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Denver & Rio Grande Western

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This page was last updated on March 22, 2013.

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(Additional research has been completed since this text was published in 2005; see separate Rio Grande In Utah page for updates.)

D&RGW Completed to Ogden

In December 1880, Dr. William Bell, a Utah resident and friend and close business associate of General William J. Palmer, organized the Sevier Valley Railway. This was the opening round of events that brought Rio Grande to Utah. General Palmer had organized his Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1870, and by 1872 it had reached Pueblo, Colo. In 1878, Palmer lost his battle with Santa Fe for a route south from Colorado to El Paso, Texas, and turned his sights west to Utah. His route west was along the Arkansas River through the Royal Gorge, and as any good rival would do, Santa Fe soon began building along the same route. The renowned Royal Gorge Railroad War commenced, only to be settled in late 1878 when AT&SF won by leasing the narrow-gauge D&RG.

In early 1880, through a series of court battles, Palmer regained control of his D&RG and commenced construction toward Utah. Within six months, the road had completed its route over Marshall Pass and was headed for Gunnison, Colo. With Utah getting closer, Palmer began looking for the best means to get there without too much trouble and expense. He decided to organize a separate company, Sevier Valley Railway, to build the line in Utah and connect with D&RG at the Colorado border. The intended route recorded for Sevier Valley Railway was to run south from Ogden to the north boundary of Arizona Territory, by way of Salt Lake City, Provo, Nephi, Salt Creek Canyon, and Salina. The new company true purpose was shown with the planned branch that would connect with Palmer's D&RG. This branch was to be built east from Salina, over Salina Pass and across Castle Valley to the Green River, then to the Grand (Colorado) River, which it would follow to the west boundary of Colorado to meet Palmer's westward-building narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railway. (Athearn, Rebel of the Rockies, p. 115; Reeder, p. 375)

In December 1880, fulfilling the requirements of Utah's railroad incorporation law, which calls for a railroad operating in the territory to have 2/3 of its officers as residents, Dr. William Bell, lifelong friend and close business associate of Palmer, along with several of Bell's friends, organized (on December 6, 1880) the Sevier Valley Railway. (See also: Articles of Incorporation, Sevier Valley Railway, December 6, 1880)

Nothing came of the Sevier Valley Railway due to financial problems, but it was included in the July 1881 organization of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway, which Palmer incorporated to build into almost all locations in Utah that a railroad could be built. The extensive routes represented Palmer's attempt at covering all of his bases, trying to keep his rivals out of Utah. The grandiose, state-wide plans were never acted on and in June 1882, D&RGW completed its route into Salt Lake City.

The route completed ran west from the Colorado-Utah border, through eastern Utah, west up the Price River Canyon and over Soldier's Summit to a connection with the Utah & Pleasant Valley Railway, which operated between Provo and the Pleasant Valley coal mines at Winter Quarters and Scofield. The Utah & Pleasant Valley had been organized in December 1875 but didn't actually begin laying track until August 1878. The line was finished between the coal mines and Springville in late 1879, and was extended to Provo in late 1880. D&RGW purchased control of U&PV in June 1882, and used its 60 miles of tracks in Spanish Fork Canyon to extend its reach into Utah Valley and Provo. New construction between Provo and Salt Lake City was completed in June 1882. (Reeder, The History of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883, p. 387)

It took another nine months, until March 1883, for a through route between Salt Lake City and Denver to be completed, when a connection was made west of Green River, Utah, between the construction crews of D&RGW (the Utah company) and those of D&RG (the Colorado company). (Athearn, The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, p. 122)

Any distinction between the Utah company and the Colorado company was by this time trivial; on April 3, 1882, the Utah lines were officially leased to the Colorado company for the purposes of single-line operation of the two properties. (In May 1883, the lease of the D&RGW, and its line in Utah, to the D&RG went into effect, see Athearn, Rebel of the Rockies, p. 131)

The next goal for Rio Grande was to extend its line north to Ogden, and a connection with Central Pacific. As Rio Grande's D. C. Dodge was quoted as saying, "to build to Salt Lake without going to Ogden would be half finishing the road."

