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Emigration Canyon Railroad

This page was last updated on March 29, 2011.

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By E. J. Quinby (ERA Headlights)

In surveying the most interesting electric railroad projects of the past, seldom do we find one in which the builders went to so much trouble and expense to reach no place in particular as was the case with the Emigration Canyon Railroad. Originally conceived as a freight-only railroad, the spectacular features of the subsequently electrified line attracted sightseers in such numbers that the management found it expedient to provide passenger facilities, and repeatedly found it necessary to increase the road's passenger roster.

The line was begun by the Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) for the express purpose of providing improved facilities for hauling rock, lime and sandstone from quarries in the remote Wasatch Mountain fastness to Salt Lake City, to be used in foundations and building construction. In this connection, it should be recalled that upon arriving in the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, under the inspiring and able direction of their engineer-leader, Brigham Young, the pioneer Mormons immediately laid out a modern city and set about building permanent structures on a grandiose scale. These included the mammoth Tabernacle and its famous organ, then the largest in the world. For this purpose the pioneers used ox teams and immense wooden vehicles which they built with wheels up to ten feet in diameter, capable of negotiating the rough mountain trails and of fording streams with their loads of huge stone blocks and gigantic timbers. Considering the fact that most of these hardy souls had actually walked all the way from Illinois and Missouri to escape persecution, dragging with them in hand-carts -- only such bare essentials as provisions, hand-tools and a maximum of 17 pounds of clothing per person -- it is all the more amazing today to view their magnificent original structures.

As time passed, these resourceful and industrious people improved their facilities by building a 14 mile railroad to bring in their building materials. They called it the Emigration Canyon Railroad and electrified it in 1907. By the end of the first year of electric operation, it was hauling freight in the form of lime, cut stone and rock from the mountain quarries, was carrying supplies out to the Wagner Brewery at the entrance to the canyon and bringing the palatable product back into Salt Lake City for sale.

Word got into circulation concerning the glorious scenery that could be viewed from the electric freight trains of the line, and the management decided to make proper provisions to accomadate the increasing numbers of sightseers who were riding the locomotives and freight cars - and to collect fares from them. So in 1908, the line obtained two interurban type passenger cars from the Niles Car & Mfg. Co, with Brill trucks and air brakes. These first passenger cars were named RED BUTTE and WARSHIP and were similar in design to the cars of the Washington-Oregon Electric line. By 1910, the ECRR was doing capacity business. Two trainloads of stone per day were being brought down from the mountains into Salt Lake City, and the citizens if that city had discovered a pleasent relief from the intense breathless heat which periodically settled over the flat valley, by taking the trolley ride up to the increasingly popular Pinecrest Resort Lodge, where they had to don additional clothing because of the crisp mountain atmosphere. However, the conditions up in the Wasatch Mountains became so severe during the winter months that the line had to suspend operation after the first heavy snow fall each year until the following spring. The first trains of the season would then feel their way into the canyon and up the mountains before the last of the snow had melted away.

To take care of the increasing passenger business, the management ordered two open trail cars with air brakes from Brill. These had permanently railed sides with entrance steps at the end platforms, canvass awnings spread over arched pipe framework, and were named WASATCH and OQUIRRH. Familiarly known as "moonlight trailers" these cars became very popular. Then two more trailers were ordered from Brill - closed with center entrances - and they were named UINTAH and TINTIC. In the meantime, it became apparent that more passenger motor cars were needed, so Niles was given an order for 2 more closed interurban type coaches, which were named PINECREST and WASHAKIE. It is interesting to note that all the passenger equipment of the line was identified by name instead of number.

Passenger trains originated in front of the Utah Hotel on the south side of Temple Square in the heart of Salt Lake City. Proceding over the tracks of the Utah Light & Traction Co., these trains of as many as six cars snaked around corners and through the broad city streets until they reached University Avenue on Fifth St. South where they turned off on their own private right-of-way. At the north side of this junction were located the line's headquarters office, yards, shops and its freight terminal with the familiar team-tracks. About two miles to the east, the line reached the Brewery at the canyon mouth. Here it left the flat-land of the valley floor to begin winding up through the canyon, crossing and recrossing Emigration Creek on 16 small bridges.

The train passed through the hamlet of Pioneer named for the Mormon's last encampment before reaching their objective. Passing Kewin Grove, the sub-station, Brighams Fork, Little Mountain and Killyons Fork, the train then turned north, still following Emigration Creek, to reach the first of three switchbacks. Reversing direction here the train backed up to the next switchback at Hillside. Reversing direction again, the train then proceeded upwards along sucessive 5 percent grades, passing by the switchback that lead to White Quarry and continuing up increasingly crooked and steep grades, passing also the switchback to Red Quarry. The final mile to Pinecrest was up an 8 percent grade. Hairpin turns and reverse curves as sharp as 70 degrees were traversed en route.

Holding their breath as the train eased its way around dizzy bends, skirting the brink of precipitous Cliffs, novices usually sighed with relief upon reaching Pineorest, to enjoy picnicking and the usual outdoor sports. But they were yet to be treated to their greatest thrill, for on the return trip, the train braked cautiously down the line until it reached the switchback to White Quarry. There the crew opened the switch and backed the train up this steep and crooked part of the line as far as Lookout Pant, more than 7,000 feet above the sea and 3,000 feet above Salt Lake City. The sole object of this side-trip was to permit the passengers to take in the thrilling view as the train paused there. Spread before them was the awe-inspiring panorama of the Great Salt Lake Valley - the lake itself glistening in rich opalescent splendor surrunded by gleaming white shores and with pastel-hued mountains forming the back-drop. No doubt the faithful Mormons aboard the train were reminded of the historic announcement made by their leader when he arrived with his party of refugees at these heights. Weary from their 3,000 mile trek to find a new haven where they would not be molested, they gazed out across this same scene. Said Brigham Young "THIS IS THE PLACE!", - and the entire party dropped to their knees in a prayer of thanks.

Although the E.C.R.R. line continued up this branch for another 1-plus miles, so tortuous and dangerous was the remainder of the distance that it was used only by the stone trains - no passenger trains ever proceeded beyond Lookout Point.

Emigration Canyon freight motors pulled supplies and materials through the streets of Salt Lake City from an interchange with the Union Pacific Railroad northwest of Temple Square. The E.C.R.R. connected with the Salt Lake & Utah Railroad, the Salt Lake, Garfield & Western Railroad, the Utah Light & Traction lines and the Bamberger Electric Railroad. Via this latter line, connection was made also at Ogden to the Utah Rapid Transit Lines and the Utah-Idaho Central Railroad. All of these were electric lines. Today, only the Bamberger Railroad and the SL,G&W continue to operate.

Unfortunately for the E.C.R.R., concrete became more and more popular as a building material in place of stone and by 1916 the line was running so far into the red that its future looked dark. Although extensive repairs were made to some of the passenger motors during the usual winter shut-down of 1916-1917, the line failed to resume service the following spring. Instead, all the passenger oars and one freight motor were shipped to the Tacoma Mamicipal Railway in Washington, where they were pressed into service to haul war workers to the shipyards. The 50 or more single and double-truck freight cars were scrapped and the line dismantled in 1917.

Thus passed into history one of the most spectacular interurban rides of all time. But was it an interurban? The literal definition of the term is generally accepted to be a line connecting two or more cities. This line started in a great city and struggled up through the "everlasting hills" that surround the Mormons' valley. The E.C.R.R. had interurban type equipment and while it didn't go any place in particular, the ride was well worth the price.

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