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Thomas Hill’s “Last Spike” has been attracting its crowds of curious visitors for the last two weeks. It might continue to draw equally well for the coming fortnight, did not inexorable fate, which directs all such important matters, and the desire of the Solons of Sacramento to gaze upon its beauties, render it necessary to fold the broad canvas, and express it, with its group of railroad magnates, into the midst of the flooded district.

We would be loth to say that Mr. Hill has been negligent in the gathering of historic material. As a general thing, he has been wonderfully accurate in his collecting of important facts, and has shown marvelous taste and skill in translating them into color and form. A few things, however, have escaped his attention, and as they are personal to ourselves we cannot forbear to mention them. We alluded last week to one case of forgetfulness in that he had not given to Frederick Marriott the credit of having presented the last spike. We now wish to remind the public of a circumstance of even greater moment, which, though remembered by some, has, during an unusually busy decade, been effaced from the memories of many by Time’s remorseless fingers, to wit: that from Mr. Marriott’s lips fell the words of the prayer that immediately preceded the three taps of the silver hammer on the last spike.

We would very much regret to claim any honor that is not our own, but we do not hesitate to state that the accounts of the presence and official interference of the Rev. Dr. Todd on this occasion are as mythical as that gentleman’s literary achievements. It was to give to the occasion an added solemnity that, at the suggestion of the real chaplain, the nearest telegraph pole was arranged in the form of a cross, and that the Hon. A. A. Sargent was painted with a prayer book in his hand, which he afterwards clapped into his pocket that it might not embarrass his erect and manly attitude. There is nothing, we may observe in passing, more important than to keep history and romance apart in art a well as literature.

We have already described with critical fidelity the salient points of the painting, but new features strike the observer at every visit. Close inspection of the locality at the left, where stimulants are retailed, reveals the word “saloon,” done in the highest style of pioneer sign-board art. The disconsolate individual in light clothing, who in irreverently neglecting the prayer of Chaplain Marriott, has been beguiled by the sportive Bedouin of the desert into a losing fight with the form of the “tiger” called the strap game, takes so little interest in the subsequent proceedings that he does not even care for a cigar, pressed upon him by the nut-brown squaw, whose desire for gain has been cultivated to a high degree of refinement by contact with the whites.

The gold spike was a massive bauble of bullion, worth four hundred dollars, and it was known at the time that effort would be made by lawless men of the Plains to get possession of it on account of its intrinsic worth. These attempts were, fortunately, thwarted by the watchfulness of the police, and by the thoughtfulness of Governor Stanford, who attached to it a microscopic wire, after the manner of shrewd urchins who, on the first of April, are wont to expose in plain view on the sidewalk packages ostensibly precious, which through the agency of a surreptitious cord, glide into an adjacent area the moment the avaricious pedestrian stoops to examine them. Of course this is comparing great things with small, but we follow the essential modes of the critic and logician. Several groups of thieving conspirators are seen in close conversation in different parts of the canvas, and two Indians, who distinctly remember their waylaying overland stagecoaches, and their tying now and then a pony expressman to a tree for a little harmless tomahawk practice, have their heads together and are evidently plotting the rape of the spike, which means to them unlimited whisky and tobacco, and infinitesimal sentiment.

Thus far the great canvas has escaped the serious accidents to which such valuable works of art are liable. It has not, however, been free from danger. One day last week the reflector escaped from its moorings near the ceiling, and swooped toward the canvas like a huge hawk. Or bat, or eagle, bent on destruction. First it seems to bode malicious mischief to Governor Stanford; then hovering on the right, it threatened Charles Crocker’s capacious brain, afterward approaching his more capacious stomach like the sword of a Japanese official about to commit hari-kari. After this, taking a turn to the left, it attempted to behead the historically inaccurate clergyman, and finally ended its alarming gyrations by penetrating the skull of the Indian cigar-seller, and clipping off the nose of the gambler standing near her. Mr. Hill, who is not unskilled in surgery of this kind, quietly repaired damages, and the public was no wiser.

The picture, in which we have taken so deep an interest, will go to Sacramento on Tuesday, and on Wednesday evening be exhibited in the Assembly chamber at Governor Perkins’ reception. It is certain to be admired, but whether in these days of freshet, debris and detritus the sage legislators will do so wise a thing as to make an appropriation to purchase it and give the State Capitol a brilliant and suitable ornament is at yet uncertain. But even an invitation to exhibit it, signed by the Governor and chief officers of the State, is a worthy compliment to a true gentlemen and admirable artist.

San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser
February 12, 1881

Thomas Hill’s great historical painting, entitled “THE LAST SPIKE,”
and representing the ceremonies observed at the completion of the
overland railway.

San Francisco Newsletter and California Advertiser
February 5, 1881

History of the last spike