The city's strategic and central location became apparent almost immediately after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Central Pacific and Union Pacific were almost constantly bickering over something, especially over the interchange of traffic at Ogden. As Union Pacific historian Maury Klein put it, the two were condemned "to a perpetual life as Siamese twins, joined at Ogden while struggling awkwardly to lurch off in other directions." (Klein, Union Pacific, Vol. II, p. 87)

Rail traffic in the west and along the new transcontinental line was captive to a monopoly held by UP and CP, at least until the Santa Fe completed its line from Chicago to Southern California in 1884, and Northern Pacific finished its northern route across Montana and Idaho to Pasco, Wash., in 1883. The narrow-gauge D&RGW was completed to Ogden in May 1883, giving Central Pacific an outlet to the east, shutting out its sibling Union Pacific. The completion of the UP subsidiary Oregon Short Line to the Pacific Northwest port of Portland in 1885 gave UP an outlet to the west, shutting out its sibling CP.

Union Pacific and Central Pacific shared the joint yard at Ogden, and UP was determined to prevent D&RGW, its rival for the Colorado mining traffic, from entering town. In addition to being UP's rival for the Colorado traffic, the combined D&RG/D&RGW connected at Denver with the Burlington, and at Pueblo with the Santa Fe, both of which were very interested in extending their lines west to connect with Central Pacific. Cooperation with Rio Grande would give them the connection, another plan UP wanted to thwart.

On the stormy evening of May 12, 1883, Rio Grande construction crews completed pre-assembled sections of rails and ties connected together as a portable unit, carried the track on their shoulders across the Central Pacific property line, and began laying it in the direction of the Ogden passenger depot. Their trick was soon discovered and a Union Pacific switcher and a length of heavy chain was used to dismantle the new narrow-gauge trackage. (Wilson, The Denver and Rio Grande Project, 1870-1901, p. 76)

During the days following, D&RGW made arrangements with Central Pacific to lay narrow-gauge rails inside of its standard-gauge rails, and Rio Grande began operating trains into Ogden on May 17, after the bridge over the Weber River was completed. (Reeder, The History of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883, p. 388; Wilson, The Denver and Rio Grande Project, 1870-1901, pp. 75-76)

With the completion of Rio Grande tracks into Ogden, Central Pacific announced in June 1883 that it would lay a standard-gauge third rail on D&RGW's narrow-gauge route from Salt Lake City to Ogden, for the Salt Lake-bound Central Pacific traffic, but UP relented and the threat came to nothing. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, June 21, 1883)

D&RGW finally gained access to the Ogden passenger facilities by sharing a Central Pacific track to cross the original Utah Central line, adding a third rail inside the CP standard-gauge crossing to allow the three-foot-gauge D&RGW trains to use the same crossing. After using the three-rail crossing, D&RGW had a turnout that branched its narrow-gauge tracks away from the Central Pacific's standard-gauge tracks. This arrangement allowed D&RGW to directly serve the joint Ogden passenger station of UP, CP, Utah Central, and Utah & Northern. D&RGW's freight trains into Ogden terminated west of Central Pacific's tracks. The railroad built its first yard on land south of its line entering Ogden, in the area between the Central Pacific tracks and the Weber River. Rio Grande gained access to CP's original roundhouse by use of a single track of 40-pound steel rail to the CP turntable, along with interchange tracks and transfer sheds adjacent to CP tracks.

Central Pacific and Rio Grande also laid joint three-rail trackage to serve the original stockyards. D&RGW soon completed a two-stall enginehouse, located just west of the CP main line. That early enginehouse was replaced in about 1885 with a four-stall brick roundhouse, torn down in about 1955, and served by an 80-foot turntable. The roundhouse was east of the Central Pacific (later SP) tracks, adjacent to D&RGW's 90-degree crossing of the Central Pacific's main line at 20th Street. That same 90-degree crossing is shown on an 1885 map, which also shows the narrow-gauge D&RGW tracks interchanging with the narrow-gauge Utah and Northern, all in the vicinity of 20th Street west of Wall Avenue. But the narrow-gauge interchange was about to change.

Rio Grande Western and Standard Gauge

Ogden was at the far western end of a two-company Rio Grande system of narrow-gauge railroads that started in Denver. Rivalries between various factions within the two companies during the remainder of the 1880s forced both into court-appointed receiverships. They emerged in the late 1880s as better managed companies, but still narrow-gauge, very aware of the standard-gauge competition all around them. The company that ran into Ogden was reorganized from the original Denver & Rio Grande Western to the new Rio Grande Western Railway (originally proposed as the Utah & Colorado Railway), dropping the Denver part of its name to reflect its newly found independence from D&RG in Colorado, an independence that lasted another 10 years. At the eastern end of the system, D&RG connected with Santa Fe and Missouri Pacific at Pueblo, Colo., Rock Island at Colorado Springs, Colo., and Burlington at Denver. These companies were clamoring for access to the mines and other lucrative traffic of western Colorado and Utah, along with a connection with Central Pacific at Ogden, and they had their own surveying parties climbing all over western Colorado showing just how serious their interests and intents were. To keep these invaders out of what they jealously considered to be their own territory, the two Rio Grande lines needed to convert to standard-gauge. It was not a question of if, but a question of when. If they didn't, their competitors would surely make good on their intents and build their own routes into the Salt Lake region.

