Railroads in Little Cottonwood Canyon
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This page was last updated on July 30, 2019.
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.
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 (1872-1882)
Midvale to Wasatch
Sandy to Wasatch (narrow gauge) operated as Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railway
Midvale to Wasatch
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.
According to a D&RGW branch line summary, completed in 1937 as part of its overall surveying effort for all of its lines in Utah, D&RGW completed a full 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.)
October 30, 1904
"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 in active use for a number of years." (Salt Lake Mining Review, October 30, 1904)
The Alta Tramway (1875-1895, 1900)
Wasatch to Alta
The Alta tramway was operated by horses and mules throughout its existence. It connected at Tannersville with the narrow gauge railroad, which in-turn, after 1890, connected with Rio Grande Western's standard gauge Little Cottonwood Branch.
Little Cottonwood Transportation Company (1916-1922)
1916-1925, Wasatch to Tanners (narrow gauge) operated as Little Cottonwood Transportation Company
Salt Lake & Alta Railroad (1913-1917)
1913 to 1917, Sandy to Wasatch (standard gauge) operated as Salt Lake & Alta Railroad
Midvale to Wasatch
Midvale to Sandy, to Wasatch (standard gauge) operated as D&RGW's Little Cottonwood Branch
- Midvale (MP 0.00) (yard)
- State Street (MP 1.0)
- U. P. Crossing (MP 1.8)
- Sandy (MP 2.0) (24 car side track)
- Sand Pit (MP 3.1) (27 car side track)
- End of Track (MP 3.4)
Freight operations on the connecting Little Cottonwood Transportation company from Wasatch to Alta ended in late 1921, and did not resume in 1922. Mine owners continued to haul ore to the loading station at Wasatch, using teams and wagons. From the mid 1920s on, when trucks became readily available, and the public roads became improved, the mine owners began hauling their ore direct from the mines to the mills and smelters, bypassing the railroad between Wasatch and Midvale. Also, mining at Alta went into a low cycle starting in 1925, further reducing traffic on the line between Sandy and Wasatch.
End of track, with a 17 car side track, was at MP 1.6, just short of the UP crossing at Sandy.
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". (ICC Reports, Volume 193, page 461, "193 ICC 461"; Finance Docket 10077; applied July 15, 1933; submitted August 25, 1933; decided September 6, 1933)
(LeMassena, p. 149, says that the line between Sand Pit and Alta was removed in 1934.)
February 27, 1934
D&RGW used its own labor forces to remove 6.77 miles of the Little Cottonwood Branch, including main tracks and yard tracks. The salvage value of the rail and track materials was set as $21,041.25. The Wasatch tool house and water station, and the water tank were salvaged. (D&RGW AFE 5196, "Retirement of Little Cottonwood Branch," approved February 27, 1934; closed as "complete" on November 18, 1936)
- The pile trestle bridges at mile post 6.55 and at mile post 9.13 were salvaged in February 1936.
- By April 21, 1936, just over four miles of rail (22,281 linear feet; 4.22 miles) and track material had been removed, and was loaded on four flat cars and sent to three locations to be used as second-hand track material: two were sent to Salida; the third was sent to Pueblo; and the fourth car was sent to Salt Lake City.
- By May 12, 1936, an additional seven miles of rail (38,527 linear feet; 7.3 miles) and track material was removed, and was loaded on 10 flat cars and sent to Salida and Pueblo to be used as second-hand track material; five cars to Salida and five to Pueblo.
- By June 15, 1936, a total of 15.71 miles (82,950 linear feet) of rail had been removed and either shipped to other points on the railroad, or sold as scrap.
- The total miles of rail removed during 1936 suggests that the standard gauge portion (8.34 miles) between Sandy and Wasatch, with sidings, was removed in 1936, as well as the narrow gauge portion (3.5 miles) between Wasatch and Tanners, with sidings.
Construction of a concrete subway underpass for State Street was completed. The subway allowed U. S. 89/91 to pass under the combined UP and D&RGW tracks between Midvale and Sandy. The two railroads were to contribute $22,000 to move and combine their two separate tracks into a single combined crossing of State Street. Work had started very soon after the bids were opened in mid October 1935.
