Visitors increase at Golden Spike, Steamtown

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'Jupiter' and No. 119 replicas recreate the 1869 ceremony at the Golden Spike National Historic Park in Utah.
Jim Wrinn
PROMONTORY, Utah – More than 38,000 people made the pilgrimage to the Utah desert in three days in May to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike that completed the First Transcontinental Railroad. The crowd gathered at Promontory over the May 10 weekend was nearly four times larger than the number of people who come to Golden Spike National Historic Park during the course of a normal month.

While visitation to the park has since returned to something closer to normal – in July, more than 11,000 people went to Promontory – it appears the excitement about the sesquicentennial is continuing to drive people to the park. In fact, visitation to the park is up 12% this year when compared to 2018. And Golden Spike is not alone. The National Park Service’s other railroad themed park, Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa., has seen an 8.5% increase in visitation this year.

Both parks appear to be bucking a trend of flat visitation numbers across the park service. According to unverified numbers released by the NPS earlier this month, visitation across the entire park system is down 1.14 percent, or 2.1 million people. Sources close to the Park Service’s Visitor Use Statistics Program say it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why visitation is flat across the country, although it might represent a return to normal following two record-breaking years in 2016 and 2017, which included a big push to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the park service.

Leslie Crossland, superintendent of Golden Spike, says it can be difficult to determine exactly what causes spikes in visitation. In fact, while this year visitation is up more than 12%, it’s nothing compared to 2015 when visitation increased by 33% in just one year.

Crossland says visitation can vary wildly from year to year. For example, last year more than 60,000 people came to the park, but the previous year visitation was over 67,000. The busiest year in the park’s history was in 1969, when more than 169,000 people came to celebrate the First Transcontinental Railroad centennial.

Crossland says regardless of how many people come, her focus is ensuring visitors have a good time when they visit. “We strive to provide an excellent experience for visitors,” she says.

William Fischer, chief of visitor services and resource management at Steamtown, says he believes a number of factors are contributing to an increase in visitation at that park. Besides excitement about railroads thanks to the 150th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike, Fischer believes people are coming to Steamtown to see Big Boy No. 4012, a sibling to the recently restored Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 No. 4014.

“I have noted an increase in requests for information about our ‘Big Boy,’” Fischer says.

From January through July, more than 61,400 people have visited Steamtown, up from 56,567 in 2018. In 2017, nearly 104,000 people came to Steamtown, the first time the park had broken the 100,000 visitation mark in five years. Last year, it was back down to 97,950. The park’s busiest year came in 1995 when more than 200,000 people came to celebrate its grand opening.
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