In a day when cars or airplanes can travel anywhere, anytime, it can be difficult to appreciate just how momentous the completion of the transcontinental railroad was to the United States in 1869. The railroad was a tremendous feat of engineering that cost the lives of many. The railroad made it possible for people to travel from coast to coast in a few days, instead of a few months. The railroad effectively ended a way of life for the American Indian as white settlements multiplied throughout the West.
Our family recently visited Golden Spike National Historic Site. Here is what you need to know about visiting this attraction.
1. Golden Spike NHS is off the beaten path
We had been there before, but I didn’t remember Golden Spike NHS being so far off Interstate 15. Take the marked exit a short distance north of Brigham City and then drive 30 miles west. The way is well marked and the road is well maintained. While you drive through the desert hills at highway speeds, imagine what it must have been like in 1869 for those who laid the track, mile by painstaking mile through all kinds of weather to reach the same spot.
2. Golden Spike NHS is open year-round
This Historic Site is open every day except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Visitor Center hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Jupiter and 119 trains can be seen in the train yard in the summer and in the Engine House in the winter. Stop by the Visitor Center for an Engine House tour. Whenever you go, Golden Spike is not likely to be crowded, which is a refreshing change from most of our weekend summer outings.
3. See a reenactment
On Saturdays and holidays, May through October, local volunteers re-enact the ceremony where the golden spike was driven in 1869, including the part where railroad executives missed hitting the spike on the first two attempts. This ceremony is held only once per day, in the early afternoon. History enthusiasts won’t want to miss it. The re-enactment is about 30 minutes long and is full of speeches. My kids thought it was boring, but the ceremony was the thing that impressed upon me how important an event this was. Call ahead for the schedule if you want to be sure to see the re-enactment.
4. See a train demonstration
The Jupiter and 119 trains at Golden Spike NHS are not original, but they were constructed to look and run like the originals. They are brightly painted and they move short distances a couple of times during the day. When the trains aren’t running, they are parked nose to nose outside the visitor center. Visitors can get as close as they would like and even see into the engineer’s seat.
5. Earn free Junior Ranger badges
Our children have collected nearly a dozen Junior Ranger badges from different national parks and they were eager to earn another at Golden Spike NHS. The program is geared toward children ages 6-12, but Golden Spike has a simplified booklet for children under 6. We scoured the Visitors Center, learning a lot along the way, to find the information needed, and our children enjoyed the booklet’s activities. The rangers at Golden Spike were more engaged in the Junior Ranger program than any I have seen. They reviewed the booklets thoroughly with our children and invited everyone in the small visitor center to applaud new Junior Rangers after they were sworn in.
6. See a movie
The Visitor Center plays a movie about the transcontinental railroad in the main theater every 30 minutes, but a list of other train-related movies are available upon demand. My husband and I would have liked to see “The Great Train Robbery” or the Johnny Cash train movie, but our kids wanted to see the animated Peanuts movie about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Four thumbs up. If you’re into train movies, you could spend all day here.
7. Expect to spend half a day or less
Unless you really love train history, two hours is plenty of time to see Golden Spike National Historic Site. The visitor center is small and the trains and re-enactment are just outside. There is an auto tour and a Big Fill Walk nearby, but most of the action happens at the visitor center.
One of the signs at the Golden Spike National Historic Site explains,
“A telegraph signal sent from the tracks… signaled a truly transcontinental extravaganza. As the word went out over the wires, the nation went wild. In city after city, church bells rang, trains hooted, fire engines howled, gongs clanged and cannons thundered. Citizens thronged the streets to watch parades. People sang The Star-Spangled Banner, prayed and shouted themselves hoarse. Countless orators hailed this as a ‘great day’ of national destiny.”
On this visit to Golden Spike NHS, I finally “got” what a feat the transcontinental railroad was and how it shaped America. I was able to share it with my children. Come share this piece of American heritage with your family.
Since you’re here…
These attractions near Golden Spike National Historic Site may also be of interest:
ATK Rocket Display
Take 15 minutes to see the free roadside display of rockets and missiles on the property of government contractor ATK, which built them. It is only 2 miles past the turnoff to Golden Spike, so it’s an easy detour. See a space shuttle rocket booster, a Minuteman missile, a Patriot missile and more. All have signs for easy identification. We were amused to find that birds have built nests inside of several hollow bomb casings.
Spiral Jetty is a large piece of environmental art by Robert Smithson in the Great Salt Lake. I have been there twice, and while it’s not for everyone, I find it fascinating. High clearance vehicles are recommended, but the unpaved road has recently been smooth enough for passenger cars. You can only see the jetty when water levels are low enough. Here is a link to our post on Spiral Jetty, which includes links to water level tables and driving directions.
Brigham City is the embodiment of small town America. It’s the best place in the area to stop for a meal or the other amenities of civilization. There are no restaurants or gas stations at Golden Spike National Historic Site. Try Idle Isle Cafe on Main Street for an old-fashioned dining experience and homemade candies. Maddox, located just south of Brigham City in Perry, attracts diners from miles around with its local beef, bison, and produce. During the summer and fall, stop at one of the farm stands on the “Fruit Way” on Highway 89 for local produce.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
The wetlands of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge are a popular oasis for a birds migrating over the desert. It’s also a great stop for bird watchers and photographers and those who would like to learn more about the birds and insects that travel through here. There is a visitor center and a half-mile accessible walking trail. Tours are available during the summer. Reservations are recommended.