The Last Spike

To those faithful to the rails, May 10th, 1869, will always be remembered for the Driving of the Golden Spike. Countless articles, books, and an epic motion picture have been produced, all celebrating that milestone in U.S. and transportation history. Contemporary trends have altered the concept of popular history, and national focus has shifted to other topics. That change has given short shrift to many industrial achievements, including the significance of linking the U.S. by rail.

That significance was not lost within the rail industry. Driven by the doldrums of the Great Depression, the Pullman Company repurposed the importance of the Golden Spike to promote two signature streamlined trains of the 1930s that featured the latest Pullman-built lightweight passenger cars. Pullman used the June 15th, 1938, inauguration of the new streamlined NYC 20th Century Limited and PRR Broadway Limited (both featuring Pullman-built equipment) to promote the theme on the cover of the trade journal Railway Age, proclaiming, “The Last Link Has Been Closed.” Pullman boldly inferred that the nation had not truly been linked until that date, when passengers could ride from coast to coast in pace-setting Pullman luxury that the two new trains, connecting at Chicago with streamliners introduced earlier in that decade by the Burlington, Santa Fe, Rock Island, Chicago & North Western, Milwaukee Road, and Union Pacific, now offered.

The ad and the logic behind it are both insightful and revealing. Pullman had to tread lightly with the NYC and PRR, both then considered to be matriarchs of the railroad industry, and could not favor one over the other. Hence, both new, re-equipped trains were inaugurated on the same day. Pullman correctly stated the importance of the streamlined western connections but downplayed the fact that the NYC and PRR trains were trusted to steam locomotives whereas the western streamliners were powered by diesel-electric locomotives. Beyond that, both the NYC and PRR were laggards of sorts when it came to the streamlined era: both approached that cautiously. The Pullman ad became an in-house celebration of sorts, with management believing that the two transportation giants would now flood the company with orders for new equipment. Finally, one wonders how Southern Pacific and Union Pacific management felt about Pullman employing the triumph of the Golden Spike (really an SP-UP event) to promote the trains of the NYC and PRR. Nonetheless, the concept worked well and was bolstered the following year with the release of Paramount Pictures’ epic film, Union Pacific, which further promoted the last link theme.

Much has changed since 1938, but not our appreciation and respect for the importance of that event back in 1869 and the performance of railroads today. May is a great time to reflect on that revered history and commemorate that event in some way on your own railroad. Whether you prefer the contemporary locomotives and cars that speed across our nation, the memorable streamliners of the past, or the pioneer railroad era, our inventory carries many items to help you perfect your stylized operation and satisfy personal preferences. We welcome your active interest and the opportunity to serve you.

Frank Wrabel