The Salt Lake City-to-Ogden line of the Rio Grande Western Railway, as the July 1889 successor to D&RGW, was changed to standard-gauge on March 6, 1890. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, March 8, 1890) (In September 1889, the 45-pound original narrow gauge rails had been taken up from between Salt Lake and Ogden, and were re-laid on RGW's Bingham Branch. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, September 24, 1889)

On June 10, 1890, RGW completed conversion of its tracks between Ogden and Grand Junction, Colo., from narrow-gauge to standard-gauge. (Johnson, David F. The History and Economics of Utah Railroads, p. 62; Wilson, The Denver and Rio Grande Project, 1870-1901, p. 94)

In Colorado, D&RG did not complete its newly constructed standard-gauge connection, via Tennessee Pass and Glenwood Springs, until mid November 1890, by-passing the original narrow-gauge route over Marshall Pass to the south. The route was standard gauge from Ogden to Grand Junction, narrow gauge from Grand Junction to Pueblo, and standard gauge again from Pueblo to Denver. By November the new line over Tennessee Pass was completed, and on November 17, 1890, the first standard-gauge through train from Denver entered Salt Lake City. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, November 18, 1890)

In Ogden, the narrow-gauge tracks of UP subsidiary Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern were changed to standard-gauge in October 1890, seven months after RGW made the change in March. Just a year before, the new union depot of Ogden Union Railway & Depot Co. had been completed. Rio Grande made peace Union Pacific, and signed an agreement with OUR&D that gave it direct access to the new Ogden depot. The changes for OUR&D are shown on a map dated 1890, and included access to Ogden's new union passenger depot for Rio Grande passenger trains by a new "RGW Connection" that crossed the Central Pacific main line between 20th and 21st streets. This connected with Central Pacific's own passenger line, and was in addition to the Rio Grande freight 90-degree crossing already in place. Later, Rio Grande constructed a new yard west of the 90-degree crossing, giving Rio Grande a freight yard both east and west of its crossing of Central Pacific's main line, by this time leased to Southern Pacific. Even though the east yard remained in place into the late 1960s, less and less direct D&RGW traffic was moving to and from businesses in Ogden, and the West Yard grew in importance due to increased interchange with Southern Pacific.

Union Pacific's resistance to Rio Grande's entering Ogden was only temporary. After Central Pacific allowed D&RGW to use its tracks to reach the passenger depot, UP must have resigned itself to the fact that Rio Grande was there to stay. In May 1892, Rio Grande signed an agreement for the use and partial lease "of the railroad, tracks, switches, passenger depot building, offices and all passenger terminal facilities" of the Ogden Union Railway & Depot Co. The lease also allowed Rio Grande to maintain a passenger agent and baggage-handling facilities at the depot. At the time, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern also shared equal use of the depot and its facilities. The lease ran for a four-year period, and Rio Grande paid $18,000 annual rent. The lease was never renewed, but Rio Grande continued to pay the same annual rent, and was allowed continued use of the depot. (Rio Grande Western, Lease and Agreement for leasing the Ogden Union Depot facilities between The Ogden Union Railway & Depot Company and The Rio Grande Western Railway Company, May 1, 1892)

The Ogden Gateway Case

The death of Collis P. Huntington in August 1900 changed railroading in Ogden for the next 70 years. Huntington's death put his controlling shares of Southern Pacific, and its leased Central Pacific line, onto the market, where E. H. Harriman almost immediately snapped them up, thereby controlling both UP and SP, effectively shutting out the Rio Grande in Ogden. [In 1908 RGW was absorbed by D&RG, along with several other companies, and in 1921, D&RG was reorganized as the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.] UP and SP met and exchanged trains at Ogden, making it difficult for Rio Grande to solicit traffic to and from the West. (Wilson, The Denver and Rio Grande Project, 1870-1901, p. 110)

Harriman's consolidation of his two railroads, and Rio Grande's difficulty in winning through traffic at Ogden, was the opening round of what became known as the "Ogden Gateway" case, a series of court decisions, and rulings by the Interstate Commerce Commission that dragged out for 45 years, from 1923 to 1968.

