity, Brother Woods said. “Travelers could now cross the continent in a week instead of six months.” The workforce that completed the railroad was made up mostly of Chinese working for the Central Pacific and Irish for the Union Pacific, “but critical to both were the Mormon graders under the direction of the American Moses, Brigham Young,” he said.

In 1869 Mormons comprised 98 percent of the population in Utah Territory, he observed.

“The Mormon grading was not only superior, but their construction camps were conducted in stark contrast to the notorious ‘hell on wheels’ encampments,” he said. “Instead of boisterousness induced of whiskey, gambling and soiled doves, the Mormon camp sites operated under orderly and peaceful religious governance.”

Homespun songs were sung by Mormon workers around campfires, he said, including one with these words:

Hurrah, hurrah, the railroad’s begun. Three cheers for the contractor, his name Brigham Young. Hurrah, hurrah, we are faithful and true. And if we stick to it, it’s bound to go through.

Some 5,000 Utahns did “stick to it,” Brother Woods noted, “laboring for both the UP and the CP, whose supervisors were complimentary of the grading, trestlework, bridge-building, tunneling and furnishing of ties completed in Utah.” Some argued that the Latter-day Saints did not want a railroad coming to Utah to disturb their cultural isolation, Brother Woods noted. “According to Samuel Bowles, Brigham Young was quick to respond to this claim: ‘It must indeed be a … poor religion if it cannot stand one railroad.’ ”

President John Taylor echoed that sentiment when he said: “We meet in friendly conclave with distinguished gentlemen connected with the eastern and western divisions of the railroad. … We hail these gentlemen as brothers in art, science, progress and civilization. … We will bare our arms and nerve our muscles to aid in the completion of this great cord of brotherhood which is already reaching our borders.”

Brother Woods said that when they were en route to the Mountain West after leaving Nauvoo and Winter Quarters, the Mormon Pioneers were already looking forward to a railroad coming to the settlements they would establish.

He quoted President Young as saying: “I do not suppose we traveled one day from the Missouri here, but what we looked for a track where the rails could be laid with success, for a railroad through this Territory to the Pacific Ocean. This was long before the gold was found, when this Territory belonged to Mexico. We never went through the canyons or worked our way over the dividing ridges without asking where the rails could be laid. When we came over the hills and plains in 1847 we made our calculations for a railroad across the country. … We want the benefits of the railroad for our emigrants so that after they land in New York they may get on board the cars and never leave them again until they reach this city.”

The railroad construction brought needed employment to the settlers in the territory, he noted, after grasshopper infestations had destroyed crops. The coming of the railroad to Utah offered hope to transport goods to a national market and facilitated transportation of granite stones from the quarry in Salt Lake Valley’s Little Cottonwood Canyon for construction of the Salt Lake Temple, Brother Woods said.

“In addition, with increased visitors to Utah, the Mormons hoped that prejudices would soften towards the City of the Saints,” he added.

Brother Woods concluded “with a hope that we remember the immense price paid by a large body of men to complete an enormous undertaking. I pay tribute to the collective calloused hands, aching arms, strained backs and blistered feet of the men who leveled the path and laid the rails under unrelenting circumstances. Regardless of size or strength, these diverse human beings linked rails that tied the nation together and prospered the whole.”

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