Artifacts on Display at the Utah State Capitol Building, January–June 2019

On loan from the Golden Spike National Historic Site

Marbles (2)

Northern Utah was a place with limited entertainment in the 1860s, and the men and women who followed the railroad to Utah had little free time. Many of them entertained themselves in their few free hours by playing with marbles like these, which they often shaped by hand out of clay or stone. This set of marbles was found in the desert around the Golden Spike National Monument and may have belonged to one of the railroad employees or to a family who settled in the surrounding town after the railroad was complete. Although the town is no longer, mementos like these are a reminder that people of all ages were affected by the railroad. On loan from the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

Domino (1)

Another popular form of entertainment was dominos, especially among the Chinese workers on the railroad. Railroad workers often gambled on their games of dominos, contributing to the negative reputation of hell-on-wheels towns. Especially in the winter months, when men were living and working under the snow or stone for most of the day, dominos were one of very few entertainment options. This domino is in relatively good shape and was found near the Golden Spike National Monument, in the remains of a town that quickly grew and then died as railroad fortunes shifted. On loan from the Golden Spike National Historic Site. 

Broken link and pin coupler Link and pin coupler

In the 1860s, train cars were held together by link and pin couplers like these. One of the more dangerous jobs on the railroad was that of the engineers who had to connect the train cars to one another. They risked losing fingers and even whole hands because the pins had to be dropped into the links at just the right moment. Here are some broken links from the transcontinental railroad. They are a testament to the power of the locomotives and the danger of this work. On loan from the Golden Spike National Historic Site. 

Pick head

Before the invention of power tools, railroad workers used picks like this one to loosen the earth so it could be shoveled away. As this artifact demonstrates, tools often broke during construction and needed replacements. They often broke during construction, like this one did, and needed to be replaced. When the workers from Utah were hired to work on the railroad, the Union Pacific Railroad did not send enough of these tools, so the workers often brought them from home, where they had been used in farm work. On loan from the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

Railroad spike

Hundreds of thousands of spikes like this one were used in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In 1868, the Central Pacific suppliers were short on iron and were unable to send enough spikes to the construction site, delaying the project for days. To construct the railroad, spikes were driven into wooden ties, holding the rails onto the ties were pulled up and replaced after several years. Many spikes from this era were left on the ground where Utahns often find them. On loan from the Golden Spike National Historic Site. 

Piece of rail

There were thousands of miles of rail like this on the transcontinental railroad in 1869. This particular piece of rail was pulled out of the ground near the Golden Spike Monument site. In some cases, after construction was finished, something would happen to shear off a part of a rail and the metal would bend, cutting into the train car and injuring anyone standing nearby. This was especially true on parts of the track that had been hastily constructed in the rush to reach Utah. On loan from the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

Spoon and knife Spoon and knife detail
Look closely at the blade of the knife and you may be able to see the maker’s imprint. 

Meal arrangements along the railroad varied widely: in some cases, the company would provide food in a mess hall as part of the workers’ salary; at other times, the men were expected to fend for themselves. There were restaurants as well as saloons in hell-on-wheels towns. Many wives and daughters who travelled with the railroad workers made their own living by providing food to dozens of hungry men. This was especially true for the crews in Utah, where saloons were uncommon. Men were expected to have their own set of eating utensils, including a bowl or plate, cup, knife, fork, and spoon. With so many people eating every day, it’s no wonder that these utensils were left behind and later found in the remains of a work site. On loan from the Golden Spike National Historic Site. 

Medicine Bottle (4) Opium tin lid (1)

Chinese merchants would follow the railroad camps, bringing opium and other medicines as well as food and products from home to sell to the workers. This little bottle features a label in Chinese and was found near the Golden Spike memorial. The lid belonged to a medicine container as well. 

Beer bottle (2)

Hell-on-wheels towns were famous for their alcohol. Utahns originally feared that these towns would bring a variety of problems to their state, including alcohol, which members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were strongly discouraged from using. The Christian Moerlein Brewing Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, produced this bottle. The long-term effect of the railroad on the alcohol industry was fairly minimal, but there were certainly many bottles emptied along the road. On loan from the Golden Spike National Historic Site. 

Pickle bottle (1)

Railroad workers mostly consumed preserved foods during their work on the road since they had to carry it with them as they travelled through the country or had it shipped from long distances. Especially when they were working in Nevada and Utah, fresh food supplies were hard to come by. Pickles were a popularly preserved food at the time since they could easily be stored in their vinegar and were made to last long enough to get to the end of the line. This pickle bottle was found along the railroad in Utah, left behind as evidence of a worker’s snack.