March 6, 1943
The federal Interstate Commerce Commission approved D&RGW's request to abandon the portion of the Little Cottonwood Branch between "Sand Pit" and Sandy.
The following comes from ICC Finance Docket 14097, decided and approved on March 6, 1943:
Wilson McCarthy and Henry Swan, trustees in reorganization proceedings of The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, on January 25, 1943, applied for permission to abandon a portion of the so-called Little Cottonwood branch line of railroad extending easterly from Sandy to the and of the branch at Sand Pit, a distance of approximately 1.36 miles, in Salt Lake County, Utah.
The line proposed to be abandoned was constructed by the Wasatch & Jordan Valley Railroad in 1873 for the purpose of reaching certain gold mining property and transporting ores to a smelter at Sandy, and to haul granite from quarries located in the tributary territory to Salt Lake City. It was acquired by the Denver & Rio Grande Western in 1921.
In 1937 the track was relaid with second-hand 90-pound rail, surfaced with natural dirt and sand. Since then maintenance has been kept to a minimum, and at present the track is in poor surface and alignment. Approximately 90 percent of the ties are treated. The net salvage value of the recoverable material is estimated by the applicants at $7,677.
There has been no train operation over the line since January 1, 1939. The last remaining industry, a sand pit located at the eastern terminus of the branch, has ceased operating and has dismantled its machinery. The population of the tributary territory does not exceed 100 persons, and no one is dependent upon the line for transportation service.
September 22, 1957
End of track was changed from MP 2.0 (Sandy) to MP 1.0 (State Street) with D&RGW employee timetable No. 139, dated September 22, 1957. This removed D&RGW's usage of the shared crossing of State Street, after which D&RGW no longer shared in the maintenance expense of the crossing.
July 9, 1965
D&RGW removed the tracks of its Sandy Branch along East Center Street in Midvale, "last week." The tracks through Midvale were commonly known by residents as the "Shay tracks" because of the type of locomotive once used along them. The tracks and sub-roadbed were removed, and new road base up to 24 inches deep was put into place, and the area was paved, making Center Street wider, once the tracks in the middle of the street had been removed. (Midvale Sentinel, July 9, 1965; July 16, 1965)
Wasatch (Granite) to Alta
The road is on the old narrow gauge railroad roadbed, from the granite quarries (Wasatch, now known as Granite) near the mouth of the canyon, up to about a half mile before Alta itself. The terminal at Alta was just across the creek (south) of the the current big parking lot of the original Alta resort (now known as the Peruvian Lodge). In late summer 1936, Salt Lake County paid D&RGW $1,000 for the land (200 feet wide and 9.4 miles long), and the county used its own funds ($21,000) and federal funds ($160,000) to rebuild and widen the roadbed. The first formal ski resort was opened in late 1937.
October 18, 1933
George H. Watson was complaining to Salt Lake County about the condition of the road in Little Cottonwood canyon. He was unable to haul ore from his Alta mine due to the poor condition of the road, and was urging the county to obtain a federal loan from the state to pay to have the road upgraded and improved. Watson was a member of a special committee established study county roads. (Salt Lake Telegram, October 18, 1933)
June 25, 1935
Salt Lake County had prepared a draft study for a new road in Little Cottonwood canyon to be built on the abandoned roadbed of the Denver & Rio Grande line to Alta. A letter had been sent to the local D&RGW superintendent asking for his assistance in the matter. (Salt Lake Telegram, June 25, 1935)
November 1, 1935
"Board Buys Road Route — Clearing the way for construction of a modern highway in Little Cottonwood canyon, county commissioners Friday purchased from the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad 11 miles of right-of-way." "The federal government, it was reported by County Surveyor George M. Haley, has already approved a grant of $158,535 for the work. Salt Lake county's share of the construction cost will be $20,638." "The 200-foot right-of-way, extending from a point near the settlement of Granite to the mining town of Alta, near the canyon head, will form the basis for the new highway. The road will be 24 feet wide." (Salt Lake Telegram, November 1, 1935, "Friday" was November 1st)
In April, May and June 1936, D&RGW removed a total of 15.7 miles of rail from the line between Sandy and Wasatch, and from Wasatch to Tanners. (D&RGW AFE 5196, "Retirement of Little Cottonwood Branch," approved February 27, 1934; closed as "complete" on November 18, 1936)
August 4, 1936
"Old D.&R.G. Strip Purchase Approved — Purchase of the old Denver & Rio Grande railroad right-of-way in Little Cottonwood canyon for $1000 had been affirmed Tuesday by county commissioners." "The strip of land is 9.37 miles long and is the basis for a new roadway through the canyon which is nearing completion under supervision of the county road department as a Works Progress Administration project." (Salt Lake Telegram, August 4, 1946, "Tuesday" was August 4th; Murray Eagle, August 6, 1936)
October 8, 1936
The upper and lower portions of the new Little Cottonwood canyon road were complete, with the middle portion of "several miles" still yet to be graded and graveled. The appropriated funds were being requested to allow the road to be completed before the winter season. (Salt Lake Telegram, October 8, 1936) (The final funding was released on November 11, 1936.)
