Railroads in Little Cottonwood Canyon
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This page was last updated on June 16, 2013.
The Little Cottonwood branch was built in 1872-1873 as a 3-feet narrow gauge line by the Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railway. W&JV was controlled by D&RG after 1881. The 1937 D&RGW branchline summary shows that the line above the granite quarries went out of operation in the 1880s, suggesting that the mines at Alta had played out. The rails likely remained in place, explaining the interest in 1902-1907 (below) about the horse tramway along the same route.
From Clarence Reeder:
The Wasatch and Jordan Valley Railroad did not remain in existence long after the consolidation of 1879. The road, as may be seen from the financial statements, was able to show a profit after expenses and interest payments on its bonds through 1878. In 1879, however, the mines of Alta on which the road was dependent for its income began to fail. Income during 1879, 1880 and 1881 was large enough to meet operating expenses; but interest on bonds could not be paid, and foreclosure action was taken in August of 1881. The road was sold to the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad on December 31, 1881. The portion of the road between Sandy and Alta was closed sometime in the 1880's because of the failure of the mines, but the Sandy to Bingham portion was made standard gauge and remained in profitable operation until the 1950's.
General description of branch, from the 1937 D&RGW Branchline summary:
- LITTLE COTTONWOOD BRANCH - SALT LAKE DIVISION
- 3.41 Miles
- Purchased narrow gauge 1881
- Standard gauged to Sandy 1890 - to Wasatch 1913.
- The upper part of the branch from Sandy to Wasatch was built by the Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railroad Company in 1873 and extended to Alta in 1876, primarily to reach the rich gold mines at Alta, bringing the ores from those mines to the old smelter at Sandy. Soon after the construction of the branch, granite quarries were opened at Wasatch from which granite for the Mormon Temple and other important buildings was obtained. While the narrow gauge track was built from Wasatch to Alta, it was found impossible to operate the upper part of the line successfully with steam power, horses being substituted as motive power for operating the track as a tramway from Wasatch to Alta.
- In 1881, the branch and tramway were acquired by our predecessor, The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway Company, but operation of the upper part of the branch was soon discontinued.
- The lower part, from Midvale to Sandy, was originally a part of Bingham Canon and Camp Floyd Railroad which was acquired by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway Company in 1881.
- After many years of inoperative ownership, during which the upper part of the branch was leased to the Little Cottonwood Transportation Company; the track was removed above Sand Pit in 1934.
- The rail in this line is 90 pound, laid in 1937. It is on natural dirt and sand.
- There are approximately 3,200 ties per mile, 90 percent of which are treated.
- Maximum grade 4.2 percent.
- Maximum curvature 16 degrees.
- The only natural resource of any consequence remaining on this branch is a sand and gravel pit located at Sand Pit, Utah. A movement of ore and concentrates from points adjacent to the branch has been discontinued, with no possibility of movement in the future.
- The Ideal Sand Company, located at Sand Pit, Utah, ships sand, gravel and engine sand. During the year of 1937, 50 cars of commercial sand and gravel, and 267 cars of engine sand for the Union Pacific Railroad were shipped from Sand Pit. At Sandy, Utah, we have one coal and lumber dealer and one retail gas and oil dealer.
- Irregular service - operated as required - average service about one trip per week which is made by the "Ping-Pong" crew. This crew handles all industry work at Sugar House, between Roper and Midvale, and on Little Cottonwood Branch.
- Our conclusions are that that portion of the branch beyond the spur serving the Superior Oil Company at Mile Post 1.4 be abandoned. (Mile Post 1.4 was east of the UP/D&RGW gantlet crossing of State Street, and west of the crossing of UP at Sandy.)
In 1913, the Utah State Board of Equalizations showed three separate parts of the Little Cottonwood Branch:
- 4.00 miles assessed at $1,000 per mile (Midvale to Sand Pit, used regularly);
- 6.16 miles assessed at $500 per mile (Sand Pit to Wasatch, used irregularly);
- 7.76 miles assessed at $300 per mile (identified as the Alta tramway, out of service).
Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railroad
Midvale to Wasatch (1872-1882)
Sandy to Wasatch (narrow gauge) operated as Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railway
Midvale to Wasatch (1882-1913 and 1917-1933)
Midvale to Sandy (standard gauge) and Sandy to Alta (narrow gauge) operated as D&RGW's Little Cottonwood Branch
Wasatch & Jordan Valley became part of a consolidation with its sister railroad, Bingham Canyon & Camp Floyd Railroad, from a shared terminal at Midvale and the mines in Bingham Canyon. According to Clarence Reeder, soon after D&RGW took control of the consolidated railroads in 1881, the mines at Alta began to fail and that portion of W&JV above the granite quarries at Wasatch was removed from service.
However, it must be noted that according to a D&RGW branch line summary, and as part of its overall surveying effort for its entire line in Utah, D&RGW completed a complete survey of the entire 16.7 miles of line from Sandy to Alta in November 1882. A filing map was accepted by the U. S. Land Office on September 14, 1883. Further, in September 1925, D&RGW later provided, and the Land Office accepted, a formal proof of construction. (U. S. Interstate Commerce Commission, Valuation Report, Denver and Rio Grande, pp. 806, 896, 901; Robert v. Sloan, ed., Utah Gazetteer and Directory of Logan. Ogden, Provo, and Salt Lake Cities for 1884, pp. 107, 110; J. Cecil Alter, Utah the Storied Domain, 1932, pp. 498, 499.)
The Alta Tramway
Wasatch to Alta (1875-1900)
June 24, 1875
"The Wasatch and Jordan Valley railroad has changed hands, the owners of the Bingham Canyon and Camp Floyd road having purchased the stock and taken possession of the former line. The new owners have already put a force of graders at work on the proposed tramway from the terminus of the road, Fairfield Flat, to Alta; and the order for the rolling stock for the extension has been given." (Salt Lake Herald, June 24, 1875)
June 26, 1875
"The Wasatch & Jordan Valley railroad has been purchased by the Bingham Canyon railroad company, which is now engaged in constructing a tramway or horse railroad from the end of the Wasatch and Jordan Valley railroad to [Alta]. It will be pushed to a speedy completion,..." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, June 26, 1875)
August 18, 1875
Tracklaying on the W. & J. V. tramway has reached Tannersville, and there is enough iron on hand to reach Alta. (Salt Lake Herald, August 18, 1875)
September 4, 1875
"Little Cottonwood Tramway" Item reports that it is rapidly nearing completion to end at Alta; the grade is complete to Central, and track is but 1-1/2 miles from Alta, and will likely be completed by the end of next week. (Salt Lake Herald, September 4, 1875)
September 14, 1875
"Alta by Rail", completion of the tramway that joins Alta with the terminus of the W&JV, opened on Sunday last, the 12th. "Several passenger cars for the tramway are now on the way from the east, and it is expected will soon be put upon the road." C. W. Scofield plans to put a shed over the entire eight miles, at an estimated cost of 60 or 70 thousand dollars. "It is not many weeks ago that he became the owner of the W. & J. V. ..." (Salt Lake Herald, September 14, 1875)
October 25, 1875
A report of a considerable wreck on "the tramway of the Wasatch and Jordan Valley Railroad, which extends from Fairfield Flat to Alta." It seems that a brakeman on a descending car thought that his brakes would not hold, so he jumped off the car, which promptly took off like a shot, crashing into other cars, mules (killing four of them) and finally ending by pushing the remains of cars, mules and freight out the side of the snowshed. The brakeman took up work elsewhere. (Deseret Evening News, October 25, 1875)
April 8, 1876
The Alta tramway opened up, partially, on the 6th, as far as Tannersville. The first passengers of the season rode up on the 7th. (Salt Lake Herald, April 8, 1876)
June 6, 1876
The Alta Tramway is cleared of snow and in use to Central City, or about 1/4 mile from (below) Alta depot. (Salt Lake Herald, June 6, 1876)
August 17, 1876
The Alta Tramway is being covered with a snowshed. (Salt Lake Herald, August 17, 1876)
January 10, 1877
"The horse tramway to Alta is again clear, and the cars running." (The Utah County Enquirer, Provo, January 10, 1877)
March 10, 1877
The Alta tramway is blocked by snow again; is the only road to Alta. (The Utah County Enquirer, Provo, March 10, 1877)
February 21, 1878
"About two hundred feet of the Alta tramway shed was swept away by a snow slide on Tuesday morning. Trains ran through from Wasatch yesterday, the passengers walking over the slide were taken to Alta on cars run down for that purpose." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, February 21, 1878)
August 2, 1878
"Alta in Ashes," as it burned yesterday. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, August 2, 1878)
January 1, 1880
