Golden Spike Monument in Council Bluffs

The Golden Spike Monument in Council Bluffs, Iowa was once a very big deal… as in national attention deal.

What’s it like today?

I drove up to the monument on a cold winter morning and pulled into the empty parking lot. There are a few train tracks nearby. The only thing that stands out is the sign across the street welcoming you to the Golden Spike Trailer Park. Today it certainly doesn’t feel like any deal at all, let alone a big deal. It only takes a few minutes to check it out, so I got out of the car to walk over and found just a few signs of information and a really large concrete spike that was painted.

Signage welcoming you to the Golden Spike Monument in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The plaque on the spike reads “Council Bluffs – Eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad”

What’s the story then? why was it a big deal?

Council Bluffs and Omaha have always had this ongoing feud about who claims the Union Pacific. In fact, the argument was part of an 1875 Supreme Court case where they debated just that topic. Despite the fact that the legislation from Abraham Lincoln denotes Council Bluffs as the starting point, Omaha certainly has claims on the Union Pacific headquarters.

In 1939, Cecil DeMille released the movie “Union Pacific” and launched its premiere in Omaha. Of course, Council Bluffs didn’t want to be left out of the party. Their contribution was to build a concrete spike that was 100 times larger than the original spike used to finish the transcontinental railroad back in 1869.

The Golden Spike was designed by city engineer Jack Boyne. Apparently, it was built at the very last moment, just before the launch of the movie. It took fourteen days, working night and day, for five men to complete the 56-foot tall concrete structure. The city even provided lighting so construction could continue around the clock. When the power went out one night, they called in police offers who used their lights to enable the painters to finish in time. A local company donated 250 yards of white cloth to cover the spike for the unveiling.

As the dedication ceremony arrived, the Union Pacific sold thousands of period costume dresses and bonnets, as they encouraged individuals to dress in the period costumes from 1869 when the real golden spike finalized the railroad. Men were also encouraged to grow a beard and/or mustache for the event. In fact, the local school district closed for two days so that families could attend the dedication ceremony and the release of the movie.

YouTube video
The two-minute trailer for the 1939 movie “Union Pacific”

The dedication was held on April 28, 1939, and was attended by over 15,000 people. The producer, Cecil DeMille attended and spoke at the dedication. DeMille said that he expected the spike to last for at least 100 years – and so far he’s been right. The Hollywood movie crews were also present at the dedication and their footage was added to the newsreels that were shown to audiences nationwide just prior to the movie – giving Council Bluffs their few seconds of fame across the nation.

Back in 1955, they talked about moving the spike to a better location, but nothing happened. Today, the spike sits exactly where it was dedicated in 1939.

Address: 9th Ave., Council Bluffs, IA

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