Skip to main content
Golden Spike

JOHN WALKER/THE FRESNO BEE Special train of California Governor Leland Stanford, the "Jupiter" meets a wagon train, enroute to the meeting of the train from the Union Pacific to their historic meeting at Promontory Point, comleting the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. After completion, Southern Pacific started their line to connect San Francisco and San Diego, with Fresno as its central station. Fresno Bee library Fresno, CA 8-18-2011

We'll avoid the babble about James Comey as the troubled Hamlet and man who knew too much. We'll even take a pass on the "gimme" that was handed to us by Rachel Maddow's answer to Bernie Sander's question Monday night, when he got into the media monopoly scene, and she acknowledged that NBC is owned by Comcast, "Our overlords."

Instead, we're looking at history. You know, that "thing" that is ever present, offering its lessons and caveats and countless examples of human nature shining in the sun or gone astray in the abyss. Examples that might enable us to avoid making the same damn mistakes, over and over and over again.

The Immortal Battalion remembered -- everywhere else

Had we written this yesterday, we could have wished you "Happy 'Victory Day'" with its marches in 50 nations. It seems that US corporate mainstream media, uhh, missed it. Seems they only report on the latest manifestation of the perpetual protest march du jour. So you missed this march that went global with no molotov cocktails or cops bashing heads or firing tear gas grenades. This one began as an annual event just a few years back, as a local observation to honor the dead and the veterans who freed the world from fascism in World War II.

May 9th marks the day in 1945 when the war ended in Europe with the capitulation of Nazi Germany.

Yesterday, in each of the nations where it was commemorated, people marched while holding a fairly large photo of an ancestor or other WW II veteran who may be living or dead. They are all considered to be part of "The Immortal Battalion," and that includes all the Rosie-the-Riveters, and the civilian populations in besieged and relentlessly bombed cities that refused to surrender, the members of guerilla underground and resistance fighters, as well as all the uniformed troops of all the liberating forces.

It's about three things -- awareness that we have a world where we are free to complain and live our lives, thanks to the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation -- being aware of the millions of civilians, including innocent children, whose lives ended because ego-driven conquerors tried to take over the world -- and resolve to never again allow ourselves to be subjugated by oppressors or tyranny, whether militaristic, political, or economic.

Even though it was yesterday, you can certainly reflect, remember, imagine in the mode of the John Lennon song, compare paradigms of endless war and blast-partitioned dead civilians of 2017, and assess the three-part message. Yesterday, you could have gone out to celebrate with others or on your own, the legacy given us by a generation past. Today, there's no escaping that it needs emphasis and renewal for our own future.

So, whereto?

We aren't going to get into the new biography on Barack Obama that reportedly contains excerpts of what he wrote as a college student in the '80s. Including Barack's assertion, "I may not be Donald Trump now, but if I don't make it, my children will. Just you wait!"

As Bill Clinton's predecessor said -- or Dana Carvey's enduring impression has us believing that he said, "We're naut gon' doo'et."

Instead, en route to this week's regularly-featured recommendation for a must-see online video, we've had Mr. Peabody and Sherman set the Wayback Machine for steampunk.

So, happy "GOLDEN SPIKE DAY"-!

Few events in 19th century America were as formative, or came close to having so big a role in the nation we would become, as the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. On May 10th, 1869, the "Wedding of the rails and uniting of the two great oceans" happened in the middle of nowhere, at a place that had barely had time to get its false-front tent saloons and brothels put-up in a place that was immediately named Promontory Summit. It was in rough, barren hills of Utah Territory, north of the Great Salt Lake. The grading crews of the two competing railroads had already passed each other and uselessly constructed miles of roadbed parallel to their opponent's completed tracks, and those never-used paths are still there.

It had taken a congressional act to set the meeting place as Promontory, which was about halfway across the gap remaining as the tracklayers approached one another. Which goes to show that Congress, at its best, compromises in the middle of nowhere.

But any mesquite bush could have served as the meeting point, just as Neil Armstrong's lunar landing site simply had to avoid setting-down on a boulder.

