150 Years of the Golden Spike: Tree-Ring Analysis of the Transcontinental Railroad in Utah's West Desert

Authors: Matthew Bekker*, Brigham Young University, Elizabeth Hora, Utah Division of State History, Christopher Merritt, Utah Division of State History
Topics: Biogeography, Mountain Environments, Transportation Geography
Keywords: Dendrochronology, tree-rings, Biogeography, Utah, archaeology, transportation
Session Type: Poster
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Lincoln 2, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: Download


In 1869 the Golden Spike was driven at Promontory, Utah, connecting the Transcontinental Railroad. In Utah’s west desert, the railroad stretched across multiple washes and ravines, which required the construction of trestles. The goal of this project was to determine the potential to identify the species used for some of the trestles and crossties in this region, as well as the provenance of the timbers. We took cross-section and core samples from 5 trestles and 10 crossties at four stops along the railroad west of Promontory. After analysis of gross cell anatomy characteristics, two of the trestle samples were identified as redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), while the other three were Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga spp.). The species of the crossties were more varied, including two Douglas-fir and multiple species of pine (Pinus) and Douglas-fir. Additionally, we sampled a remnant of a broadleaf deciduous tree planted in the railroad community of Terrace, as well as three samples from bunkhouses in the community of Matlin, to determine the species. The Terrace tree was determined to belong to the genus Populus, a surprising finding given its water-demanding habit, but it is a commonly planted genus in the Intermountain West both in the past and more recently. The three samples from Matlin were all from different species, indicating little preference in wood choice for both the ties and structures. Work is ongoing to identify the provenance of the samples.

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