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Plaque to mark 'golden spike' spot

Almost 129 years after the "golden spike" was pounded in the Ashland rail yard, joining north and south lines and putting an end to bumpy stage coach rides, the historic event is finally being commemorated at noon Thursday with a handsome plaque bolted to a giant rock.

There won’t be any northbound and southbound trains meeting and popping champagne corks, just a few speeches by members of historic and parks commissions, a little city band music — and a smiling Dan Merrill, a train buff who made it all happen and, coincidentally, is celebrating 30 years working for the city Parks & Recreation department on the same day.

Merrill eight years ago found the perfect boulder for the plaque, left over from the ’97 flood and stored in the gravel pit above Winburn Way. He tried over the years to get the Parks Commission interested in a Golden Spike monument, he says, but made no headway till current “history loving” members got behind it.

Merrill ordered the bronze plaque cast by a foundry in New York for $540 and paid for half of it himself. The nonprofit Ashland Heritage Commission paid for the rest. The city invested $1,500 in landscaping and stonework, part of it donated by the Medford Garden Railroad Club, of which Merrill is a member.

It was the towering, convoluted Siskiyou Mountains that posed the obstacle to connection of north-south lines and a continuous loop around the nation. Lines came to Ashland from the north and to Siskiyou County from the south in 1884, but it took three more years to lay track and bore 14 tunnels through the mountain range, he says.

The golden spike was pounded with a silver hammer at 5:04 p.m., Dec. 17, 1887, by bank magnate Charles Crocker, millionaire founder of the Central Pacific Railroad. It was dark by that time of day, so no photos of the event survive. It was slated to happen at noon, but a freight car blocked a tunnel, says Merrill. Telegraph was hooked up reaching all parts of the nation, so the glorious news was flashed to all and “after that, Ashland really took off.”

The nation’s east-west rail line was completed at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, in 1869, with a much bigger golden spike ceremony.

The plaque commemorating the Ashland ceremony that will be dedicated Thursday says: “Ashland, OR. California & Oregon linked at last. At this location on December 17, 1887 at 5:04 p.m. the golden spike was symbolically driven by Charles Crocker of the Southern Pacific Railroad. This final connection completed freight and passenger service around the nation.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony affixing the plaque takes place at noon Thursday at 748 A St., at 8th Street on the east end of Railroad Park, by the bike path, with remarks by Parks & Recreation director Michael Black, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Jim Lewis and Taylor Leonard of the city Historic Commission. The city band played at the original golden spike ceremony, five city band members will play at this event. There will be refreshments.

Rail lines through Ashland were silent since 2008, but Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad restarted freight rail service in 2015. The railroad received an award for Excellence in Historic Preservation from the city of Ashland this spring for refurbishing and reopening the Siskiyou Line.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.