LIMA — Lima is more than 1,600 miles from Promontory Summit, Utah, the “lonely windswept plateau” where the final spike was driven in the Transcontinental Railroad. And, although Lima has a long railroad history, it had nothing to do with that piece of it.
But when America marked the 100th anniversary of the “wedding of the rails” on May 10, 1969, with a re-enactment of the event, a Lima-built steam engine pulled the Golden Spike Centennial Limited part way to the event and gave the train a rousing welcome when it passed through on its return trip to New York.
“Throngs crowded street crossings as the giant trundled over onetime Nickel Plate track en route to its overnight stop here,” the Lima News reported May 16, 1969. “Its train, the Golden Spike Centennial Limited, bore approximately a hundred paying passengers plus a dozen Limaites returning from boarding in Frankfort, Ind.”
The 1,907-mile long Transcontinental Railroad was constructed between 1863 and 1869 to connect the Pacific Coast at San Francisco with the eastern railroad network at Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the eastern bank of the Missouri River opposite Omaha, Neb. The Union Pacific Railroad workers, building west from Council Bluffs, met the Central Pacific Railroad workers building east from Sacramento, Calif., at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869. The moment is captured in Andrew J. Russell’s photograph “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of the Last Rail” showing a crowd of workers and officials surrounding facing locomotives.
The Golden Spike Centennial Limited was the brainchild of Ross Rowland Jr., a successful Wall Street commodities broker. Rowland and his High Iron Co. crew restored a main-line steam engine to pull the train consisting of three display cars, viewing cars, diner and several passenger cars. One hundred passengers paid $995 for the round trip from New York City to Promontory Summit. Dozens of other passengers paid lesser amounts to ride on segments of the trip.
Pulling the train was Nickel Plate 759, a steam engine built at the Lima Locomotive Works in August 1944. It was one of 80 Berkshire engines the locomotive works built for the Nickel Plate between 1934 and 1949 for fast freight duties. Another Berkshire, Nickel Plate 779, the last steam engine built by the Lima Locomotive Works, is on display at the Lincoln Park Railway Exhibit.
Diesel had largely replaced steam by 1958, doing the same job more efficiently but, in the eyes of steam enthusiasts, with a lot less pizazz. Nickel Plate 759 was salvaged by a railroad enthusiast in 1962 and eventually found a home at the Steamtown railroad museum in Bellows Falls, Vt. Rowland made a deal with the engine’s owner in 1967 to restore Nickel Plate 759 and use it for rail excursions run by his High Iron Co.
In May 1969 Nickel Plate 759 was pulling the Golden Spike Centennial Limited. On May 3, the train left Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan pulled by a diesel engine. Nickel Plate 759 was hooked to the train at Harmon, N.Y., 32 miles west of the city. From there it traveled through Buffalo, Cleveland and Fort Wayne, bypassing Lima to the north. Nickel Plate 759 pulled the train to Kansas City where Union Pacific locomotives took over. The Golden Spike Centennial Limited arrived in Salt Lake City May 8 for the May 10 ceremonies at Promontory Summit.
“The Golden Spike was driven again today at Promontory Summit as it was 100 years ago — and the dust may not settle for another 100 years.” Salt Lake City’s Deseret News reported May 10, 1969. “Thousands of visitors and dignitaries converged on the remote, sagebrush covered spot to witness the reenactment of the ‘wedding of the rails.’ Once again the electrifying words were heard across the nation: ‘The last rail is laid. The last spike is driven.’”
Ironically, track had to again be laid for the reenactment. By 1969, the railroad bypassed Promontory Summit. The Promontory Summit rail was pulled up for scrap during World War II.
On May 13, the Golden Spike Centennial Limited began the return trip, arriving in Lima the evening of May 15, 1969.
Rowland took control of the engine at Frankfort, Ind., and guided it “under a trailing, northward-drifting plume of coal smoke, the final 150 miles to its birthplace,” the News reported May 16, 1969. “Lima’s welcome Thursday night grew to an estimated crowd of 8,000 by about 9:30, according to police on the edges of the throng.”
Passengers spent the night in Lima, visiting the Allen County Museum and the Lincoln Park exhibit.
“Edward Hanks, assistant manager of the Lima Area Chamber of Commerce and one of the Lima group to board the train at Frankfort, said the Lima reception was regarded by High Iron officials as one of the largest and best conducted receptions along the entire route.”
At about 9 a.m. May 16 Lima resident James M. Miller guided Nickel Plate 759 and the Golden Spike Centennial Limited out of Lima toward Pittsburgh.
“Engineer James M. “Smoky” Miller, of Lima, worked on the 759 back in the late ’40s, and for him it was just like rolling back the clock.” The Toledo Blade wrote May 17, 1969. “The fireman was Elbie Miller, no relation, also of Lima. ‘She handled beautifully and I could have made 85 but for the track,’ he said.”
“At Beaverdam, Bluffton, Findlay, Fostoria and Green Springs, townspeople and school children cheered and waved, then the youngsters rushed out to retrieve coins flattened by the train. Others along the route used cameras to record the rare sight and tape recorders to capture the wailing sound of the steam whistle.”
A passenger told the Blade the sound of the steam whistle had a singular effect on livestock. “The diesel air horns don’t bother the cows and horses, but when the whistle blows, they really scatter.”
The Golden Spike Centennial Limited returned to New York May 18, 1979, the same day Apollo 10 left to orbit the moon in a rehearsal for the moon landing two months later. Nickel Plate 759 pulled the train as far as Baltimore, where diesel engines took over for the run into New York. In July 1969, Nickel Plate 759 returned to the Steamtown museum.