Roper Yard In Salt Lake City
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This page was last updated on July 30, 2016.
by Paul Welsh
(Originally published in June 1998 on Keith Wiliams' D&RGW.net)
I worked as a switchman in Roper Yard in Salt Lake City from 1959 to 1965, and it occurred to me that some of you might be interested in the why and how of the place. If you're a model railroader, understanding Roper might even help you design the yards for your pike.
Roper was a well-designed yard, making for easy and efficient switching. It was run by the D&RGW, and its primary role was to link the D&RGW to the Western Pacific. But Roper also provided the D&RGW and WP with access to the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific. The UP link was via switch engine transfers to and from the UP's North Yard, which was about 10 miles north of Roper. The SP link was through a 40 mile long main line north to Ogden, parallel to the UP's main line all the way. The D&RGW had a very small Ogden yard (one switch engine a day), which was grafted to one end of the large joint SP/UP yard. Most D&RGW trains were simply dragged, un-switched, into the SP/UP yard.
The D&RGW's original Salt Lake City yard is just west of downtown, and is still used; we called it "the city," or "4th South" (named for the Salt Lake street that passed over it on a viaduct). Roper was built in the 30's because the city yard couldn't be expanded to handle an increasing volume of traffic. Roper had 32 main yard tracks (80-100 40' cars long), plus a bunch of other special purpose tracks, and kept up to seven switch engines per shift busy.
There were three main sections to the yard: The "east side," the "middle," and the "west side." Each had its own lead on each end of the yard, so six switch engines could simultaneously work the yard leads without interfering with each other. The north end of the yard was called "21st South" after the Salt Lake street that passed over it on a viaduct. The south end was called "30th South." Each end had its own yardmaster and a brick yardmaster tower.
The west side was for eastbound trains. WP and D&RGW-Ogden arrivals were routed into these tracks where the non-eastbound stuff was switched out and taken around to the middle to be sorted out. Then eastbound cars from the middle were brought back to be included with the remnants of the arrived train to make up an eastbound D&RGW train.
There wasn't much blocking of these trains because a lot of them were through-to-Grand Junction, and those that weren't were switched on the road. Generally "east empties" and coal empties were blocked and separated from the merchandise. "Fruit blocks" (solid trains of reefers going East from California) were run directly into track #31 or #32, iced, and sent east without switching. By the time I left the railroad, mechanical reefers had made icing a thing of the past.
The east side was for westbound trains. D&RGW arrivals from the east and UP transfer cuts were brought in here. The UP cuts were switched out on the 21st South end of the yard and the D&RGW arrivals at 30th South. Non-through cars were taken to the middle and sorted out on both ends of the yard, and any outbound WP or D&RGW-Ogden cars brought back to the east side for making up trains.
The WP and D&RGW-Ogden trains were made up here; the Ogden trains at the 21st South end of the yard, and WP trains at 30th south. The WP trains were all blocked so the WP train crews could simply set out cars at each terminal point without switching, and that kept one switch engine per shift very busy. Most of the UP business was with the WP (the UP didn't have lines to Northern California).
All the non-through stuff from the east side and west side were switched out here, as well as arriving locals, cuts from the city, and cuts from various industrial switch jobs.
The middle was actually two yards: The "breakup yard" from #11 to #21, and the "local yard" from #22 to #26. Each track in the middle had a specific purpose, e.g.: #11-bad orders" (defective cars); #12-SLU (an insidethe-yard-limits local); #13 coal empties; #14-UP; #15-city; #17-east side; #18-west side; #21-weighers (there was a scale in the middle of the track); and #22 to #26-locals.
One 21st South switch crew would spend the better part of its shift each night making up the locals for departure early in the morning. The "local yard lead" allowed this to be done without interfering with other switch engines working in the breakup yard. The WP ran two locals, and the Rio Grande five. When the local yard lead wasn't busy, the whole lead from #11 to #26 was used for breakup yard switching.
The Running Rail
Notice that there's a track between #26 and #27 without a number. It was called the "running rail," and was used for getting power from one end of the yard to the other, as well as for reliable access to the caboose track (actually 2 tracks). Using the running rail for switching was forbidden for obvious reasons.
The 21st South end is connected to the engine service facilities, and the 30th South end is located adjacent to where all road engines either cut off from their arriving trains, or couple onto outbound trains. That allowed all road power to easily move between the service facilities and eastbound trains without being blocked in by switch engines or other activity.
Ready Tracks and Hostler Track
Hostler crews (a "hostler" and "hostler helper") took all newly arrived road engines and serviced them, then returned them to the "ready tracks" for use on outbound trains. The "hostler track" (next to "5 lead") was where locomotives arriving from the east were handed over to the hostlers.
This is where minor-to-moderate repairs were made to freight cars. The rip track was an extension of track #11 (where the bad orders cars were put), so the bad orders could be pulled straight out of #11 into the rip track. From 10-20 cars were usually "set up" with a 5 foot gap separating each car from every other. When the repairs were completed, the rip track was coupled up and switched out in the middle yard, making space for more bad orders.
Piggyback Ramps and Wye
Containers hadn't been developed yet, but Roper had a significant and growing amount of piggyback business. One track, with a concrete dock at the end, was for trailers. The second track was for tri-level auto racks and its steel ramp could be adjusted to any one of the levels. Since the cars had to be unloaded/loaded through the end, they had to be pointed the right way. The wye was built for turning backward cars, and it was built during my tenure as a switchman.
Stock cars were almost gone when I started railroading, but a small stock yard inside Roper was used for watering and exercising cattle from the occasional stock car. It was bulldozed about 1960 to make space for the wye and piggyback ramp.
There were several industries adjacent to Roper yard including: An industrial park full of warehouses, a steel
fabrication plant, a small chemical processing plant, and the Vitro uranium processing plant. The Vitro cars came from small mines in southern Utah and southwestern Colorado and were kept on the 30th South end of track 10. Each night, about 10 cars were taken into Vitro, weighed on their scales, and the first car spotted on the hopper. Vitro spotted the other cars using a tractor.
There was a branch line within yard limits that supported two switch engines per day, and extended out almost to the UP's North Yard. Much of the track was down the middle of city streets, so the crews had to contend with street traffic. Part of this line was originally the Salt Lake and Utah Railway (SLU), so we called it "the sloo". I believe most of the SLU has been ripped up.