by Tim Gurrister, Utah Life
Keith Buswell was as excited as any boy might be 50 years ago at the prospect of meeting movie icon John Wayne.
It was 1969, the same year as Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance in True Grit. He was a superstar, admired across the country for his steely demeanor, everyman appeal and a long string of hit Western movies. Everybody called him “Duke.”
Box Elder County, Utah, had lured him in as the headliner for the 100th anniversary celebration of the driving of the Golden Spike. To a young boy, John Wayne was probably far more interesting than the distant historic event they were recognizing. The historic event was the May 10, 1869, completion of the first transcontinental railroad, which immediately transformed transport across the United States from a matter of months to a matter of days. A 17.6-carat gold railroad spike was the ceremonial final spike driven by officials congregated for the iconic moment.
But fast-forward to 1969 and Keith Buswell, of Ogden, whose Boy Scout troop was assigned to serve as ushers for the commemoration, greeting dignitaries as they arrived at Promontory Summit, and the Golden Spike National Historic Site, for the festivities. One of the highlights of Buswell’s young life was to open the door and find a waiting John Wayne.
“All of a sudden, there he was,” Buswell recalled. “He was like royalty for me. Bigger than life.”
Literally, as well as figuratively: “He was taller than any of the 13 Utah Highway Patrol Troopers who made up his entourage.”
The sesquicentennial of the Golden Spike arrives next May 10, 2019, and Spike 150 party planners predict it will be 2.5 times bigger than the 100th, with 50,000 visitors expected. That’s roughly the current population of Box Elder County.
The Golden Spike National Historic Site attracted more than 20,000 people to the remote patch of Box Elder County on the 100th. Perry residents still recall the traffic on U.S. Highway 89 backed up to Perry, all the way from Brigham City 4 miles away – with Promontory Summit 32 miles beyond that. Come May, Northern Utah looks forward to being overrun again. Organizers plan on building a tent city ala television’s Hell on Wheels, displaying period rail cars, and unveiling a new documentary and rail-related performances. Across the state, 150 events are being planned to celebrate the 150th anniversary.
Norm Nelson, of Perry, missed the 100th birthday (“I was in Vietnam. My boss wouldn’t give me the day off.”), but he’s been involved with the Golden Spike site since returning home. As president of the Box Elder Golden Spike Association, he’ll definitely attend the sesquicentennial.
Nelson grew up in the Devil’s Slide area of Weber Canyon, fascinated by the steam engines huffing up and down the canyon. He has memories of when trains still traveled through Promontory. “That was until the ‘undriving’ of the spike,” Nelson said, “beginning in 1942 when they tore up the tracks there because they needed the metal for the war effort.”
The elaborate plans for the sesquicentennial, including performances by The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Utah Symphony, are being announced in increments. (To keep up with the Spike 150 scheduled events. visit spike150.org.)
The Tabernacle Choir/Symphony tribute on the evening of May 10 will be at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center in Salt Lake City, however, rather than at Promontory Summit, because of the expense involved. Plans initially put the concert at Promontory Summit. But, as Nelson says: “One good dusty wind like we get out there would have shut it down.”
Note: This story originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Utah Life. To subscribe, visit utahlifemag.com/shop or call 801-921-4585.< Back to All Articles