The Ogden Gateway case involved all three railroads. It dealt with the relationship between Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, how they treated each other, and how they in turn treated Rio Grande. Under Harriman's influence, there was no return to the early years, when D&RGW (and later the RGW), was regularly being either favored or ignored, depending on relations between Union Pacific and Central Pacific/Southern Pacific at the time, although most traffic to and from the east still went over UP. If the bickering became serious, Union Pacific had the advantage of diverting West Coast traffic to the Northwest, and SP had its connection with Rio Grande. By the turn of the century, D&RG in Colorado and RGW in Utah were both controlled by George Gould, who was building his own railroad empire that included the two Rio Grandes and their Missouri Pacific connection at Pueblo. Harriman's control of the SP, and the need for a dependable connection for the Rio Grande to the West Coast were the major reasons Gould built the Western Pacific Railway west from Salt Lake City, started in 1906 (with D&RG backing) and completed in 1909.

The Ogden Gateway case began in 1923 when the ICC was deciding whether SP had the right to control the Central Pacific. In its decision, ICC stated that the Ogden Gateway was exclusively for interchange between UP and SP, and with this support from the federal government, traffic agreements were made between the two companies that continued to shut D&RGW out of sharing in cross-country rail traffic. In one round of the Ogden Gateway case, D&RGW in August 1949 filed a complaint with the ICC for full joint rates for all east- and westbound traffic at Ogden. In January 1952, the ICC issued an order that only partially opened the gateway, and then for only 10 commodities, still shutting D&RGW out of the lucrative Pacific Northwest traffic. The 1952 decision allowed UP to solicit traffic for SP from as far east as Oklahoma and Pittsburgh, and permitted SP to solicit traffic for UP throughout California. In response to the January 1952 order, D&RGW in October 1953 filed a suit in U. S. District Court in Denver calling the ICC ruling "unlawful, arbitrary, and capricious." The suit was expected to reach the Supreme Court for a final decision. (Deseret News, October 22, 1953)

However, in January 1955 the District Court returned the entire case to the ICC for re-hearing, putting the question back into the hands of the ICC, where it had begun six years before. (Salt Lake Tribune, January 14, 1955)

The issue of freight traffic routing continued to be openly debated both in the courts and at hearings of the Interstate Commerce Commission. By the mid-1960s, because the economic and political benefits were becoming less obvious, both Union Pacific and Southern Pacific could see that the interchange at Ogden by way of the jointly owned Ogden Union Railway & Depot Co. had outlived its usefulness. Traffic on the Overland Route had declined significantly, especially the seasonal trains of perishable goods. This, and changes in the Utah tax code, led to a severe reduction in OUR&D operations. The ICC held hearings in the mid-1960s to consider curtailment of OUR&D operations, and in October 1967 the ICC gave its blessing. (ICC Finance Docket 2613 (SP control of CP, 76 ICC 508) reopened for complaint by D&RGW for Ogden Gateway, denied October 1, 1962. (317 ICC 469); reopened again for additional complaint by D&RGW for Ogden Gateway, denied January 1, 1966. (328 ICC 345))

Soon after, D&RGW and SP began direct interchange without OUR&D switching, and the Ogden Gateway case was closed.

D&RGW Operations

Throughout the years of court battles, Rio Grande continued to keep its Salt Lake City-to-Ogden line well maintained and up to date. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rio Grande kept one its small General Electric 44-ton center-cab switchers in Ogden to switch the local industries. D&RGW's yard office at Ogden was replaced by a $40,000 building in September 1951, at a location known as Transfer, where D&RGW trains were handed over to Southern Pacific. The new building replaced an old boxcar that had been serving as an office for many years. The 13 office employees who had been working in the old boxcar now had a modern, air-conditioned office. It also included radio communications via loudspeakers located in the yard. Floodlights had been installed a year earlier. (Ogden Standard Examiner, September 19, 1951, p. 7A)

In February 1953, D&RGW announced that as part of a $20 million improvement program, it would spend $88,000 to improve the interchange facilities with Southern Pacific. (Ogden Standard Examiner, February 22, 1953)

In August 1953, D&RGW purchased 35 acres between its present Ogden yards and the Ogden River for future industrial development. (Deseret News, August 31, 1953)

In anticipation of settlement of the Ogden Gateway case, during late 1960 D&RGW began a $2 million expansion and upgrading of its line between Salt Lake City and Ogden. Most of the improvements were along the line itself, including heavier rail and better ballast, along with extension of the Woods Cross and Clearfield passing tracks. The improvement project also included a new 109-foot bridge across the Weber River at the west end of the Ogden yards, and 21,000 feet of additional tracks in the Ogden yard. (Ogden Standard Examiner, November 27, 1960)

During 1963 and 1964, SP and D&RGW proposed a connection between their two lines at Ogden. This new connection would be by way of an existing OUR&D connecting track northwest of the two lines' 90-degree crossing, where the east-west D&RGW line crossed the north-south SP line, by way of a bridge across the Weber River. (Southern Pacific Company. C.E. Drawing 33502, November 3, 1963, revised April 1, 1964.)

