Eye Witness Tells of "Last Spike" Driving.
By Earle Health, Associate Editor
Southern Pacific Bulletin
It was the tappng of an ordinary iron hammer in the hands of Governor Leland Stanford on an ordinary iron spike that formed the electric contact which flashed the telegraphic message over the country, May 10, 1869, that the last link had been made in the rail lines of the first transcontinental railroad.
The famous gold spike and other spikes of precious metals, also the silver hammer, which were the gifts of Western states, took only an honorary part in the memorable ceremonies held at Promontory, Utah, when the Central Pacific (now Southern Pacific) and Union Pacific were connected, uniting the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards.
While all this is contrary to historical writings about the "Driving of the Last Spike," they are facts, nevertheless, according to Amos L. Bowsher, retired Southern Pacific locomotive engineer and one of the few persons living who witnessed the event.
"I don't want to detract from the fine sentiment that has been attached to the 'gold spike'," said Mr. Bowsher, "but the last spike driven was a regular iron spike, and not the glistening gold one given by David Hewes of Sacramento. The special spikes and silver hammer were all presented to either Governor Stanford of the Central Pacific or C. T. Durant of the Union Pacific, but were never touched with a hammer. During the ceremonies the gold spike rested in a place of honor in a hole in the last tie.
Mr. Bowsher was at that time general foreman of telegraph construction work. By dropping extensions from the Central Pacific and Union Pacific overhead wires he made the telegraphic connection which sent the word out over the wires that the last spike had been driven. He wrapped extension of the Central Pacific wire around the handle of the hammer and connected it to the copper plate which had been fastened to the face of the hammer. To the spike which had been partly driven into the tie Bowsher attached the extension of the Union Pacific wire. Head of the spike had been carefully polished so there would be no interference in completing the electric circuit when the hammer and spike met.
"It was a very pleasant day," Mr. Bowsher recalled, "but I was so busy with my crew perfecting the telegraph circuits that I didn't pay a great deal of attention to what was going on. The first special train of the Central Pacific arrived about 9 0'clock and a little later two trains arrived from the East bringing Union Pacific officers and their guests. Governor Stanford's special train arrived about 11 o'clock and soon after the crowd began to congregate around the spot where the last spike was to be driven.
"It was certainly a cosmopolitan gathering. Irish and Chinese laborers who had set records in track laying that have never since been equalled joined with the cowboys, Mormons, miners and Indians in celebrating completion of the railroad. There were even some high silk hats among the distinquished visitors from the East and West.
"A little after noon all was in readiness. The Union Pacific locomotive No. 119 and the Central Pacific locomotive "Jupiter," with Engineer Bill Sippy and Fireman Dick Murphy, were placed about 100 feet apart. On one side of the track was lined up a company of soldiers that came with the Union Pacific people. There was much speechmaking, the speakers standing in the middle of the track. When the spike was about to be driven the crowd moved in close to the tracks and the engines were brought nearer together."
At 12:47 Louie Jacobs, who was Central Pacific telegrapher at the end of track ticked out this message. "Almost ready. Hats off: prayer is being offered."
Through telegraphic communication had preceded the railroad and all over the country groups of people gathered in telegraph offices to hear the bulletins from Promontory. Building of this railroad over snow covered, granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains and across barren plains, was recognized as the greatest engineering achievement of the day. Its completion was made the occasion for celebrations in many cities.
At Washington, D. C. a ball was suspended outside the capitol building which was detached and dropped at the first tap of the hammer at Promontory. Wires were extended to the bell in the capitol dome and each tap of the hammer more than 2000 miles away was repeated on the great bell.
The wires in San Francisco were connected with the alarm bell in Fire Department tower, and also so adjusted that at the first tap of the hammer on the last spike fired a parapet gun at Fort Point at the entrance to the Golden Gate.
"Governor Stanford tapped the spike very lightly with the hammer," Mr. Bowsher continued. "Just the slightest touch was all that was necessary to carry the 'tapping' message over the wires. After several taps were telegraphed, the wires were disconnected and I understand several people took a swing at the spike, including Mrs. J. H. Strobridge, wife of the Central Pacific construction foreman. Mrs. Strobridge and Mrs. Mary L. Ryan, wife of 'E. Black' Ryan, who was the first secretary to Governor Stanford, were women present at the driving of the last spike.
"I don't remember whether the last spike was placed in the highly polished laurel tie from California. This tie was there some place but I don't think I saw it. I understand that several ties had to be put down after the ceremony, for no sooner was one placed than it was pounced on and cut to pieces by treasure hunters. There were probably enough pieces of wood to make a dozen ties taken away from Promontory as coming from the 'original' last tie.
"Also there was a 'shark' from San Francisco who signed up purchasers of watch charms to be cast from the original gold spike. I was one of those who 'bit' at $5 a charm. Of course our charms were knocked out of far different stuff than the real gold spike."
Pictures taken on the scene show Mr. Bowsher on the telegraph pole just a few feet from where the spike was driven. He was high above the crowd and could see all that was going on.
The original gold spike and one of silver spikes presented that day are now in the museum at Stanford University. The laurel tie was destroyed in the San Francisco fire of 1906.
Mr. Bowsher is a veteran of the Civil War serving in the First United States Cavalry. He was struck by Horace Greely's advise to young men to go West and took advantage of an opportunity to join a detachment of troops bound for San Francisco. His service expired while he was on the government transport at sea in the Pacific, and, when the ship reached San Francisco in January, 1866, he was free to go his own way.
Through his friendship with Major A. G. Brackett he was given a letter to R. P. Hammond, who was then superintendent of the railroad from Valencia Street to San Jose. He went to work on this road as telegraph repairer and when the Central Pacific took over the line he was transferred to Sacramento Division in the same capacity. This was in October, 1867. Soon afterward he became general foreman of telegraph construction working under F. L. VanDenberg, and was in the front lines of construction work until the rails reached Promontory. Later he was general foreman of telegraph construction work over the entire system.
When the Central Pacific's telegraph lines were leased to the Western Union in 1880, Mr. Bowsher transferred to engine service and, after firing for several months, became a locomotive engineer. At the time he was retired on pension, in March 1911, after 43 years 5 months' service he was engineer on the Oregon Express.
On April 5 this year Mr. and Mrs. Bowsher, who are now living at Sacramento, celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. Before her marriage Mrs. Bowsher (Della Cassidy) was telegraph operator in the office at West Oakland roundhouse.
Mr. Bowsher is now 86 years old and one of the ranking veterans of Central Pacific and Southern Pacific service.