The "overland journey" from riverboat landings on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, around the Rockies, across the deserts and over the High Sierra to reach settled California had taken months of hardship. That applied either of the two ways you tried to get there. It's clear in the diaries of all the pioneers who walked alongside their wagons (by the way, nobody rode in a wagon train -- the wagon was jam-packed with all your stuff -- and you slept on the ground, under your wagon when it rained or snowed). Likewise, it took months aboard any of the many big wooden ships. They creaked and leaked beneath sails all the way from Boston or New York or Charleston, ever southward around Cape Horn at the bottom tip of South America, where stormy Antarctica waters made the passage terrifying, and then ever northward until sailing between the welcoming bluffs that framed the entrance to San Francisco Bay. By either route, there was plenty of time to succumb to exhaustion, get sick, and die.

Suddenly, you could board an enclosed wooden passenger car entrained behind a steam locomotive, bring a book to read, carry nothing on your back, wrestle with no livestock, and the great journey took four days.

There is even a photograph of the very last Overland Trail wagon train being passed on May 8th by the steam train carrying railroad officials on their way to the ceremony that completed the first transcontinental railroad on May 10th.

No similar photo exists of the last Pony Express rider passing the final telegraph pole being set to complete the wire that connected everything.

But there is so much in each of those paradigm shifts. And plenty we could consider in the battle over net neutrality. And in evaluating Facebook's justification for censorship of what its artificial intelligence algorithms think is "fake news."

The world's first mass media event

The driving of the Golden Spike was the greatest of all paradigm shifts during the machine age. On top of that, thanks to telegraphy, it was the world's first mass-media event.

The driving of the Golden Spike was the greatest of all paradigm shifts during the machine age. On top of that, thanks to telegraphy, it was the world's first mass-media event. The spike really is made of gold from California's Mother Lode, and that got press. But it's how it got it. The last spike was "driven" (gently tapped, because gold is soft) with a solid silver-headed spike maul into a pre-drilled hole in a commemorative last crosstie made of laurel wood.

The whole operation was connected with telegraph wires to notify every crowd gathered in every American city. In a move worthy of P.T. Barnum, the zaps of a series of sparks would be heard everywhere each time the wired maul tapped the wired spike.

But no one reckoned that fat cat railroad executives were as inept at accomplishing any real work as corporate fat cats of any era. Each of them swung the maul and missed the spike. With the pompous peacocks arguing over who should get another swing, the wait became increasingly awkward. So the telegrapher finally keyed-in "tap-tap-tap" to mimic the driving of the spike. The world went crazy, the deed was assumed done, New York, for the first time, dropped a giant ball like the one we now see every New Year's, and the Golden Spike was just as botched as Neil Armstrong's "One small step" line onto lunar soil would be a hundred years, two months, and ten days later.

All the way around, the transcontinental railroad was the moonshot of the 19th century.

Robber Barons, and all that glitters...

It remains loaded with symbols for our time. Gold in the 19th century was as enamoring as it was to the ancient Egyptians and Cortez and Pizarro. Nixon made powerful enemies when he took us off the gold standard 65 years after William Jennings Bryan demanded it. Glenn Beck obsessively admonishes you to buy gold -- actually paper gold futures, and you never actually hold any gold bars in your hand. And you still can't eat gold bars if you had them. Gold no longer needs to stand against paper money that's considered suspect, if not worthless, as it was in 1850s California. Bitcoin now has that role. And now that gold extraction is all surface mining that destroys the natural world and poisons the water with cyanide, toxicity has killed any remaining luster. Which is why El Salvador, on April 28th, just banned all mining of metals and probably put itself on top of the list for a CIA-sponsored coup.

The spike and the moonshot have similarities like a Greek tragedy, anyway. President Kennedy challenged us to go to the Moon and was assassinated before he saw it happen. President Lincoln pushed for, and signed, the Pacific Railroad Act to connect California to the East, and was assassinated before it got there.

Likewise, Lincoln did not live to see the birth of the Robber Barons with their fraudulently imaginative multiplicity of schemes to collect money for themselves under the auspices of building the railroad. Kennedy did not live to see the prescience of Eisenhower's warning about Robber Barons doing anything to foment wars to enrich themselves. But surely today's Wall Street banksters playing casino with other people's money have their origins in the Credit Mobilier of the late 1860s -- who were largely war profiteers of the just-ended Civil War, looking for new easy money on the government gravy train.

Still, the nation did get a transcontinental railroad in 1869. And the nation did get the military-industrial complex repurposed into building peaceful space machines for a time in the 1960s.

