Fair or Foul II
So my trip to the Alameda County Fair required a drive through the canyon. Actually, 'required' is imprecise: There were several ways to go. But the corkscrewing, two-lane road through the canyon was the shortest route and perhaps the most fitting, because of its rural ambiance. The canyon itself is a narrow, zig-zag chasm in the coastal foothills just east of the San Francisco Bay. It is called Niles Canyon, and it is one of the most historically important topographical features that you will never, ever hear about... unless, of course, you keep reading. (Be sure to tune in next week when we will discuss the pivotal role --both in war and in peace-- played by the Mohawk Valley!)
(Naw, I'm just kidding... maybe.)
On May 10th, 1869, y'see, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad held a big ceremony at a remarkably nowhere site in northern Utah-- a state, it should be noted, which has far more than its fair share of Nowheres. They named this particular nowhere, "Promontory Summit," because these were railroad men, dammit, and they could do whatever they damn-well pleased, like bestow a grandiose name upon a location that would have otherwise been near the front of the pack for the title, "Prominent Blemish on the Buttocks of the World." Ah, but it was Fate --and timing and engineering and good old-fashioned American industrial gamesmanship and, ultimately, the Federal Railroad Commission-- that this spot should be The Very Spot for one of the 19th Century's biggest, most bogus sacraments: The Driving of the Golden Spike.
The ultimate honor fell to one of the Central Pacific's leading investors, Leland Stanford. Stanford was a man chosen for the very best of reasons: He was the only Central Pacific fat cat who'd even bothered to make the trip. Actually, his fellow investors, no doubt, had conceded the honor to him after --oh, I don't know-- a spirited game of darts or something. However it happened, Leland Stanford was the center of attention on this hot, May morning. Reporters and photographers and telegraphers gathered close and held their collective breath as Stanford, hefting a big, ceremonial, silver-alloy hammer, smiled and squinted and spread his stance under the midday sun. Utterly lacking any trace of grace or artfulness or strength --or even the barest hint that he'd ever done a single day's honest work in his entire, spoon-fed life-- Stanford slung the hammer 'round and swung the hammer down and completely missed the ceremonial, gold-alloy spike and --likely as not-- nearly took his own foot off. The Western Union telegraph operator raised his eyebrows for a moment, then shrugged and began to dit-dit-dat to the outside world that the golden spike had been driven-- all the while silently resolving to swear he'd heard near-precious alloy strike near-precious alloy, should anyone ask. Nobody did.
Accounts differ as to what happened next. Some say Stanford continued to huff and puff and sweat and flail away like the worst duffer you've ever seen --he may even have stripped off his suit coat and loosened his tie-- until he finally managed to bury four or five of the seven ritual inches into the patiently waiting cross-tie, consummating the marriage but scoring a big, fat zero on the style and satisfaction meters. Others say that after just one or two photo-op-inspired swings, he took himself out of the lineup for a pinch-hitter. One of the thousands of anonymous Chinese laborers who had actually built the railroad then stepped forward, dragging a dingy, pock-marked iron hammer, and pounded the spike home with a half-dozen efficient strokes.
It doesn't really matter which story you believe. Barely ten minutes after all the handshakes and back-slaps and flashbulbs had either ceased or wandered away, all four ceremonial spikes --as well as the ceremonial cross-tie-- were unceremoniously removed and replaced with ordinary iron spikes and a cheap wooden tie, just like every other tie on every other mile of the line. The Sacred Items of Symbolic Achievement were quietly carted away and now reside in a museum somewhere, occasionally worshiped by the odd railroad/ history buff and periodically gazed upon with a mixture of frowns and mock wonderment by hundreds --well, okay, dozens-- of schoolchildren every year who have very little idea what they are looking at, much less why.
And so it was, like a shortstop's phantom tag on a double play, that the Great and Grand Transcontinental Railroad was Officially Completed.
The Union Pacific's eastern terminus was, at that time, Omaha, Nebraska-- on the western bank of the Missouri River. There was no bridge. For more than three years after the "Driving of the Golden Spike," passengers and freight rode ferry boats, not rail cars, between Omaha and Council Bluffs. Moreover, Central Pacific's western terminus was, at that time, Sacramento, California, which is nearly 100 hot, rough, dusty miles inland from the shining Pacific seacoast.
My point? Just three words: 'Transcontinental' my [donkey].
The Central Pacific Railroad did, of course, eventually reach the San Francisco Bay (specifically: Oakland) and when it did, its path through the coastal foothills to the east of the bay was through a narrow, zig-zag chasm known, both then and now, as Niles Canyon.
Note: Some of you may be unfamiliar with the word "duffer." Others might question my use of it in this post, as it carries a very colloquial definition that is not found in all dictionaries. By the same token, many of you who immediately perceived my intended meaning might be surprised to learn that the word has other, more traditionally recognized denotations-- although it is considered slang in every case. I have provided a dictionary-style guide below... cuz that's just the kind of guy I am.
duffer [DUH-fur] (origin unknown -- all uses are considered colloquial or slang)
(1) A peddler of cheap or fake items.
(2) Any counterfeit or worthless item.
(3) A dim-witted or incompetent person (often, but not always, this definition carries with it the connotation that said person is elderly).
(4) A bad golfer.
P.S... Bud "Duffer" Selig must go.