A long letter on "Little Cottonwood," written from Alta, December 30, 1879; comments upon the quarries "...along the Wasatch and Jordan Valley Railroad. Passing onward, we soon come to a hotel and outbuildings designated as Wasatch. This is the terminus of steam navigation and here we change cars for Alta via the Tramway. This latter is a continuation of the narrow-gauge, and is a well-built and thoroughly ballasted road with steel rails and comfortable open seat cars, requiring for the upward trip a propelling force of almost three mule-power. For the downward passage, however, gravitation has to be held in check to keep the speed within the limit of safety. We soon enter the snow sheds, and are consequently debarred from viewing some of the most pleasing scenery in Utah." "Once within the snow sheds we wrap our patience as a mantle about us and imagine ourselves comfortable during our two-hours ride to Alta..." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, January 1, 1880)
April 21, 1881
The tramway to Alta is now open and doing business, the snow blockade being raised. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, April 21, 1881)
April 5, 1882
The Alta tramway, which has been closed all winter, will be opened again soon. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, April 5, 1882)
October 14, 1882
Considerable problem on the Alta Tramway - wind is repeatedly blowing down various parts of the snowshed. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, October 14, 1882)
December 29, 1882
"The Alta Tramway." "The Tribune this morning states that "the mining men and citizens of Alta complain because the railroad company have shut them off from civilization" by closing down the tramway between that camp and Wasatch. In conversation with a Chronicle representative this morning, Mr. Lamborn, assistant general passenger and freight agent of the D.& R. G. road, said he knew of no good reason for complaint on the part of anyone at Alta. It is usual to close down the tramway during the winter months, and the mining and business men of Alta fully expected that the road would be shut down this season. At present there is no ore to be sent down ... and ..., it is hard to see how any reasonable person could expect the tramway to be kept open. Besides, experience has fully demonstrated the danger of running cars up and down the canyon when the snow lies deep on the sides of the mountains, ..." (Salt Lake Evening Chronicle, December 29, 1882)
May 16, 1883
City: "the Alta tramway, running from Wasatch to Alta, will be open for through traffic tomorrow. The tramway has been closed since December." (Salt Lake Evening Chronicle, May 16, 1883)
December 10, 1883
"Stopped for the Winter." "The Alta branch of the Denver & Rio Grande railroad, running up Little Cottonwood canyon from Wasatch to Alta, closed down to-day for the winter. Travel in this canyon during the winter months is attended by great danger from snow-slides, and the policy of the D.& R.G. management seems to be to close down the road before the dreaded avalanches can get a chance to bury people traveling over the tramway." (Salt Lake Evening Chronicle, December 10, 1883)
December 11, 1883
The line from Wasatch to Alta was closed yesterday for the winter. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, December 11, 1883)
March 11, 1884
Alta was hit by a slide on Sunday, the 9th; "The new town of Alta is situated ... on a flat near the head of Little Cottonwood canyon. The old town was destroyed by fire some years ago, and the present site was supposed to be a safer place for the town." (Salt Lake Daily Herald, March 11, 1884)
July 12, 1884
Two carloads of horses and mules were taken to Wasatch yesterday for the Alta tramway. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, July 12, 1884)
July 29, 1884
Article on ride to Alta on the tramway; two mules pull the car, which seats nine, three to a seat. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, July 29, 1884)
February 13, 1885
"The D. & R. G. is running double-headers to Wasatch and Bingham." It seems this is necessary on account of snow. (Salt Lake Evening Chronicle, February 13, 1885)
February 16, 1885
The Western's depot, snowsheds, etc., at Alta were destroyed in the slide at that place on February 13, 1885. (Salt Lake Evening Chronicle, February 16, 1885)
April 28, 1885
Alta tramway to be opened by May 10, 1885. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, April 28, 1885)
May 21, 1885
Daily trains running to Alta 'via the mule power tramway'. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, May 21, 1885)
May 28, 1887
The Alta tramway is now in process of being opened up for the season. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, May 28, 1887)
October 30, 1887
"Local Railway Notes." "The D. & R. G. W. has issued a notice that the tramway between Wasatch and Alta will be closed November 10th, after which no passengers or freight will be taken to Alta, and all freight and passengers for Alta will be delivered at Wasatch." per J. H. Bennett, General Freight and Passenger Agent of the D. & R. G. W. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, October 30, 1887)