The birth of acceptance of diversity

Unemployed veterans of the Union Army after the Civil War, along with Irish Potato Famine refugees facing bigotry and exclusionism, found work together building the Union Pacific from the East. When the bravery in war of the Irish, the black troops, and other minorities hadn't been enough to earn them a place in mainstream society, they would follow Horace Greeley's admonition to Go West and make their own opportunity.

At the same time, the previously reviled Chinese immigrants who were persecuted, run-out at gunpoint, and sometimes lynched in the California gold fields found good employment and gained respect building the Central Pacific from the West, over the "impossible" barrier of the Sierra. Central Pacific construction foreman Charles Crocker even sent for their relatives in China because he needed more dependable workers.

Almost immediately as the bands of iron came west across the prairies, the railroad enabled the great cattle drives up from Texas to deliver beef to the hungry, overcrowded cities of the East. Longhorns had run wild and multiplied with no one there to watch them during the Civil War. Now they were as numerous as the buffalo had been in Texas. The distant presence of the east-west steam trains, north of Texas, provided work for cowboys.

As often as they were white ex-Confederate veterans, the great American cowboys were also Mexican vaqueros dispossessed of their rancheros by white settlers. And a huge contingent of real cowboys, despite the imagery of John Wayne movies, were the just-freed black slaves who were, in a word, indispensible. As slaves, they were the ones responsible for livestock of all kinds, and they knew how to butcher and cook animals and save and tan hides.

It was in the world of the cattle drive to the distant railroad corral that discrimination against persons of color first came into question. Because, well, it made no damn sense. A working cowboy, black, white, or brown -- like a railroad construction foreman hiring Chinese and Irish immigrants -- is head of a task-oriented ensemble in extremis. The only concern is for what you can do, not what you look like. So everyone earned and received the same rate of pay. The cattle drive was the original socialist meritocracy.

Gentrification of the Wild West

If the arrival of the steam trains changed things when the rails were distant, they brought rapid change when the rails were nearby. The rough, often murderous, man's world of the frontier West began to become settled and civilized as towns arrived. There had to be an economic reason for a town. That could, and did, include bribes and payola.

The first legitimate reasons for towns to exist were as railroad supply and maintenance bases, from North Platte to Cheyenne, from Roseville to Truckee to Ogden. Soon after, towns were needed where mineral wealth was discovered, to enable full-scale mining. The completed transcontinental railroads brought building materials for branch lines, some becoming extravagant and rich in Western lore, that enabled development of underground mining in the Rocky Mountains. Trains brought essential heavy machinery to dig the mines and rock crushers and smelters to process the ore. And they hauled-in everything needed for towns that could accommodate women and families and trappings of culture. Soon, special cars carried tanks of fresh Pacific oysters, while others held tubs of pickles. Luxuries caught up with necessities at breakneck speed.

It was the railroad that brought immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe to new lives as farmers on the plains, where their farm implements and harvested crops could be transported to markets by rail.

It was, in short, in the transcontinental railroad that America first attained cultural and ethnic diversity, attaining a lure among poor Europeans as a place for all-comers.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Certainly, the Robber Barons squeezed and exploited Ralph Waldo Emerson's "embattled farmers," ruining many by manipulating markets and charging exorbitant shipping rates. But the plains became farmland -- endless north-south plowed furrows that gave each plant equal sunshine. It wasn't the railroad that broke the ability of the sod to withstand the wind. But without the railroad, no one would have been there to farm. It would take the Dustbowl of the 1930s to demonstrate the lack of regard for natural systems and the need for contour plowing and scientific farming. That was forty years after American science thought it already knew everything.

History, the railroad, and the Indians

Arrogance knows no time or season. Americans' skewed view of history would have us believe Robber Barons faded away, their self-imposed undoing bringing the Gilded Age to an end. Cite that as the end of the gold boom in America, when William Jennings Bryan fought to stop them crucifying the farmer on "a cross of gold," or mark its end when the Titanic sank and the entitlement to safety in wealth went down with it. But make sure everyone believes it did end.

We are not supposed to think that rich vampires have always hidden in the shadows and sucked blood, and it certainly should not occur to us that they still do. Certainly, we are supposed to believe that America has always been a place of equal opportunity for all-comers. The 19th century feel-good stories of Horatio Alger propagated the latter, even as Mark Twain, with all his sarcastic and revelatory wit, was the continual irritant who exposed the former.

Of course history comes from "his story," and too often still glorifies some overhyped hero or other, or obfuscates some cause or campaign that was really about bold seizure of all the goodies at the expense of everyone else. And until fairly recently, there was ample justification for noting that history mostly excluded "her story."

