Railroads in Little Cottonwood Canyon

This page was last updated on April 9, 2019.

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When Alta's Cliffs Echoed The Sound Of Train Whistles

By Larry James

(From Salt Lake Tribune Home Section, August 27, 1967)

Alta, in the mountains southeast of Salt Lake City, is today known far and wide as a skiers' paradise, but 50 years ago the scene was different. Instead of ski lifts and lodges and hundreds of cars, the visitor would have seen mine buildings, ore bins, aerial tramways, and a Shay steam locomotive pulling a string of tiny ore cars beneath the towering cliffs of Mt. Superior.

Railroading in Little Cottonwood canyon was one part of the 80 years of Alta's mining htory. Two different steam railroads were also built between Wasatch, at the mouth of the canyon, and Midvale.

Railroading in the canyon began a few years after the discovery of silver at Alta in 1865. By 1871 the high mountain community was the largest mining camp in Utah Territory and a need developed for cheap transportation of ore to the smelters in the valley below. Local men began building a railroad and by 1873 the Wasatch and Jordan Valley line had completed a narrow gauge track to the granite quarry at the mouth of the canyon. The first train over the line carried Brigham Young and other guests of honor.

Soon, the Company's little Dawson and Bailey steam locomotives were making daily runs to Wasatch — but the ore still had to be hauled by mule down the steep grade from Alta.

Three years later the company began constructing the long-awaited extension of the line to Alta. The grade — the same used by the present highway — was cut into the north side of the canyon, with Chinese work crews finishing the work within a year. Snow sheds were built over the tracks at places to allow winter operations.

But still the climb was too steep for locomotives so mules pulled the empty ore cars up to Alta, and full ones were allowed to roll back to Wasatch by gravity, with the mule-skinner controlling the hand brakes — a dangerous and exciting job.

This company failed in 1881 as the Alta boom faded and the line was purchased by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway, which operated the steam and mule railroads for several years. In 1890 the line from Sandy to Wasatch was converted to standard gauge, while regular runs to Alta on the mule tramway were discontinued. A few years later, scheduled runs to Wasatch also ceased and by 1902 the Wasatch branch was largely nonexistent. Local residents uprooted large sections of the rusting track, using the ties for fence posts and firewood.

When several large mines were reopened early in the 20th century, there were visions of a new railroad to the camp, but they did not materialize until J. G. Jacobs, incorporated the Salt Lake and Alta Railroad Co., and relaid the old standard gauge line between Midvale and Wasatch, completing reconstruction on November 19, 1913.

The new company purchased a new Shay locomotive. The Shay, work-horse of mountain railroads, was a geared locomotive that could climb steep grades. Three vertical steam cylinders, lined up along the right-hand side of the boiler, turned a shaft geared to the driving wheel axles.

The following year, discovery of a large ore body stimtulated a new mining boom, and another company was formed to rebuild the narrow gauge track to Alta. The Little Cottonwood Transportation Co. began work in July, 1917 and the new tracks reached the South Hecla Mine in November, 1918.

There was no turn-around track at Alta, so loaded trains were eased down the canyon with the locomotive running in reverse. At Wasatch the ore was dumped into bins above the Salt Lake and Alta tracks for transfer into standard gauge cars.

But both standard and narrow gauge roads had problems and proved unprofitable. A local mining journal reported that "Hardly a week goes by without a wrecked trainload of ore ... due to the poor condition of the tracks." On the Little Cottonwood narrow gauge the grade was so steep that a train would slide downgrade even with all brakes locked. Winter operation was impossible.

Perhaps typical of the problems encountered by the railroad is this incident which occurred in the spring of 1920.

Little Cottonwood Transportation Co. locomotive Number Two was steaming up the canyon alone. Two foreigners, hoping to find work at Alta, were riding the catwalk along the boiler.

Siiddenly the engine began to slip backwards down the tracks. The brakes failed and the runaway rapidly gained speed.

The engineer and firemen, realizing the situation was hopeless, told their "passengers" to jump, and then made the leap to safety themselves. The two men on the catwalk apparently were more scared of the jump than what could possibly happen if they kept their places, so they remained on the locomotive.

The Jitney (see below) was coming down the grade from Alta and overtook the engineer and firemen who were hurrying afoot along the track. The Jitney picked up the two men and continued on down the canyon to Tanner's Flat where they found the wreck of the locomotive. The two passengers lay crushed beneath the boiler.

Once again the Alta mining boom faded and steam service on the narrow gauge was discontinued in 1921. The two remaining Shays were sold, one to the Pioche Pacific Railroad in Nevada. This locomotive is now on display at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.

In addition to steam engines, several unusual gasoline-powered vehicles were used on the narrow gauge. The Despain family operated a converted truck, equipped with rail wheels, as a passenger and mail carrier. This truck, known as the Jitney, made daily runs to Alta. And George Watson, an Alta mine operator, afterwards sentimentally known as the "Mayor of Alta," attempted to use a larger, enclosed sightseeing car to haul tourists to the camp. This vehicle proved unwieldly and unpopular — passengers to Alta wanted to be able to see out, and if necessary, jump off.

Last vehicle to continue using the narrow gauge was the Jitney which continued its daily runs until June 2, 1928 when the little truck was completely wrecked after it went out of control and jumped the tracks. Alta mine owner John P. Clays was fatally injured in this mishap.

In 1934 the tracks in the canyon were cut up for scrap, two years later the Denver and Rio Grande discontinued runs to Wasatch and in 1965 the last rails of the old Salt Lake and Alta, running along Center St. in Midvale were removed.

Today, few traces remain of the railroads that once ran between Midvale and Alta. A few old ties and railroad cuts in the fields north of 9400 South Street show where the standard gauge tracks once ran, and only a few sections of the rock wall built along the old mule tramway in 1876, remain to tell of the Alta narrow gauge.

The whistle of a steam locomotive has long been gone from the canyon, but skiers will have to agree that the old grade makes a fine highway.