May 20, 1888
"The Alta tramway opens today for the season." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, May 20, 1888)
November 10, 1888
The Alta tramway was closed yesterday. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, November 10, 1888)
June 20, 1890
The tramway to Alta opened today, but not by the RGW, as the line from Wasatch to Alta is leased to other parties. Fare one way is $1.15. (Salt Lake Evening Times, June 20, 1890)
March 7, 1891
There was recently an avalanche at Alta, in which two men were killed. Their bodies were taken by sled down to Wasatch, "at which point the railway was taken for Sandy." (Salt Lake Daily Herald, March 7, 1891)
June 3, 1891
An advertisement item, on the RGW Alta Branch, "...which has now been made broad gauge,..." "At Wasatch tramway connection is made for Alta." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, June 3, 1891)
August 9, 1898
"The Rio Grande Western has virtually abandoned its rail and tram line to Wasatch and Alta. This is the third summer the track has been unused, and it is doubtful if it will ever be resumed, unless the mines take an upward turn, or other business conditions should make the operation of the road a paying proposition." (Salt Lake Tribune, August 9, 1898)
April 25, 1900
An item on Alta in the mining section makes it clear that there is no functioning railroad to Alta at this time. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, April 25, 1900)
June 23, 1900
"The resort at Wasatch, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, near Granite, has been opened to the public, and street cars commenced to operate between the Oregon Short Line station at Sandy and the Wasatch hotel yesterday. The fare from Sandy to Wasatch is 75 cents and round trip $1; ..." "The hotel at Wasatch has been renovated and placed in first class condition." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, June 23, 1900)
June 26, 1900
An excerpt from an article entitled "Alta is Active" "At present no less than 25 teams are operating between the camp and the Mingo smelter at Sandy, while the tramway has finally started up and ores are being handled very satisfactorily. From the tramway they are transferred to the RGW's Little Cottonwood branch, which has been equipped with rolling stock formerly in use upon the horse-car lines of this city, so that the trip between Sandy and the diggings is made a very agreeable one. (see also item of 28 August 1900) (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, June 26, 1900)
July 20, 1900
"Cars on the Wasatch tram connect with all Short Line trains south of Salt Lake. The cars run between Sandy and Wasatch and are taking many passengers." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, July 20, 1900)
August 28, 1900
"Doings at Wasatch" "Tramway rides to Alta are still very popular, and these, with the regular traffic to Alta keeps the historic old tram car pretty well filled, both going and coming." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, August 28, 1900)
September 8, 1900
"The Alta Branch and tramway consists of 18 miles. As it is not operated, the RGW is contemplating using the steel where it will bring in some revenue." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, September 8, 1900)
January 8, 1901
Nathaniel W. Raphael vs. the Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railroad Co., the Rio Grande Western Railway Co., and the Union Trust Co. of New York -- complaint alleges that on May 1, 1879, the W. & J. V. RR. conveyed to said Trust company (to secure $1,200,000 in mortgage bonds), all of the main line (33 miles) and tramway lines (11-1/2 miles) from Bingham to Alta via Sandy; further alleges the property was foreclosed for default and came into possession of the R.G.W. through collusion and fraud. Plaintiff asks that sale to D.& R.G.W. Rwy. Co. and all subsequent actions be set aside! Paper comments that "The line from Sandy to Wasatch and Alta, however, is worthless, and has been abandoned by the company for a long time, as far as operation of it as a railroad is concerned." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, January 8, 1901)
May 22, 1901
A foreclosure suit Raphael vs. the W.& J.V., RGW, et al., wanting foreclosure on the W.&J,V. second mortgage bonds, on the lines to Alta and Bingham; wants RGW purchase of W&JV set aside and a receiver appointed under the W&JV mortgage! (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, May 22, 1901)
