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Lovely springtime weather provided a picturesque backdrop as hundreds gathered at Promontory Summit on Tuesday, May 10 to mark the 153rd anniversary of the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

The annual celebration in recent years has put more emphasis on the immigrant laborers who traveled thousands of miles, toiled long hours, and sometimes died in the course of completing the monumental project. This year’s event featured a Chinese lion dance and a solo musical performance by a prominent member of Utah’s Irish community, among other segments recognizing the ethnic and cultural diversity of the workforce that built the railroad.

Brandon Flint, superintendent at Golden Spike National Historical Park, said the site where crews from the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met “represents the best of our great nation.

“Thousands of Chinese workers pushed through the Sierra (Nevada), using black powder to blast through the granite. Irish and German immigrants surveyed and graded the track bed as they made their way across the Great Plains,” Flint said. “Native Americans, Civil War veterans, formerly enslaved African Americans, Latter-day Saint workers and many others labored together toward a common goal before they met here.”

While noting how the completion of the railroad marked the creation of “America’s first technology corridor” and spurred rapid growth and development throughout the West, Flint acknowledged that not all people benefited equally from the railroad, as the progress it brought also served to accelerate the displacement and subjugation of the native peoples whose homelands the rails crossed.

A costumed dancer performed a traditional lion dance, which has been a part of Chinese culture for more than 1,000 years as a means “to chase evil spirits away, and bring good luck and good fortune,” said Margaret Yee, board chairwoman for the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association and a guest speaker at Tuesday’s event.

A handful of children tentatively approached the intimidating-looking, yet friendly “lion” to slip dollar bills into its gaping maw — a gesture designed to bestow happiness, health and prosperity upon those who contribute.

Utah Rep. Karen Kwan, the first Chinese American to serve in the Utah Legislature, said one of her Chinese ancestors was among those who built the railroad. Kwan read part of a resolution she sponsored, which was passed in 2019, designating May 10 as Utah Railroad Workers Day.

Sean Clark, president of the Hibernian Society of Utah, an Irish cultural preservation group, performed a solo guitar-and-vocal rendition in Gaelic of the Irish national anthem “A Soldier’s Song.”

Clark noted that the Irish immigrants who worked on the railroad relished their newfound independence, something Ireland would not achieve until freeing itself from British rule more than 50 years later.

“They loved the freedom that they had here, but they also wanted their homeland to have that,” he said.

At the end of the ceremony, Flint led the crowd in a moment of silence while the traditional wreath was laid in honor of those who died while building the railroad, after which he announced that the park will be getting a new permanent marker later this year entitled “Monument to Their Memory.”

“Unfortunately, we have very few or really no records of the men that perished along the transcontinental railroad route,” he said. “We don’t know if it was hundreds or thousands.”

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