During the late 1960s, America's railroads went through numerous corporate changes. Most of the major lines were sold to newly organized corporate holding companies that carried with them many attractive tax advantages, and which were not subject to regulation by the ICC. In early 1969, Union Pacific Corp. began operating the Union Pacific Railroad as a corporate subsidiary. Likewise, Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1969 came under the corporate control of Rio Grande Industries, a holding company organized for that purpose in 1968. (LeMassena, Rio Grande…to the Pacific, p. 202)

Competition with Union Pacific to the north, and Santa Fe to the south, proved at times to be a formidable challenge for the small independent road. Even with the settlement of the Ogden Gateway case, the continued cooperation of SP and UP made competition difficult. Changes were many, both good and bad, and at times to the railroad's employees it seemed that the railroad was of but minor interest to the parent company. The last shoe dropped in late 1982 with the merger of the Union Pacific and Western Pacific railroads. Revenues continued to fall and in late 1983, Rio Grande Industries began selling off its non-railroad interests, including Rio Grande Motorways, the trucking subsidiary, which was shut down, disposing of its terminals and equipment. The railroad was also for sale. (Pacific Rail News, Issue 247 [December 1983], p. 23)

On October 29, 1984, Rio Grande Industries, and its D&RGW railroad subsidiary, was sold to Anschutz Corp., a Denver-based oil and land development company. (CTC Board, December 1984, p. 3) (click here for more information about the Anschutz purchase of D&RGW)

The sale did not affect the daily operations, other than to give employees a morale boost, and to provide a stable future.

With the waters of the Great Salt Lake slowly rising during 1983 and 1984, D&RGW began temporarily detouring its trains over Union Pacific's paralleling, double-track line between Salt Lake City and Ogden. An agreement was reached on October 22, 1985 that gave D&RGW (and run-through Southern Pacific trains) long-term access to Union Pacific's high-speed line in return for Union Pacific gaining access to D&RGW's nearly level and easier route between Salt Lake City and Provo. (CTC Board, December 1985, p. 43)

When D&RGW quit using its Salt Lake to Ogden line, the signals and grade crossing protection were removed to save maintenance costs. Many local cities assumed that the tracks were abandoned and paved over many grade crossings. In addition, several local real estate agents and subdivision developers continued spreading the abandonment myth to persuade prospective home buyers to locate near the "abandoned" tracks. In mid-December 1991, Southern Pacific, as successor to D&RGW, reminded local residents through the media of newspapers and television that the tracks were only inactive, not abandoned, and that trains could begin operating along the route should rail business increase to a level that would exceed the capacity of the UP line to handle all of the Union Pacific traffic along with the Southern Pacific/D&RGW traffic. (Deseret News, December 15, 1991, p. B4)

Merger of D&RGW and Southern Pacific

After the attempt to merge the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads failed in its final appeal in June 1987, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered that the already merged parent corporation sell one of its two railroads. On September 25, 1987, Rio Grande Industries and Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corp. announced that Rio Grande Industries would purchase the SP and merge its existing railroad, the D&RGW, into it. The ICC approved the sale on August 9, 1988, with the actual merger taking place on October 13, 1988.

By the time of the merger, D&RGW's facilities in Ogden consisted mostly of interchange tracks with Southern Pacific. Over the previous years since the settlement of the Ogden Gateway case, the two companies had been cooperating more and more. The 90-degree crossing of the SP main line and yard tracks at 20th Street was removed in about 1969. In 1970, SP and Rio Grande had begun to interchange complete trains through Ogden, with SP crews and locomotives going through to Salt Lake City. The mid-1980s saw more Southern Pacific trains by-passing SP's own yard at Ogden, destined for direct interchange with Rio Grande at Salt Lake City. With these changes already in place, the 1988 merger had little effect on their operations. Because trains were using UP tracks, the former interchange track at Transfer was shut down and many tracks in the West Yard were removed as D&RGW's presence was cut back even more. In early 1992, a local switching road called Utah Central, began operations serving grain storage facilities situated in Rio Grande's former West Yard, along with other industries located along the inactive Rio Grande main line into Ogden. Today there is little trace, except to the trained eye, of the operations Rio Grande once had in Ogden.

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