PROMONTORY, Utah, May 10 (Reuters) - Thousands of visitors, many of them train enthusiasts, are expected to crowd onto a remote bluff in northern Utah for a day of speeches, music and a historical re-enactment marking the 150th anniversary of the first U.S. Transcontinental Railroad.
The three-day “Golden Spike” celebration opens on Friday at Promontory Summit, 66 miles (106 km) northwest of Salt Lake City, where the Central Pacific Railroad from the west was joined to the Union Pacific Railroad from the east on May 10, 1869.
Now a national historic park, the wind-swept site saw the culmination of a six-year feat of 19th-century engineering that transformed the American West as the nation was emerging from a bloody civil war.
The festivities will feature full-size working replicas of the two steam engines that faced each other, nose to nose, in an iconic photograph taken of a celebration held the day the cross-country rail line was completed.
The picture captures throngs of bearded crewmen toasting the occasion with bottles of whiskey as they clamored around the two engines, Central Pacific’s No. 60 Jupiter and Union Pacific’s No. 119.
The locomotive reproductions are due to arrive Friday morning, to be followed by a keynote address by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham and the performance of a stage musical “re-imagining” of the original 1869 ceremony.
Another highlight will be a costumed re-enactment of 1869’s ceremonial driving of the last spike, cast in 17.6-karat gold, that connected the finished rail line more than 1,750 miles (2,816 km) between Sacramento, California, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The achievement was announced by telegraph, flashing the single-word message “Done” across the country in what was widely regarded as one of the nation’s first media events.
Estimates of Promontory Summit’s that day range from several-hundred to 3,000. About 20,000 people are expected to attend Friday’s events, organizers said.
The commemorative golden spike, which was immediately replaced by an ordinary iron spike in 1869, is currently on display with related artifacts at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
Construction of the railway, which cut U.S. coast-to-coast travel time from many months to just a week, greatly accelerated Anglo-European settlement of the American West and aligned it politically with the Union states of the North. It also hastened the demise of the Plains Indians, as well as the bison herds on which they depended.
An anti-Chinese backlash following completion of the railroad led to passage of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, marking the first significant law restricting U.S. immigration. Those restrictions remained on books until 1943.
Nevertheless, the great rail project stands as a historic cornerstone for many Chinese-Americans, whose ancestors accounted for the bulk of the Central Pacific labor force that carved railbeds over the through the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains.
The Chinese worked for less pay for longer hours than their white counterparts, and performed the bulk of the most dangerous tasks. Untold numbers - as many as 1,200 by some estimates - perished in blasting accidents, snowslides, falls and other mishaps.
Stymied by a lack of records from that era, many Chinese-Americans have only managed to trace their family’s roots to the Transcontinental Railroad in recent years, with the help of research organized by Stanford University in California.
The revelation has given many a new sense of pride and place.
“I grew up feeling like we did not belong in this country,” Andrea Yee, 80, a resident of Berkeley, California, whose great-grandfather, Lim Lip Hong, was a foreman on the railroad crews for four years.
“This has really made me understand the whole picture of the building of America.” (Reporting by Terray Sylvester in Promontory, Utah; writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)