Series: PBS Utah Productions
On May 10, 1869, two steam locomotives chugged across a barren landscape in northern Utah until they stood nose-to-nose. A crowd converged, and within minutes the event was frozen in time as one of the most familiar images of the American West. The competing arms of the transcontinental railroad had been joined at Promontory Summit in the Utah territory.
But just beyond the photographic images of East meeting West in Utah is a more controversial story: A little known story of the people who built the final stretch of the rail line; of hard fought negotiations between railroad executives and the legendary Brigham Young; of broken promises that created economic chaos and destroyed lives.
PROMONTORY is the first television documentary to explore the convulsive events that played out in Utah before and after the momentous Golden Spike Ceremony that signaled the completion of the world's first transcontinental railroad. Produced by KUED Senior Producer Ken Verdoia, PROMONTORY offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of an event that redefined both the nation and the state of Utah.
Drawing on private letters, diaries and public records of the day, PROMONTORY takes viewers inside the cutthroat competition between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroad companies as they raced across the American continent. Fueled by a unique partnership with the federal government, the private railroad companies were awarded government money and land grants for every mile of track they completed. The financial incentive inspired a sometimes wild dash of men and rail lines that converged on the nation's most isolated population center.
The Utah territory of the 1860s was a little known, often controversial, religious settlement in the nation's heartland. Virtually all events in the territory played out under the watchful eye of Mormon Church President Brigham Young, who exercised a unique blend of religious, political, social and economic power. When the Union Pacific wanted laborers, Vice President Thomas Durant turned to Brigham Young, who saw Durant's proposal for a Mormon labor force as a way to bring jobs and prosperity to his people following the economic devastation wreaked by the grasshopper plague.
PROMONTORY details how Brigham Young would never see the sums Union Pacific and Central Pacific promised him and his followers. He was so angry at the railroads that he was conspicuously absent from ceremonies in which the final spike was driven. When the dust had settled, Young claimed to be owed more than $1 million, but he could not budge railroad executives who ignored Mormon demands for payment.
In addition to the economic disappointments came unforeseen cultural repercussions. As the railroads brought in outside culture and the country pushed West, Utah's 60,000 Mormon settlers found themselves viewed with curiosity and suspicion and their quiet haven threatened by alcohol, prostitution, gambling and other "corrupting viruses." Within a decade, the state's population would double, bringing an influx of non-Mormon residents.
"For most of us, the transcontinental railroad is little more than two images: A.J. Russell's great photograph of the two locomotives meeting at Promontory Summit, and the oft-told story of the driving of the golden spike," says producer Verdoia.
"But, just beyond those images is an entirely different saga of an incredible national enterprise and its enormous impact on the Utah Territory. Unearthing that little-known story is what drives PROMONTORY, a film that offers powerful lessons still relevant 130 years later."
PROMONTORY was funded by the R. Harold Burton Foundation and The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation.