The Original Golden Spike and its Promontory Summit Companions

From left: the silver spike from Nevada, the Golden Spike and the blended spike from Arizona.

For a century and a half, the Golden Spike has symbolized one of the most audacious and significant undertakings in American history – completion of the world's first transcontinental railroad. Schoolchildren learn about the famous spike, but few know about its companions at Promontory Summit or this tale's unexpected twist.

Completing construction of what was known as the "Pacific Railway" by driving home a golden spike appealed to the romantic spirit embraced by many 19th-century Americans. David Hewes, a well-known San Francisco contractor, was no exception. In spring 1869, he ordered a spike be created and delivered to former California Gov. Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad, who would join Union Pacific Vice President Thomas C. Durant at Promontory Summit.

Cast at the William T. Garrett Foundry of 17.6-carat gold alloyed with copper, the spike measures 5 9/16 inches in length and weighs 14.13 troy ounces.

Hewes had the spike polished and engraved by a local jeweler. The top reads, "THE LAST SPIKE." Two sides list Central Pacific directors and officers. A third side says, "The Pacific Railroad ground broken Jany 8th 1863 and completed May 8th 1869." (Inclement weather and a labor dispute delayed Union Pacific officials' arrival at the site, postponing the ceremony two days.) The fourth side states, "May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world." Attached to its tip was a rough gold nugget or "sprue" that was later broken off, and commemorative watch fobs and rings were reportedly made.

Following the ceremony, Stanford returned the spike to Hewes, who held it until 1892 when he donated it to the newly formed Leland Stanford Junior University in Palo Alto, California. Today, it is on display in Stanford's Cantor Center for Visual Arts.

News of the Golden Spike quickly spread, and others scrambled to get a piece of the action in time for the Promontory Summit ceremony. The spike was joined by five other donated items, each competing for a place in history:

  • A silver spike, presented by the newly formed state of Nevada. This spike, weighing 25 troy ounces, was rushed to the site and later inscribed, "To Leland Stanford President of the Central Pacific Railroad. To the iron of the East and the gold of the West Nevada adds her link of silver to span the continent and wed the oceans." It also is on display at Stanford's Cantor Center for Visual Arts.
  • A blended spike of iron, gold and silver, provided by the territory of Arizona. It was inscribed, "Ribbed with iron, clad in silver and crowned with gold, Arizona presents her offering to the enterprise that has banded a continent, dictated a pathway to commerce. Presented by Governor Safford." The spike was given to Union Pacific executive Sidney Dillon, and eventually was acquired by the Museum of the City of New York from Dillon's granddaughter. It's currently on loan to the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs.
  • A second, lower-quality golden spike, presented by Frederick Marriott, proprietor of a San Francisco newspaper. It was engraved, "With this spike, the San Francisco ‘News Letter' offers its homage to the great work which has joined the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans." It was never as prominent as the Hewes spike, and it faded into obscurity. It allegedly was handed to Grenville Dodge, Union Pacific's chief engineer. What Dodge did with it – if he actually received it – is unknown. Other accounts place the spike with Durant or Union Pacific board member John Duff. Yet another tale states it was returned to the News Letter and made its way back to San Francisco, where it was lost during the 1906 earthquake and fire.
  • A silver-plated maul, or hammer, wielded at the ceremony by Stanford and Durant. The maul joined the Hewes Golden Spike and the silver spike at Stanford University.
  • A 7.5-foot tie made of polished California laurel, donated by West Evens, tie contractor for Central Pacific, to receive the ceremonial spikes. Pre-drilled with four holes and placed in the ground under the last rail, it had a silver plate engraved, "The last tie laid on completion of the Pacific Railroad, May, 1869." It was taken back to Sacramento and kept in a railroad shop until 1890, when it was moved to Southern Pacific's San Francisco main office. It burned in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

As an artifact, the spike is historical, but stories about what became of it approached mythical status, largely because many of the estimated 500 to 3,000 people standing amid the sagebrush probably could not get a clear view of the ceremony or hear what was said on a windy day. Immediately following the ceremony, the spikes were replaced with standard-issue material.

In 1937, California writer and historian Robin Lampson researched the Golden Spike's history. Acting on a tip by someone who'd heard him on the radio, Lampson found the original invoice for the spike in a private Bay Area home, but another discovery he made the same day stirred up even more interest. Lampson found a private Hewes family genealogical book with a photo of a golden spike with a slightly different inscription than the one in the Stanford art museum. An erroneous caption under that photo convinced Lampson the historic artifact had been lost or stolen. In 1970, as the centennial year of the ceremony at Promontory Summit neared its end, Lampson doubled down on his claim, asserting that "a historical symbol second only to the Liberty Bell" had been lost to posterity.

Lampson's claim was revealed as an honest mistake in 2005 when two Hewes descendants revealed a second golden spike, hidden for generations as an heirloom. It was cast at the same time as the famous spike, but engraved later with the corrected ceremony date. The family sold the heirloom spike to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, where it is currently on display.

Of course, gold being a relatively soft, malleable metal, it was never practicable to "drive home" that spike. Neither the Hewes Golden Spike nor the silver-plated maul shows any evidence of high-speed impact. What has been driven home is the importance of the "Pacific Railway" in U.S. history, and the symbolism of the Golden Spike in American culture.