What U.S. Flag Flew Over the Golden Spike Ceremony?

Modern Photograph of Locomotives “Jupiter” and “119” Flanking Telegraph Pole Flying the U.S. Flag

What U.S. Flag Flew?

by John M. Hartvigsen

The Stars & Stripes flew over Promontory Summit when the Golden Spike joined the East with the West, but . . .


Version of the 37-Star U.S. flag of 1869 usually depicted

Laborers and dignitaries gathered in the wilderness of Utah Territory’s Promontory Summit.  It was Monday, May 10th of 1869 as the crowd mobbed around rails and ties to celebrate the driving of ceremonial spikes made not of iron but of precious metals, silver & gold.

In joining the nation, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad ended an early phase of settling the West, when travel could only be made on foot, by horse or in wagons.

With the signal event of American history, a simple question comes to mind, what flags flew over the Golden Spike Ceremony?  However, the answer is not as simple.

  • Flags with thirty-seven stars symbolizing the then current thirty-seven states were official in 1869.
  • Flags with thirty-seven stars did not have a single official pattern and variations were common.
  • Flags with a lesser number of stars that had been official in earlier periods of U.S. history were often displayed.
  • Wind and early photography failed to give a clear image of the sole larger U.S. Flag flown on a telegraph pole.
  • Clear photographic images of small flags affixed to the locomotive “Jupiter” showed a star pattern unusual to the modern eye.

The only larger U.S. flag flown over the event appears to have been a twenty-star flag that would have become official in 1818.   According to a story, no one thought to bring a current thirty-seven star flag of appropriate size to fly over the ceremony.  However, a former Union Army officer had the twenty-star flag in his personal baggage.  So, the flag was a memento of that veteran’s Civil War service.

Twenty-star U.S. flag said to have flown over Golden Spike Ceremony

The smaller flags displayed on the locomotive “Jupiter” displayed the stars in a concentric ring pattern that was not uncommon during or in the years following the Civil War.  Still, the pattern dropped out of fashion before the end of the century, and star pattern with rows and columns is now so common that the circular star patterns seen odd.

It is thought likely that someone in the Central Pacific party of dignitaries brought the small flags specifically to decorate the “Jupiter.”

Pattern of 37-Star Flags displayed on the locomotive “Jupiter”

So, the Stars & Stripes flew over Promontory Summit when the Golden Spike joined the East with the West, but the rest of the story is a bit complicated.  Nevertheless, Old Glory did not miss that party.




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