Milestones From "Silver To Skis"
"Silver To Skis: A History of Alta, Utah, and Little Cottonwood Canyon, 1847 to 1966." Thesis by Anthony Will Bowman, 1967, Utah State University. (979.22/AL7b)
1853 -- Grazing rights were granted in Little Cottonwood canyon. (page 7)
1853, November -- Jeter Clinton was granted rights to build a wagon toll road. (page 8, citing Salt Lake County Road Book #A, November 16, 1853)
1851 -- First sawmill was likely built at Tanner's Flat. (page 9)
1859 -- First settlement, Granite or Graniteville, located at church quarries. (page 46)
1863, September -- Wasatch Mining District was organized. (page 13)
1864, July -- Silver ore was discovered in Little Cottonwood canyon. (page 14)
1865, August -- First claim was filed in the newly organized Mountain Lakes Mining District. By 1873, the number of claims had risen to 2,100. (page 15, 16, 30)
1866, Summer -- First smelter was built; didn't last a year. (page 19)
1869, July -- First ore was shipped by rail, from Ogden, after being freighted from the mine to Ogden by wagon. Prior to railroad service, all mining was by placer mining. After the railroad came, mining was by "lode" mining. (page 22, 24)
1870, June -- Little Cottonwood Mining District organized, included all land drained by Little Cottonwood creek. (page 24; citing Utah Historical Quarterly, October 1955)
1871, January -- Smelters were built again; last smelter ceased operation in 1875. Highest production was in 1871-1877. About $13 million being taken out of the ground between 1871 and 1880. Ratio of silver to other ore was 3 to 1. (page 34)
1871, January -- Central City post office established nine miles up canyon. (January 21, 1871). Central City replaced by Alta as principle city in canyon. Alta located about 1/2 mile east (up-canyon) of Central City. (page 47, 48, 49)
1871, September -- Utah Southern railroad began operating to Sandy. (page 22)
1872-1873 -- Peak of ore production from Little Cottonwood Mining District. (page 51)
1873 -- Granite (Graniteville) changed to Wasatch upon arrival of railroad. Wasatch station located 1-1/2 mile into canyon. (page 47)
1873, May -- Wasatch & Jordan Valley railroad was completed to the granite quarries. (page 23)
1873, July -- Alta City platted. (page 52)
1873, September -- Wasatch & Jordan Valley railroad was completed to Fairfield Flats. (page 23)
1903 to 1907 -- Second boom period. (page 35)
1908 to 1915 -- Second period of decline. (page 35)
1915 to 1917 -- Third boom period. (page 35)
1918 to (x) -- Third period of decline. (page 35)
1919 -- D&RG operated a narrow gauge railroad on roadbed of mule road above Fairfield Flats. (page 41)
1922 -- Same railroad operated as Alta Scenic Railroad. (page 42)
Little Cottonwood Canyon Railroads -- A Google map of the railroads in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Alta Mines -- Information about the mining activity at Alta.
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)
When Alta's Cliffs Echoed The Sound Of Train Whistles -- An article by Larry James, from the Home Section of the August 27, 1967 issue of the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper.
Newspaper Research -- An album of newspaper clippings retained from researching the railroads and mines of Little Cottonwood canyon.
Little Cottonwood Images -- An album of images of the railroads and mines of Little Cottonwood canyon.