‘The Transcontinental Railroad: What a Difference it Made’

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in the spring of 1869 changed America forever, dramatically reducing the time and cost for people and goods to move across country and accelerating the western expansion of the industrial revolution.

This spring, the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City will unveil a major new exhibit: “The Transcontinental Railroad: What a Difference it Made.” The exhibit will be in place for the May 10 sesquicentennial of the Golden Spike Ceremony at Promontory Summit in Utah. A number of presentations telling the stories of Nevada’s role in the Transcontinental Railroad are planned this month and in early May at the museum.

Railway workers and dignitaries pose after the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869, celebrating the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Photo courtesy Nevada State Railroad Museum

The centerpiece of the new exhibit will be the only railroad car still in existence that was at Promontory the day the railroads came together – a milestone day in the history of the country.

“Before the railroad was completed, it had taken six months to go by sail around the horn because the Panama Canal didn’t exist at that time,” said Wendell Huffman, curator of history at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. “It took four months to go by stagecoach. Now, with the completion of the railroad, you could do it in seven days.”

The meeting of the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and Union Pacific Railroad from the east culminated May 10, 1869 with the driving of the ceremonial golden spike by Central Pacific President Leland Stanford. The car that carried Stanford, other Central Pacific officials, and the golden and silver spikes to the ceremony, was known as “The Commissioners’ Car.”

A few years after Promontory, it was sold to Nevada’s V&T Railroad for use between Reno, Virginia City and Carson City and in 1878, and converted to a passenger car known as “Coach 17.” It remained in operation for many years until hard financial times fell on the Comstock and the V&T. By 1937, the V&T sold much of its equipment to Hollywood film companies.

Coach 17 was used in a number of movies, including the 1924 John Ford film, “The Iron Horse,” a silent film telling the story of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Other included “Jesse James,” “Centennial Summer,” and the Elvis Presley movie “Love Me Tender.”

For many years, it sat on a movie lot outside Malibu, Calif. In 1972, it was sold to Short Line Enterprises for continued movie service. It was used in one of Kenny Rogers’ “Gambler” movies and made its final Hollywood appearance in Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider.”

In 1988, Coach 17 was purchased by the State of Nevada. Today, the car has been stabilized and is kept in a state of “arrested decay” where it serves as a time capsule of railroad history. It is the oldest piece of rolling stock in the museum’s collection. This exhibition will be the first time it has been displayed for the public.

The museum exhibit will also feature the V&T locomotives Inyo and Dayton, both of which have been used in film and exhibitions to portray the locomotives present at Promontory in 1869.

As part of the sesquicentennial celebration, the Nevada State Railroad Museum has a number of lectures and special events scheduled in the days ahead. They include:

Brimstone and Bat Guano: The Chemistry of the Comstock

When: 6 p.m., Thursday, April 11

Where: Nevada State Railroad Museum, Carson City

Presenter: Chris de Witt, Restoration Shop Supervisor, Nevada State Railroad Museum

Event description: A discussion of the chemical demands of the construction of the transcontinental railroad and how these needs were met.

Coach 17 and the Road to Promontory

When: 6 p.m., Thursday, April 25

Where: Nevada State Railroad Museum, Carson City

Presenter: Adam Michalski, Curator of Education, Nevada State Railroad Museum

Event description: Coach 17, the only piece of rolling stock still in existence from the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Summit, has a colorful history. The talk will be followed by a panel discussion.

The Transcontinental Railroad: What a Difference it Made

When: 6 p.m., Thursday, May 2

Where: Nevada State Railroad Museum, Carson City

Presenter: Dan Thielen, Director, Nevada State Railroad Museum

Event description: The impact of the transcontinental railroad on the lives of the average citizen.

Film trilogy: Iron Road Builder

When: 6 p.m.; Sunday, May 5

Where: Nevada State Railroad Museum, Carson City

Event description: Award-winning journalist and filmmaker Min Zhou has devoted the past four years compiling the experiences of the Chinese railroad workers into a short film trilogy, “Iron Road Builder.”

Rust, Splinters and Woodpeckers – The New Exhibit at the Nevada State Railroad Museum

When: 6 p.m., Thursday, May 9

Where: Nevada State Railroad Museum, Carson City

Presenter: Wendell Huffman, Curator of History, Nevada State Railroad Museum

Event description: A discussion of the new exhibit on the transcontinental railroad and the role artifacts in the Nevada State Railroad Museum’s collection played in it.

Reenactment of the laying of the Gold and Silver Spikes

When: Noon; Friday, May 10

Where: Nevada State Railroad Museum, Carson City

Event description: A recreation of the scene at Promontory Summit when the transcontinental railroad was connected. The museum’s locomotives Inyo and Dayton will reprise their roles in the anniversary of the historic date.

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