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Handbill passed out to passengers on Transcontinental railroad travel


Tents at Promontory May 10, 1869

 By Paul L. Hedren, Supervisory Park Ranger (1978)

The town of Promontory developed slowly when compared with its earlier "Hell on Wheels" predecessors, even though the Summit area as a meeting point for the transcontinental railroad had been established as early as April 9, 1869. Certainly the site was crossed and recrossed by grading gangs, company heads, and even transcontinental travelers, but there is no formal record of community development prior to May 9, 1869.

The slow germination of Promontory is no indication of the lack of human habitation in the Summit area, however. Mormon grading crews under contract to the Central Pacific Railroad maintained residence on the east slope throughout the Winter of 1868-69. And by early May, thousands of workers from both companies inhabited temporary hovels with such contemptible names as Deadfall, Murder Gulch, Last Chance and Painted Post. Charles R. Savage, Salt Lake City photographer, verified the "Hell on Wheels" nature of these scattered settlements when he wrote, "I was creditably informed that 24 men had been killed in the several camps in the last 25 days. Certainly a harder set of men were never congregated together before .... Every ranch of tent has whiskey for sale. Verily, men earn their money like horses and spend it like asses." 1

The existence of these scattered camps as well as the noted lack of water at Promontory may in part explain the town's slow birth. Furthermore, saloon owners reasoned that their clientele would soon be released when the rails were united and it would only be after that specific date that the railroad transfer trade at Promontory would become significant.

But Promontory did grow, and the best sources on this birth and development are the photographs taken on May 9 and 10 by Andrew J. Russell and Alfred A. Hart, Union Pacific and Central Pacific commissioned photographers respectively, as well as the shots taken by C.R. Savage.

Perhaps as many as six tent structures were standing at Promontory by dusk, May 9, including a ticket office. 2 Three of these six are visible in a May 9 photo (H-23), and two others may be hidden by the locomotive stack prominent in the same view. By noon, May 10, sixteen tents were standing and all can be seen in the photographic record. (For further discussion below, each tent has been numbered. Refer to the attached map for relative locations.) and two others may be hidden by the locomotive stack prominent in the same view.

H-23: Central Pacific locomotive from tender. Location: Promontory. Photographer: A.A. Hart, May 9, 1869. Union Pacific work train upper right.

By noon, May 10, sixteen tents were standing and all can be seen in the photographic record. (For further discussion below, each tent has been numbered.

Thirteen of the sixteen establishment tent sites can be located fairly precisely. Seven, Nos. 1-5 and 12-13, were positioned between the Union Pacific siding and the mainline (H-131 - H-207). HS-1 stood immediately to the south of the braced Central Pacific telegraph pole. HS-2 appears to be a common, small wall tent, about six feet high from ridge pole to ground. HS-3 shows a stove pipe extending from it. Both 2 and 3 may sleeping quarters. Because of the relative locations of HS-12 and 13 to the Union Pacific mainline, these structures may have been railroad establishments. Photographer Savage mentioned a ticket office, for instance, and the Union Pacific's telegraph operations would have required housing close to the wires. Furthermore, these tents, close to the tracks as they were, would have been suitably located for the flagging or dispatching of trains--a necessary function at the time.

H-131: Gap between UP and CP rails. Location: Promontory. Photographer: Savage or Russell May 10. 1869

H-207 Last Spike Site from Jupiter. Location: Promontory. Photographer: Russell. May 10, 1869. Shows soldiers of US Infantry.
The mainstreet of Promontory grew up on the north side of the mainline. On May 10 there were six tents, HS-6 through 11, on this side of the tracks. Only four of the six, HS-6 through 9, were situated in such a manner however, that suggested a centralization of businesses. HS-9 actually a two-tent structure with the smaller frame attached perpendicularly to the west side of the larger one (H-5). Extending the stenciling "S. Conner" on it (H-5 and H-23). The utilization of the "Conner" tent is not known.

H-5 Invocation, Last Spike Ceremony. Location: Promontory. Photographer: A.A. Hart

Immediately to the left of the "Conner" establishment is HS-8, the only positively identified bar tent. Clearly emblazoned above the doorway of this structure are the stenciled words "Red Cloud" (H-215). Historic accounts repeatedly suggest tent houses present for the sale of "Red Cloud," "Red Jacket" and "Blue Run." 3 Whether the wordings represent the name of an establishment or an indication of the libation to be purchased inside is a matter of conjuncture.

H-215 Assembling to lay the last rail. Location: Promontory. Photographer: Russell. May 10, 1869
HS-6 is the second and last positively identified May 10 Promontory tent (H-215). Draped over its doorway was a banner with the words "Restaurant" stenciled on it. Like HS-9, this "Restaurant" was a two-tent structure. In this instance, however, the second tent was positioned to the rear of the larger main tent. Perhaps the smaller tent served as sleeping quarters for general clientele. One contemporary account clearly describes a boarding house at Promontory before the completion ceremonies, although the reference mentions a circular tent rather than a rectangular one. 4 (No circular tents are visible in any of the Promontory photographs.) Between HS-6 and HS-8 stood a similar sized tent, use unknown.

HS-10 is close enough to be considered part of the Promontory main street scene. It was located to the northeast of the Last Spike Site. Its use is not known. Curiously, this tent may have been originally set closer to the "Connor" tent. In the May 9 photo (H-23) one tent is seen beyond the "Connor" sign, yet no tent can be seen in such a position in May 10 views. H-S 11 is another unidentified structure. It was located approximately opposite the probable telegraph-ticket tents.

Three additional tents, HS-14 through 16, are located in the far reaches of the Promontory setting (H-207.) HS-14 stood north of the mainline, perhaps on line with the present-day county road. HS-15 and 16 both stood on the south side of the mainline about opposite the Union Pacific siding switch.

Although one can positively identify the nature of only two tents, the "Red Cloud" saloon and the "Restaurant," and one can fairly accurately assume the presence and location of the Union Pacific's telegraph and ticket office, other historic records provide a frame of possibilities which allow interpreters to suggest the uses of other tents at Promontory. C.R. Savage, for instance, recorded on May 9 there were a half dozen tents and rum holes, all nine miles from water. 5 There is mention, already alluded to, of a boarding house in town. The DAILY SACRAMENTO BEE, on May 10, 1869 commented on eating houses and saloons. 6 The May 28 SAN FRANCISCO DAILY MORNING CHRONICLE recorded the presence of a few tents, the ticket houses of both companies, their telegraph offices, hordes of grasshoppers, and swarms of sand-fleas. 7 FRANK LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER on June 5 mentions fourteen tents for the sale of "Red Cloud" and "Blue Run" evenly distributed on each side of the track. 8

On May 10 then, it is quite likely that some of the unidentified structures housed saloons, the Central Pacific's telegraph and ticketing operation, and a boarding house or two. And as the town grew in the ensuing weeks there was a great proliferation of bars and hell holes, and probably not much more.

1. Mayer and Vose, Makin' Tracks, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975, p. 189.

2. "Savage Diary," Notes on Promontory, Vol. 1, p. 30.

3. Notes on Promontory, Vol. 1 p. 25; Vol. 2, p. 111.

4. Notes on Promontory, Vol. 2, p. 237.

5. "Savage Diary," Notes on Promontory, Vol. 1, p. 30.

6. Notes on Promontory, Vol. 2, p. 108.

7. Notes on Promontory, Vol. 2, p. 107.

8. Notes on Promontory, Vol. 1, p. 25.