UP 119: An unlikely celebrity. When looking at photos of the Last Spike Ceremony on the Transcontinental Railroad, we see lots of distinguished looking men clad in formal attire and two ornately painted steam locomotives. Given that gold and silver spikes were being "driven" with a silver spike maul, I think that most folks who take the time to think about it probably assume that the two locomotives were specially built, or at least specially prepared for the occasion.....perhaps the finest engines either railroad could bring. In actuality, none of that was the case. The honest truth is that neither the Union Pacific's 119 nor the Central Pacific's Jupiter were specifically picked for the ceremony and in fact, both railroad intended for other locomotives to be there.
In the case of the Union Pacific, the special train carrying UP Vice President, Dr. Thomas Durant ended up being stopped by bridge problems east of Promontory. It seems that a swollen river had washed out some of the supports to the Devil's Gate Bridge and the engineer on the so-called "Durant Special" refused to take his engine across the bridge. Instead, he gently nudged a cut of passenger cars across so the train made it to the other side, but UP had to dispatch another engine from Ogden, to pick up the cars and bring Durant to Promontory. The 119 happened to be that engine and she ended up being "immortalized" in the famous photos by Russell and Hart.
The locomotive you see in this photo is not the original 119. Like so many great American artifacts, nobody really thought much about saving her until she had been unceremoniously scrapped in 1903. Fast-forward to 1975 when the National Park Service had a dilemma. They owned the the historic location of the Last Spike Ceremony, but had no locomotives to facilitate historic re-enactments. In past years, they had borrowed former V&T Engines "Dayton and "Inyo" from movie companies, as stand-ins, but those engines were now the property of the Nevada State Railroad Museum and weren't going anywhere. Instead, the Park Service commissioned a pair of replicas to a firm known as O'Connor Engineering Laboratories, of Costa Mesa, CA. Fortunately, Company President Chadwell O'Connor was a railfan himself, so the construction of these replicas became a labor of love. He engaged the services of Railroad Historian Gerald Best and Disney Animator Ward Kimball to help with the project. No plans or drawings existed for the two engines. O'Connor and team literally had to re-engineer the two locomotives from the historic photos of Russell, Hart and others. It was painstaking work, but no detail was spared. Interestingly, one of the most difficult tasks was figuring out how to paint the two engines, since all of the existing photos were in black and white.
When the two engines were shipped to Promontory in 1979, they were works of art....and they still are, some 40 years on. They are as accurate as human hands could make them. The headlights and cab lights are real oil lamps....even the cross-head pumps on both sides are fully operational. Although the line they operate on is about as insular as it gets, the Park Service maintains them to FRA standards, including doing 1,472 Service Day Inspections. Contractors from the Utah area are brought in to do most of the heavier maintenance. The locomotives typically do demonstration runs several times daily, in addition to participating in periodic re-enactments of the Last Spike Ceremony.