Dr. Bekker and Geography Team’s Findings Create Richer History of the Transcontinental Railroad

Photo by Paul Jarvis on Unsplash

Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike that linked the east and west branches of the Transcontinental Railroad together in Promontory, Utah. In honor of the event, the Utah State History and Antiquities Office (USHAO) asked Professor Matt Bekker of the BYU geography department to sample some of the railroad’s trestles and ties. By identifying the species of trees used to build the bridges and identify their cutting dates the USHAO hopes to bring to life a more detailed history of the Transcontinental Railroad.

In order to determine the species and dates of the trees, Bekker and his team took samples from six trestles and eight crossties along 87 miles of the railroad, located west of the Golden Spike. They also included samples of materials from former railroad towns that have transformed into ghost towns, including a remnant of an ornamental tree planted in Terrace, Utah, and three posts from a bunkhouse situated in Matlin, Utah. Taking these samples, Bekker and his team analyzed their wood and cell characteristics in order to identify the species of trees they each belong to.

So what is the historic significance of the tree species used in these settings? Bekker reported that “the most interesting finding so far was that some of the samples were from redwood trees,” and because these trees are only located in California in the U.S., it means that the workers must have been conveying the redwood “by rail and using it to extend the line as they went.”  All the trestles were made of either redwood or Douglas-fir, which Bekker notes, “[are] still used in construction today.” They also found that the decorative tree from Terrace was a popular tree, which was an “unusual choice for the west desert” because it requires a lot of water, but “water was known to have been piped in for miles.”

Another discovery that enhances the story of the Transcontinental Railroad is that ties and bunkhouses were made from a variety of species. This means that these materials were selected with less care and preference. Bekker explains that whatever material was readily available was most likely used. Ties did not last long anyway, but Bekker believes that “the hodgepodge of samples from the bunkhouse also suggests that the housing conditions for the laborers, many of them Chinese, were less than ideal.”

These findings create a richer history of the Transcontinental Railroad for generations to come. Bekker also notes that this study is preliminary, and that further work will be done to compare wood used in the east versus wood used in the west of the Golden Spike. To learn more, read the abstract.