"The Mines of "Old Alta" "During the latter years of the camp's prosperity the ores of Little Cottonwood were hauled down to Sandy over the tramway built from that place to Alta. Steam power was employed as far as Wasatch over a standard gauge railroad; from there on the grade is heavy, and smaller narrow gauge cars were used with mules as locomotive power. Returning, the cars run the entire length of the road by gravity." "The road is still in operation, but the track and equipment is in poor condition. The property is in the hands of R.G.W. Railway and its improvement is one of the things promised for the very near future, and in all probability, the upper tram, between Wasatch and Alta, will be operated by electrical power." (Salt Lake Mining Review, August 15, 1902, pp.15-18)
C. D. Rooklidge, of Salt Lake City, obtained a lease on the RGW tramway between Alta and Sandy. He was to reconstruct and equip the line for electric operation, at a cost of $100,000.00. (Salt Lake Mining Review, Volume 5, number 15, November 15, 1903, p.23)
October 30, 1904
"Little Cottonwood Canyon; It's Past and Present" "To facilitate transportation a horse tramway was built from Alta to Wasatch, near the mouth of the canyon, at an expense, it is stated, of over $150,000. From Wasatch a standard gauge, steam road was built to Sandy, and this was operated by the Rio Grande Western railroad up to within a year or two ago.The horse tram, however, is in need of extensive repairs, and has not been active use for a number of years." (Salt Lake Mining Review, October 30, 1904, page 17, photo of horse tramway on page 16)
That same Salt Lake Mining Review article made note of the Columbus Consolidated Mining Company starting operations in April 1902. The company's property included 17 different claims, the most famous being the Old Flagstaff. In the two years since its opening, the Columbus Consolidated was reported as having completed 3,500 feet of tunnel, and having installed a mill of 150-ton daily capacity. Other mining companies mentioned included the Continental Mines and Smelting Corporation, which began work in July 1903, having completed 1,500 feet of tunnels since then. The Continental company was also reported as having recently completed a 100-ton mill and the installation of an aerial wire-rope tramway. "...good headway has been made in the construction of the tramway, which will be five miles in length, being the longest line yet built in the state, the material and equipment for which is being furnished by A. Leschen & Sons Rope Company, of St. Louis." "The tram will parallel and supersede about four miles of the old mule or horse tramway." (Salt Lake Mining Review, October 30, 1904, page 18)
An article about the Cottonwood mines, in the January 1, 1905 issue of the Salt Lake Herald, mentions that a five-mile aerial tramway, the longest in the state was close to completion, operating between the mine of the Continental-Alta Mining Company, and its mill. The tramway had 62 supporting towers, and was the same design as the recently completed Silver King tramway in Park City. The mill was powered by a Pelton water wheel that received its water from a 4,000-foot, 14-inch pipeline, and was the only water-powered mill in the state. The tramway was of the Riblet design, and had a capacity of 20 tons per hour. The article does not mention the actual location of either the mine or the mill. (Salt Lake Herald, January 1, 1905)
Article about Alta, with photograph taken on "old Alta tramway". (Salt Lake Mining Review, Volume 8, number 4, May 30, 1906, pp.17-21)
Article about Alta, past, present and future, with photographs. (Salt Lake Mining Review, Volume 9, number 10, August 30, 1907, p.19)
News item about D&RG planning to rebuild the Alta Branch. (Salt Lake Mining Review, Volume 14, number 19, January 15, 1913, p.35, "Construction Notes")
Little Cottonwood Transportation Company
1916-1925, Wasatch to Alta (narrow gauge) operated as Little Cottonwood Transportation Company
Salt Lake & Alta Railroad
1913 to 1917, Sandy to Wasatch (standard gauge) operated as Salt Lake & Alta Railroad
September 6, 1933
D&RGW received ICC approval to abandon 6.8 miles of the Little Cottonwood Branch between Sand Pit and Wasatch. The line was built as narrow gauge in 1873 by the Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railroad. Operation was discontinued in 1899 and the line was relaid as standard gauge in 1913. It saw daily service from 1913 to 1917, while leased to the Salt Lake & Alta Railroad. Between 1917 and 1923 there was only irregular service, about two or three times per week. There was only occasional use after 1923, with two trips made in 1932 and none in 1933. No shipments of ore were made after June 1930. There was no service on the branch after June 1932. Car loadings of granite building stone furnished "considerable traffic, but all of that traffic now moves by truck". (193 ICC 461)
(LeMassena, p. 149, says that the line between Sand Pit and Alta was removed in 1934.)
Little Cottonwood Canyon Railroads -- A Google map of the railroads in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railroad/D&RGW (1873-1895)
Clarence Reeder's research for the Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railway
Salt Lake & Alta Railroad (1913-1917)
Little Cottonwood Transportation Co. (1916-1925) (including Alta Scenic Railway)