So we battle over all these notions, interpreting whatever shade of American Exceptionalism is in vogue after whatever incident or revelation. And that keeps us occupied as long as we don't look at the devastation of the Native American cultures that arrived wholesale with the rails crossing the plains.

Native American cultures whose buffalo herds, in their millions, were erased, while their access to waterways and nomadic subsistence lifeways were challenged and soon eliminated by farms and ranches and settlements and jealously-guarded ownership and exclusivity of someone else's cultural hegemony and sense of "that's mine, keep out!"

Woody Guthrie's verse in "This Land Is Your Land," about the no trespassing sign that, "on the other side, didn't say nuthin', and THAT side was made for you and me," was too long in coming to help the Indian.

Native American tribes, often fragmented into bands that facilitated hunting but that comprised entire "First Nations" of culture and language over vast regions, were victimized by broken treaties and exterminated because they were simply there, in somebody else's way. It was inevitably, for one reason -- evermore money could be made by running the Indian off "guaranteed" tribal lands because those lands could be sold to immigrant farmers or to some interest that was inevitably exploitive or extractionist and incompatible with a natural world that had been in balance for millennia.

Is the transcontinental railroad, and the network of rails it enabled, responsible for dispossession and extermination of the Indian?

As an actual mechanism, the rails accelerated it. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lay not in our rails, but in ourselves. The government-subsidized, privately-owned line of twin steel rails across the prairies need not have ended the Indians' way of life. But it was inevitable that something would.

Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism

White ethnocentrism pushed for and believed in "Manifest Destiny," a God-given right to dominate everything -- to exploit anything from which a buck could be rendered, and to exterminate anyone standing in the way of the "brave pioneer" and his quest for riches. Thus, it is the white settler wearing the mantle of hard work that, according to every Horatio Alger myth, always deserves reward.

Not that much different from the logger who would erase entire forests. Or the oilfield roughneck who would take his quest offshore, despoil the seas, then frack the lands and destroy aquifers. Or the pipeline investor who claims ignorance or necessity when his pipeline shows that we're not quite through dispossessing the Indians, after all. Hard work means action -- even to those who sit in their underwear at their computer and manage their stock portfolio.

Not exactly the same as the "brave engineer" whose early steam locomotive would run as fast as his courage would take it, and who could be scalded to death by the steam when something went wrong. But certainly it was the arrival of the rails as an agent of Manifest Destiny and the atmosphere of Horatio Alger and the righteousness of the Christian mandate to subdue nature and the resulting rationalization of ego and greed. Those things, together, formed the basis for doing great things that combined to justify anything necessary to git 'er done and gratify the ego and bring the industrial age to the wild expanses of remote landscapes.

We've never been far from Gordon Gecko asserting that "Greed is good!"

Continuing into our time, the very thing that produced the mindset of Manifest Destiny still propels it -- the obsessed sureness that, since we are superior and exceptional, we must prevail. Thus, it need not be our prowess with the Kentucky long rifle, but technology itself that will always provide an innovation, an invention, a machine, an app, an algorithm, an AI program, or some solution that someone can own to profit from every challenge that faces society. Even as temperatures and sea levels rise and drone bombings kill attendees at funerals because the wrong people can't have control of all that oil, someone will profit, and destiny demands he be an Exceptional American.

Assuredness in our own righteousness and faith in our own ambition remain a deadly duo as fraught now, as it was then, with unintended consequences. Sure, some even turn out good. Like the way some people can break out of the confining box when a paradigm shifts. Even as others -- often innocent others -- encounter consequences for ruination or extermination. In the most recurrent result of American Exceptionalism, every great innovation is engendered with opportunities for the correctly positioned few to exploit and suppress the aspirations of the many.

Clichés, art, and seeking meaning

Recently, A&E produced a cable series called "Hell on Wheels" that was an utter bastardization of transcontinental railroad building history. it was simply in the vein of so much of television's pathetic parade of history porn populated by comic book villains. We're recommending something else that has the right feel. Though it's about the far shorter building of the first major railway in England, if you didn't know that, you'd accept it as the saga of the Golden Spike. So pause and partake of the Genesis song, "Driving the Last Spike."

