Commentary: Long Beach’s Golden Spike

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






On May 10, the nation will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental rail line at Promontory Summit, Utah. On that day, Leland Stanford drove a 17.6-karat gold final spike into the tracks connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. But did you know that Long Beach also had a final gold spike marking the completion of the Los Angeles Terminal Railroad?

On Nov. 7, 1891, 12 carloads of people flocked to the Long Beach seashore to witness the opening of the Los Angeles Terminal Railroad (known locally as the Terminal Railroad). Flags were flown from housetops, and a large crowd of people awaited the visitors. A stop made at Pacific Park allowed many more to board the train before it reached the terminus on Rattlesnake Island (later renamed Terminal Island in honor of the railroad).

At the end of the line, passengers disembarked. They were given time to see the site of the city’s proposed new wharf. They then returned to Long Beach, got out and mingled with the crowd. A dedication ceremony, followed with a golden spike driven into the rail line by Miss Lucia Burnett (no relation to the author), daughter of the general manager of the rail line.

The spike was a facsimile of the regulation railroad spike, but made of solid gold, according to the Los Angeles Herald. It was engraved with the inscription: “Last spike driven by the Terminal Railroad at Long Beach, Cal.” The mallet then passed to W.H. Goucher, president of the Long Beach Board of Trustees, and Mayor Hazard of Los Angeles, each of whom gave the spike a couple of blows and drove it home.

Edward Lockett, secretary of the Long Beach Board of Trustees, gave a welcoming address. He was followed by C.M. Wells, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, who spoke about the importance of transportation to a region. T.E. Gibbon, general attorney for the Terminal Railroad, followed Mr. Wells, thanking the people for their good will and welcome. As legal counsel, he pointed out the Terminal Railroad was building a rail line all the way to Salt Lake by themselves, but was working with other rail lines to secure as direct a route as possible to form another transcontinental line.

Talk then turned to building a harbor at San Pedro to carry the sea-bound cargo of the new rail line. Mayor Hazard said that $500,000 would be sufficient to make a harbor at San Pedro big enough to hold all the shipping on the Pacific Coast. Judge Savage of San Pedro reminisced about landing in the city in 1866, when there was only 18 inches of water over the sand bar. Since that time, $800,000 had been spent on improving the harbor. He felt that a few hundred thousand dollars more would make the harbor perfect. Long Beach’s Dr. J.P. Widney told those gathered that it was now time for the people to wake up to the fact that San Pedro had been chosen by government engineers as the best place for public harbor improvement and that both cities should leave behind their differences and unite in one great effort to secure adequate appropriation for the establishment of a deep-water harbor– which they successfully did in 1899.

After all the grandiose speeches came what everyone was waiting for– the barbecue. A hungry crowd of 1,500 rushed from the speaker’s stand to the large tables set up in Pacific Avenue alongside the park. Two plank tables resting upon piles of railroad ties extended 200 feet along the thoroughfare. They were heaped with smoking meats, stacks of white bread, coffee and apples. The men carved meat, while dozens of boys and girls carried the portions to the eager guests. There was plenty of meat (beef, mutton and pork), bread, coffee and apples to go around. The Long Beach band and Ahrend’s band of Los Angeles furnished the music. The festivities ended with a grand ball. Some visitors even brought home the bones from the barbecue as souvenirs! (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 8, 1891)

A trip over the Terminal Railway described

A preview run of the rail line was held Oct. 23, 1891, when manager Thomas B. Burnett arranged for 200 farmers, in Los Angeles for a convention, to travel over his new line to Long Beach. The line, just completed the day before, was ready for a trial run. Nine cars were comfortably filled with the farmers, their wives and children as they anxiously anticipated this unforeseen honor. Burnett had promised to make the trip in 30 minutes, the fastest time ever made to Long Beach. But after the train had gone three or four miles at this high rate of speed, Burnett called a halt and ordered the train to go a little slower. It seemed the farmers were not used to going at such a high rate of speed, as the railroad men were getting a little squeamish. As it was, the trip was made in 50 minutes, and everyone arrived healthy and happy. The farmers were greeted to a rousing reception; the band played and crowds cheered as the farmers left the train for their complementary lunch. Following lunch, carriages were available to give those who did not care to stroll on the beach a ride about the city. When it came time for the train to leave, the farmers gathered on the depot platform and gave the new road and the people of Long Beach a round of cheers that could be heard for blocks around. (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 24, 1891)

A July 1898 article in an issue of Terminal Topics, the monthly magazine of the Los Angeles Terminal Railway, described a rail trip from the Terminal Station in Los Angeles to Long Beach and on to Terminal Island. The cost of the 50-mile round trip from Los Angeles to Terminal Island was 50 cents. There were two terminals in Long Beach, one at First and Alamitos, the second on the northeast corner of Ocean and Pacific. Passengers who did not leave the train at Long Beach found themselves whirling along the ocean to Terminal Island, described as “a new and very attractive resort, where neither money nor labor is being spared to make a most charming place of amusement and recreation for the people.” From Los Angeles, the train passed through “a luxurious country of gardens and dairies, acres of blackberries and strawberries, green alfalfa fields and waving corn, passing flocks of sheep and herds of cattle.” Four trains daily and five on Sunday made it easy for a businessman to summer at the beach and continue to work in Los Angeles.

In November 1900, the Terminal Railroad became the Salt Lake and Terminal Railroad when it was decided to extend the line to Salt Lake City (San Francisco Call, Nov. 27, 1900). On Jan. 29, 1901, the board of directors of the Salt Lake and Terminal railroads formally transferred the Terminal to the Salt Lake, Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad. (LA Herald, Jan. 29, 1901). It was William Andrews Clark, a Montana mining baron and United States Senator who was the main investor in the project, giving the rail line the informal name of “The Clark Road.” The railroad operated independently until April 1921, when the Union Pacific acquired Clark’s interest in the rail line.

Clark County, Nev., was named for W.A. Clark bringing the railroad through the state and creating the city of Las Vegas. Clark also had major investments in the Long Beach area. For more on Clark and the railroad, read my earlier blogs– “A fortune an heiress and sugar beets” at bit.ly/2Y2YG1D and the “Burnett District and the Terminal Railroad” at bit.ly/2GXEgQH.

What happened to the Gold Spike?
The 17.6-karat gold spike from Promontory Summit is now displayed in the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. But what happened to the Terminal Railroad spike? If it was indeed “solid” gold, as reported in the press, it would have been too valuable to leave in the track and would have soon been removed, turned over to the railroad company and replaced. Most likely the original or replacement spike had little gold and may have just been painted a gold color. In any case, around 1911, two boys pried the eight-inch long spike out of the rail track, thinking it was pure gold. The police recovered the spike and placed it in the junk room at police headquarters, where it was discovered in 1913. It was then put on display at the Chamber of Commerce. (Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1913) What happened after that remains a mystery.

If you would like to learn more about what was going on locally during the rum running days of Prohibition, I will be speaking about my book Prohibition Madness at the Alamitos Branch Library, 1836 E. 3rd S., on Saturday, May 4, from 2pm to 3pm. For more information, contact the library at (562) 570-1037.