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The story of the 'Arizona Spike,' which just sold for $2.2M at auction

By Richard Copeland
Published: Thursday, February 9, 2023 - 2:27pm
Updated: Friday, February 10, 2023 - 1:32pm

The joining of the tracks in Promontory, Utah
Library of Congress
The joining of the tracks in Promontory, Utah, from "How we built the Union Pacific railway, and other railway papers and addresses" from the Library of Congress.

Hundreds of rail workers, politicians, railway executives and curious onlookers gathered in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, to watch four railmen drive the final four spikes into railroad ties, marking the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad in North America.

At the time, it was like putting a man on the moon — the culmination of more than 20 years of planning, land dealing, backroom politicking and highly questionable land acquisitions.

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was both a marvel of technology and a stain on the nation's legacy of racism and exploitation. It tied the nation together in a way nothing ever had — and it made the world much smaller very quickly.

Brandon Flint is the superintendent of Golden Spike National Historic Park in Promontory Summit, Utah.

"Before the completion of the railroad, you really kind of have two Americas, right? You've got the East Coast and the West Coast, and the distance between them was tremendous. The only way to do that was basically steam ships or a steam ship, and then a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama and then steam ship up the West Coast. But either way, that was gonna take you months —  four to six months to go from New York City to San Francisco. Well, the day that they complete that Transcontinental Railroad, that changes. Now all of a sudden information, people, goods — they can move from the East Coast to the we West Coast in just about a week. And, so if you think about that, you know, think about ... having family on both coasts and, and you want to tell your family, 'Hey, we just had a baby.' Well before that, you send that letter, it's gonna take six months to go clear around the southern tip of South America to get to New York. Well, now all of a sudden you can send a telegraph, and it arrives almost instantly, almost the same speed of communication that we communicate today. Or at worst, you put a letter in the mail and it arrives to your relatives a week later."

Those four spikes were largely ceremonial. They were cast iron plated in gold and silver and inscribed: "Arizona presents her offerings to the enterprise that has banded the continent and dictated the pathway to commerce." And then as I remember correctly, it just says the date, generally May 1869," said Brad Westwood, senior public historian for the Department of Culture and Community Engagement for the state of Utah.

"It's become, over the years, something like the Liberty Bell, you know, viewed with lots of symbolism and value," said Westwood.

The route ran across Utah and through northern Nevada on its way to California. So why was Arizona — then just a territory and more than 40 years away from statehood — part of its ceremony?

"Everyone wanted to be part of what was a grand national public relations thing. So, Arizona, Nevada and, of course, California. California had two golden spikes, one of a lesser quality of gold," Westwood said.

The completion of the railroad — joining the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads — also saw the completion of telegraph lines across the country. The ceremony was transmitted live via Morse code and reported in real time on the East Coast, effectively making it the first livestreamed event in American history.

Organizers had an elaborate plan to connect one end of a telegraph line to the spike and the other to the rail.

"They had strapped one of the spikes, thinking that when it was tapped, it would then communicate to the nation that that last spike was put in, that the Transcontinental Railroad was finished. It really was, in some respects, kind of the first big national publicity effort," said Westwood.

And like so many PR stunts, it didn't go as planned

"And they were going to hit that last spike, and everyone would know when the event happened. As it turns out, it didn't work, so the telegraph operator, fast on his feet, clicked it on his own in his little machine to make the last spike appear," Westwood said.

These being ceremonial spikes, naturally, they were later pulled out and replaced with plain iron railroad spikes.

Following the ceremony, they were divvied up and passed around to railroad dignitaries, including the "Arizona Spike."

"It was presented to Sidney Dillon, who was the vice president of Union Pacific. And he's there, and you see Sidney Dillon's photograph in the auction, entry on this. Sidney takes it home," Westwood said. "Eventually a granddaughter hands it over to the local Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York, and there it remains. And for a while it was loaned out actually, the Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluff had it for decades on display."

Last month, the "Arizona Spike" was auctioned by Christie's for the Smithsonian. The presale estimate was around $500,000. The five-inch spike sold for $2.2 million. And the buyer? Nobody knows.

"Oftentimes with really high-stake auctions there, there's just a, a want for secrecy. And of course the company, the auction house wants to oblige them. But you know, too bad it didn't get into the great state of Arizona," Westwood said. "Or maybe it did. I don't know. We'll have to see."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the location of the spike ceremony and Golden Spike National Historic Park, and to clarify the railroad route.

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