One of the most iconic images from the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad 150 years ago is “The Champagne Photo.”
In this picture, two steam engines sit face-to-face on the recently laid track with men from both the Union and Pacific rail companies in front. A closer look at the photo reveals all the men in it appear to be white, which only reflects part of the railroad’s story.
In reality workers from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds made this unprecedented task possible.
“This anniversary is important because we are finally giving those who did the bulk of the heavy labor their proper recognition,” said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert at the Golden Spike sesquicentennial celebration on Friday.
Those workers Herbert referred to included the Chinese, Irish and freed slaves who all helped with the work of uniting the nation but have often been forgotten or overlooked when the story is told,
“They came together as one,” said President Russell Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Their hard work, sacrifices and spirit to get the job done helped connect this country in a way that has allowed generations of Americans and immigrants to fulfill their dreams.”
The people who attended Friday’s celebrations at the Golden Spike National Historic Park represented some of the diverse groups Herbert, Nelson and others mentioned in their remarks.
Laura Lee came from New Jersey as a member of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association. Lee said although she is not directly a descendant of rail workers, it was wonderful to see the Chinese people included in the program.
“The fact that everybody was recognized … especially in the climate that we are in right now, I think that it is a good thing that we can bring together a bunch of different people from different countries that worked together on a project that changed America,” Lee said.
Keynote speaker Jon Meacham, a historian and author, stressed the importance of being familiar with both positive and negative aspects of history.
“We should not sentimentalize the American experience,” Meacham said. “The nation has been morally flawed, often egregiously so, from the beginning. We must be honest about that.”
According to Meacham, this honesty should lead people to do whatever they can for the work of justice.
“If the men and women of the past, with all of their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition and racism and sexism, through selfishness and greed, to form a more perfect union, then perhaps we too can right wrongs and leave things better than we found them,” Meacham said.
One of the ways Friday’s celebrations sought to better include some of the minorities Meacham and others mentioned was through an original musical entitled “As One.”
Produced by Craig Jessop, director of the American Festival Chorus, these songs looked at what experiences may have been like for those who worked on the railroad, including freed slaves, Irish and Chinese immigrants, and Latter-day Saint settlers.
“I think this message is more relevant today in 2019 than it was in 1869,” Jessop said. “You can bring very different cultures together and accomplish amazing things.”
The songs and dances in the musical explored aspects of railroad life from the back-breaking work of laying rails to evening life in the camps.
One song was dedicated to Hanna Maria Strobridge, the wife of the Superintendent of Construction on the Central Pacific Railroad, who was the only woman to be a part of the railroad’s construction from start to finish.
The variety found in the stories teaches that strength, not weakness, is found in diversity, Jessop said.
“When we learn to respect one another and pull together, we can do anything,” Jessop said. “That is the message of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.”