1 of the 4 spikes driven at Promontory Summit fetches $2.2 million at auction

The Arizona spike at right is on display alongside the famous gold and Nevada spikes at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City on January 31, 2019. All three were raced at Promontory Summit in 1869. The Arizona Spike sold for more than $2 million last week. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Arizona spike, ceremonially driven in Utah to mark the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, sold for just over $2 million during an auction that ended Thursday, much more than was expected.

Christie’s has put the spike up for auction along with a handful of other historical items. The final sale of $2.22 million far exceeded the pre-auction estimate of $300,000 to $500,000, although it is unclear who bought the Spike.

Peter Klarnet, Christie’s vice president and senior Americana specialist, told Artnet News that the sale “exceeded our expectations.”

“I think the spike has captured the imagination of collectors, in part because it’s a powerful symbol of national unity,” Klarnet told the outlet. “That sense of unity means as much today as it did when the transcontinental railroad was completed less than four years after the Civil War.”

So what is the Arizona spike and how did it form?

Most people think of the golden spike when they think of the “Wedding of the Rails” ceremony at Promontory Summit to celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. But it was actually one of four ceremonial tips presented at the event.

Arizona and Nevada each commissioned spikes before the railroad’s completion, as did San Francisco newspaper magnet Frederick Marriott, according to Union Pacific, which compiled a history of the spikes. While Marriott’s apex was also gold, Nevada made its apex silver, and Arizona, then a territory, made it iron, gold, and silver.

Messages were engraved on all spikes. For example, the Arizona tip reads: “Ribbed with iron, clad in silver, and crowned with gold, Arizona presents her offering to the corporation that bound a continent and dictated a route to commerce. Presented by Governor Safford.”

After the ceremony ended, all four spikes went to the various distinguished guests at the event. David Hewes, brother-in-law of Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford, commissioned the famous golden spike and took it to California. The National Park Service notes that Hewes eventually donated it to the Stanford University Museum of Art, where it is located today, in 1892.

The Nevada spike was introduced to Stanford and eventually went to the university as well.

Not of the same quality as Hewes’ gold lace from San Francisco’s Marriott, “eventually faded into obscurity,” Union Pacific historians wrote. It was believed to have been given to one of Union Pacific’s executives, but it’s unclear what happened to it. Historians concede that Marriott’s spire may have been destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire; However, the fate of this spike remains a mystery.

The fate of the Arizona spike was also unknown for a long time. It was created in 1943 when a descendant of Sidney Dillon, a Union Pacific executive at the time the railroad was completed, donated it to the New York City Museum, according to Christie’s. It was loaned to several museums from 1978 until last week’s auction.

The Spike even briefly returned to Utah four years ago before the state celebration of the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion. It joined the Golden Spike and the Nevada Spike at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts — the first time all three were in Utah at the same time since the 1869 ceremony.

While one of the four spikes has been lost over time, another has now appeared. Utah leaders also commissioned a copper tip in 2019 to commemorate the bicentennial. Then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the apex was meant to honor Utah’s “significant role” in railroad history.

“I think we’re forgetting the scale and importance of this event,” he said at the time. “What it represents is that when times are tough, we can do tough things. We can dream big, work hard and when we work together there is no limit to what we can achieve.”


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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter covering general news, nature, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant next to Rochester, New York.

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