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Thomas Hill was an English-born American painter of the Hudson River School who spent most of his productive life in California. He was highly successful in his day but, unfortunately, not one of the better-remembered painters of the era. Still, he’s responsible for one of the most enduring images or our early history, one that I remember well from a history class long ago, only recently learning who was responsible for creating it.

The image I refer to is The Driving of the Last Spike, a commemoration of the completion of our first transcontinental railroad in 1869. The painting is big, measuring 8 by 10 feet, so appropriate for the time when everything American was big, from our frontier to our ideas.

The Driving of the Last Spike (Thomas Hill, 1869)

It seems almost quaint that finishing a railroad line across the country would be such a huge deal but it was. The railroad cut travel time to the west coast from months to days. That’s hard to fathom considering that I can travel from Central Michigan to LA in less that 8 hours, including layovers.

The image I remember was a half-page illustration in a history book. I may have even been black and white. Still, it stayed with me this long because it represented to me a world well beyond my own little corner of creation, a world that suddenly seem reachable. I’ve seen a lot of that world now, and home seems less confining as a consequence.

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