Steve Cottrell: William Garratt’s golden role in history |

Steve Cottrell: William Garratt’s golden role in history

By Steve Cottrell | Special to The Union

In the summer of 1850, when 20-year-old William Garratt dipped a pan in Deer Creek, he had no way of knowing that he would later manufacture one of the most famous gold objects in American history.

As a teenager, he worked alongside his father, who owned a brass foundry in Cincinnati. But when he heard about gold in California, he left Ohio, arriving in San Francisco on July 20, 1850. From there, he took a steamboat to Sacramento, then headed up into the mountains.

“When I made my first trip from Sacramento to Nevada City,” Garratt once wrote, “I was weighed and paid 12-1/2 cents a pound to ride there on a six-mule wagon, one of the conditions being I would walk up all the hills and help hold back the wagon on downgrades. There were eight or ten passengers,” he recalled, “and we all traveled on the same conditions.”

Foundry owner William Thompson Garratt (1829-1890) mined for gold on Deer Creek in 1850 and cast the Golden Spike in 1869.
Courtesy San Francisco Public Library

Garratt had modest success as a miner, but found that constant exposure to Deer Creek’s cold water was affecting his health, so he went to Sacramento for a month, then on to San Francisco where he could practice his trade as a foundryman. By 1852 he owned his own foundry, casting church and school bells, fire department bells, boat whistles, and most any other object that could be cast.

Although his stint as a pick-and-shovel miner was cut short for reasons of health, he never forgot his time here and, in 1885, presented Nevada County with a special gift — his role in history having been cemented 16 years earlier when a San Francisco building contractor named David Hewes asked Garratt to cast a gold railroad spike for California Gov. Leland Stanford to take with him for the Last Spike celebration in the Utah Territory.

The ceremony would mark completion of the transcontinental railroad and Hewes thought California should provide a special spike. Utah and Arizona were contributing commemorative spikes, as was a San Francisco newspaper publisher, but Hewes wanted Garratt to create a spike that would, by its design and brilliance, be chosen as the Last Spike.

On May 10, 1869, when the Union Pacific from the East and Central Pacific from the West met at Promontory Summit and a ceremonial final tie was laid, (made of California Laurel), four dedicatory spikes were lightly tapped into pre-drilled holes, with the Golden Spike, cast by a former Nevada City miner, being the true Last Spike.

Now on display at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Art at Stanford University, the Golden Spike that formalized completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, was cast by former Nevada City pick-and-shovel miner William Garratt and gifted to the university in 1893 by its original benefactor, David Hewes.
Courtesy Cantor Center, Stanford University

As soon as the obligatory speeches ended, all spikes were removed, as was the tie, and Sanford returned to California with the Garratt-cast spike — now on display at Stanford University and a true national treasure. More recently, a second golden spike cast by Garratt for Hewes surfaced and is at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. Nearly identical to the one used at the 1869 ceremony, it had remained with Hewes in San Francisco and was not known about until his descendants assigned it to a dealer in 2005.

Garratt, however, did more than cast gold railroad spikes, brass boat whistles and bronze church bells. He invested heavily in Bay Area real estate, belonged to several San Francisco fraternal and charitable organizations, and served in the state Senate from 1870-74. In 1886 he was the Republican Party’s choice for mayor of San Francisco, but was out of town the night he was nominated. When he returned home and learned what had happened, he quickly withdrew his name from consideration.

Garratt developed an innovative process for repairing cracked bells, and in 1875 volunteered to repair the Liberty Bell in advance of the nation’s 1876 centennial — provided Philadelphia would ship it to Garratt’s San Francisco foundry. He wanted to repair the crack, then have the bell ceremoniously dipped in the Pacific Ocean before returning it to Independence Hall. To his dismay, the offer was turned down.

In August 1885, in conjunction with the Nevada County Fair, Garratt donated a brass starter’s bell for the Glenbrook Park race track. In coming here for the presentation, he recalled his summer as a Deer Creek miner. “The time was 1850,” he said, “and little did any of the miners then imagine that Nevada City was destined to have such a prominent place in the history of our state.”

William Thompson Garratt, who holds his own prominent place in history — state and national — died in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1890, leaving behind a widow, five children and an estate valued at $1.5 million ($43 million in current buying power).

Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at


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