It was a momentous occasion in California history. On September 5, 1876, a ceremony at Lang Station in Soledad Canyon marked the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. This essay will explore the Golden Spike Ceremony at Lang Station through the eyes of contemporary newspaper reports.
The golden spike from the Lang Station ceremony resides with the California Historical Society in San Francisco.
An inconspicuous line appeared in the Sacramento Daily Record-Union newspaper of September 2, 1876: "The railroad to Los Angeles will be completed on Tuesday." With this modest announcement began one of the great events in California history. Los Angeles would finally be connected by rail, not only to San Francisco, but to the rest of the United States through the Southern Pacific's connections with the Transcontinental Railroad.
Just as they had celebrated at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869, the Big Four of the Southern Pacific Crocker, Huntington, Stanford, and Hopkins planned festivities to take place at a location where the last spike would be driven to complete the railroad.
This location turned out to be at a remote railroad depot in northern Los Angeles County called Lang Station.
John Lang, a native of Herkimer County, New York, and a dairy farmer in Martinez, California (among other occupations), had moved from Virginia City, Nevada, to Los Angeles in the 1860s due to the ill health of his wife. In 1870, he purchased 160 acres of land in Soledad Canyon for $300. On this land he built a train depot, express office, post office and the Sulphur Springs Hotel and spa. He later became the first station master of the depot which bore his name.
In preparation for the ceremony, it was announced that "L.W. Thatcher, a jeweler of Los Angeles, and formerly a conductor on the Central Pacific Railroad, has made and presented a golden spike and a silver hammer. Value, $300."
The Golden Spike Ceremony at Lang Station was big news in California newspapers the next day. The Daily Record Union's headline proclaimed, "THE GREAT UNDERTAKING FINALLY ACCOMPLISHED." Delegations of dignitaries from both cities traveled by train from San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles to participate in the ceremony. According to San Francisco's Daily Alta California, the delegation from Los Angeles included the Mayor and consisted of "the leading citizens of Los Angeles County the bench, the bar, medical and journalistic professions. ... The banking, mercantile, agricultural and wine interests of Los Angeles County were represented by their most prominent men."
The train from Los Angeles arrived at Lang Station at noon. The San Francisco newspaper describes the scene: "The two delegations, running over with animation and enthusiasm, which found vent in cheers that made the noise of the cannon seem a misnomer, entered upon their labors. The vicinity of the station is crowded with people. The track for a half mile in extent is lined with the whole force of laborers and spectators, all anxiously awaiting the important consummation."
As the ceremony began, greetings were exchanged between dignitaries of both cities. Telegraph wires were connected to both Los Angeles and San Francisco to announce the event. The astute leaders of the Southern Pacific were determined to demonstrate to the country the speed with which they could lay down rails.
One thousand fifty feet of track remained to be laid to complete the railroad. One thousand workers, mostly Chinese, lined up along the tracks and, with picks and shovels ready, awaited the signal. As the signal was given: "The track-graders and laborers set to work. As fast as the rails were laid on the ties, they were immediately spiked down and the space between the ties filled with earth. In the struggle to close in on the half of the unlaid track, the southern or Los Angeles party were winners by a rail, their end being completed 3 minutes before the San Francisco end. The work occupied but 5 minutes. The last rail is laid. The cheers are loud and prolonged."
Charles Crocker, President of the Southern Pacific, was then presented with a golden spike and silver hammer by a citizen of Los Angeles. The San Francisco newspaper reporter stated, "At 2:00 President Crocker, standing upon an elevated portion of the track and surrounded by Governor Stanford, Vice President Colton and others, returned thanks for the gift, then addressed the multitude, alluding to the auspicious occasion, and expressing hopes that the connecting rail with San Francisco and Los Angeles would redound to the prosperity of the citizens of the respective cities. He then proceeded to drive the spike, amid deafening cheers."
Following Crocker's historic blow, speeches were delivered by General D.D. Colton, Vice President of the railroad, followed by Ex-Governor Downey, Los Angeles Mayor Beaudry, San Francisco Mayor Bryant, Governor Leland Stanford, and finally Los Angeles freighting king Phineas Banning who "at 2:20 closed the exercises with a mirthful address. The dense crowd broke ranks, the workmen to their duties and the visitors to their cars. In response to the cordial invitation extended by the Mayor and citizens of Los Angeles, the cars were immediately turned towards Los Angeles, to attend the banquet to be given in the evening."
The importance of this railroad connection to the Southern California of the 1870s cannot be overstated. Witness the newspaper's description of Southern California as perceived by the rest of the state: "California, in the minds of most of her citizens, exists north of the headwaters of the San Joaquin...Southern California is a mysterious, mythical, half fabulous locality, with no definite boundaries and no practical connection with the commercial world.
"It may be the peculiar ring of the old Spanish names which the towns bear, it may be the dreary distance which intervened between them and the central portions of the State, but certain it is that something has caused an impression in most minds that Southern California was vaguely distant, almost out of the world, and that it never could be reclaimed to civilization, and now it is reclaimed."