A single determined individual can make a remarkable difference. When it comes to commemorating Utah's past, few people made more of a contribution than Bernice Anderson, whose tenacity and persistence helped create the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
Friday, thousands of railroad buffs will gather for the 30th time to celebrate the joining of the rails at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met to create the transcontinental railroad.
Bernice Gibbs was born Aug. 5, 1900, and spent most of her life in Corinne, "the Berg on the Bear." Married at 18, she raised six children and reported on Box Elder County for The Salt Lake Tribune. A devoted historian, Anderson considered the desolation at Promontory Summit a national scandal. The historic spot was so poorly marked with a "lonely cement pyramid" that one visitor complained he could build a better monument in his back yard.
"It is the most neglected historical spot in our land," Bernice said. She wrote hundreds of letters to Congress, the president and Park Service officials to convince them to make Promontory a national historic monument. The question of why the Park Service was not doing more to preserve and promote the site had no answer, Bernice wrote. "At least not acceptable to me."
Many of the visitors to the forgotten spot would ask why Promontory had not been made a national monument. Others, Bernice said, asked "What! No beer?" Anderson was president of the Golden Spike Association when it began holding annual re-enactment ceremonies at Promontory on May 10, 1952.
"This is sacred soil, dedicated to the sacrifices of the thousands who labored in the great race to build the first transcontinental railway," she said in 1957. "Will it take its rightful place in the heritage and traditions of America, preserved and protected by a grateful government, or will it remain desolate and forgotten to sink into oblivion?"
Former National Park Service Historian Robert Utley recalls visiting Promontory in a battered government truck to evaluate the spot with Anderson in January 1960. Utley was astonished at the emptiness of the snow-covered hills and prairie surrounding the summit, which is actually flat.
"There was nothing there," he recalled. The track had been scrapped during World War II, leaving little evidence of the railroad. But nearby, the bed of the old road ran across the desert through cuts and fills, including the Big Fill where in two months 500 Mormon workers dumped 10,000 cubic yards of dirt to cross 500 feet of a 70-foot-deep valley.
On the way back to Brigham City, the truck slid off the icy road. Utley told Bernice, "I'm afraid you'll have to sit in the back if we're going to get out of here." It worked, and Anderson convinced Utley that Promontory was indeed a historic spot. Promontory "made the first serious and permanent breech in the frontier and established the process by which the entire frontier was to be demolished," Utley wrote. "Promontory Summit best illustrates the historical meaning, as well as the dramatic construction story, of the first transcontinental railroad."
Promontory became a national historic site under private ownership in 1957.
On July 30, 1965, Anderson finally won her battle when Congress agreed to make Promontory Summit a federal site with full funding. Anderson died in 1981, but thousands of dedicated railroaders will meet Friday to celebrate the 133rd anniversary of the driving the Golden Spike. Each one owes thanks to a dedicated and persistent woman, Bernice Gibbs Anderson.
Historian Robert Utley alerted author Will Bagley to Bernice Anderson's accomplishments.