In it, Phil Collins and his fellow songwriters reveal the essence of things far better in eleven minutes than TV did in four seasons. One comment on YouTube expresses the continuing relevancy: "This song should be considered an anthem for all blue collar workers -- people who are the backbone of our economy, but who seldom get credit for the central role they play in maintaining our quality of life."

For a song written and performed during the 19th century's age of railroad construction, we choose this one for its accompanying slide show, wonderful imagery of 150 years of American railroading. The vintage photos let you look into the eyes of the people of the time, and it reaches to some of today's "rails to trails" repurposing of abandoned tracks. It includes still-used tunnels originally blasted-out by charges of black powder placed in holes drilled in the rock. The holes were banged-in by hand using nothing but iron rods with star-shaped cutting ends, struck repeatedly with a hammer by "tarriers." It's the classic American railroad song "Drill Ye Tarriers Drill" performed here by Trip McCool.

Even as we diminish the value of manual labor by replacing jobs with roboticized everything, our snap judgments are not the final word. Someone is always passing that last plodding wagon train headed into the obscurity of some unknown void of time and space. The "new" is always jubilantly and quickly on its way to some perceived Promontory. Yet no one ever asks about those people walking alongside their wagons. Surely they knew the revolutionary new thing would be finished before their archaic journey could be. Yet there they are, making their way on their own terms.

The first astronauts to journey to a Martian colony could benefit by knowing their story. Or the last of us to own a bicycle with wheels. They will make or simply meet the destiny of an unknown future where they will confront the dream -- or the nightmare -- that sent them questing -- what? Indeed, their route may take them past Promontory after there was no more hoopla. Not even a reason for it to still be there as more than a place with a sign bearing a name alongside the tracks in the middle of nowhere on the route of empire.

__________

This Week's Video

Richard Wolff, who recently spoke at Occidental College at an event sponsored by the L.A. Progressive, was in perfect form describing the real message in the French presidential election's outcome, with their legislative elections still to come next month.

Citing the myriad ways that "globalism and neoliberalism are in conflict around the world," he did a compelling 25 minute segment on Tuesday's edition of "The Big Picture," Tom Hartmann's TV show. The segment is called, "What Did France Get Right That America Got SO Wrong?"

Whether or not you read or agree with our assessment in last week's column, Professor Wolff has a take that, as usual, is a must-see.

It starts at 2 mins. 20 secs. in, and ends at 28 minutes of the show's run time.

______

Keeping the steam up and the headlight lit

This train goes a lot of places, enabled by the diversity of all those who came before us to build the tracks, and all those who keep those tracks in service. Thus, there are plenty of way stations and unknown places out there with countless untold stories. Often, those are the stories and the people in places where mainstream media refuses to stop, arrogantly dashing through with its horn blaring to attract attention to its brightly-lit windows. All flash, leaving nothing of value.

Those unexamined, unconsidered, under-evaluated stories are still waiting to inform or empower all of us, whether by inspiration or outrage, or just by revealing aspects that should be known, but aren't.

You can't evaluate something if you were distracted from knowing about it.

There's always enough out there to sense that things are much different than the corporatocracy and its stacked-deck of card tricks reveals. It's not unlike Johnny Cash's version of the old ballad, "Rock Island Line," wherein the shyster pays for the weight of wood stock cars loaded with pigs, but instead hauls pig iron.

Our train encounters the lines laid by mainstream media and looks up and down their gleaming, smooth-as-silk rails as we cross over the junctions. But we don't resign to being comfortably numb by riding wherever they want to take the masses, and neither should you. Today's Robber Barons are interested in seizing information sources and controlling information rather than collecting railroads. But the malevolent desire to establish empires remains alive and well, and certain interests are rather far down the track with re-establishing a new Gilded Age for themselves.

Nowadays, it isn't about routing tracks all over hither and yon to maximize land grants. But we still can't get anywhere unless it enriches the right people. Maybe there'll be jobs to build things with government subsidies. But they'll produce privately-owned, for-profit outcomes, just like private prisons and charter schools.

Seems like the farmers who paid exorbitant tariffs have already been here. So have the cowboys and Indians. And plenty of proud workers, literally or figuratively scalded to death by the steam. Then and now, the money is grudgingly spent on what is most profitable, not most durable and most safe or what best serves the public interest. And now the money is being spent to repeal the safety laws that were passed to fix some of that. It's all out there, farther on down the line.

larry-wines-formal

See you next week. Meantime, don't get caught in the narrative.

Larry Wines