The Golden Pass

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A History of Transportation in Parleys Canyon, Utah

by Don Strack

This page was last updated on February 22, 2019.

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(See also: Union Pacific's Park City Branch)

(Originally completed as a research paper written in March 1983 as a combined project while attending Dean May's "Utah History", Merrill Ridd's "Elements of Cartography", and Albert Fisher's "Utah Geography." I received an 'A' for all three classes. Scanned and digitized from the typed original. A full color map was also included as part of the project, showing all of the railroads and highways in Parleys Canyon.)


Each of northern Utah's major urban areas has its own major route of access to the east: Ogden has Weber Canyon; Salt Lake City has Parleys Canyon; and Provo has Spanish Fork Canyon. The importance of each route is reinforced by the construction of a railroad line as a route to the east. When Union Pacific came into Utah in 1868 they picked a route which descended the Wasatch Mountains through Weber Canyon and when the Denver & Rio Grande was building their line across the eastern Utah desert toward Salt Lake City in 1881, the only route open to practicable construction was by way of Spanish Fork Canyon. Salt Lake City's Parleys Canyon also had a railroad, albeit not one that crossed state lines. The canyon also developed into "the way east" for just about all other means of transportation, including some of the Mormon pioneer handcart companies and wagon trains bound for Zion. The canyon was also the route chosen for the United States Mail overland routes of the Pony Express in 1860 and the Overland stagecoaches soon after that.

The transportation story of Parleys Canyon is one of development by phases, in which one mode of transportation improves on, or replaces, another. The most recent phase is today's high-speed six-lane limited access freeway which is Interstate 80; but it all began with Parley Parker Pratt's initial exploration of the entire canyon in June 1848.

The first reference to what is now Parleys Canyon being used as a course of travel comes at the end of May 1846 when Lansford Hastings, of "Hastings Cutoff" fame, was headed east to explore the route which he was promoting in his "Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California" publication of 1845. His party of 17 men and boys, three women, and two children, along with about 150 mules and horses, traveled eastward ascending the Canyon to its mid-point and veered northward to cross over Big Mountain Pass and enter the Weber River drainage on their way to Fort Bridger. The roughness of the lower portion of Parleys Canyon is illustrated as neither of the two routes used by the four immigrant parties of 1846 that Hastings guided that summer west from Fort Bridger used the Canyon as a means of entering the Salt Lake Valley. (1)

When the Mormon pioneer company arrived in Utah in July 1847 they decided against Weber Canyon due to the roughness of that canyon at Devils Gate. Instead they followed the tracks of the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party over Big Mountain Pass and descended into the Salt Lake Valley by way of Emigration Canyon. By taking that route, they also by-passed the severe lower three miles of Parleys Canyon.

Parleys Canyon was not its original name. On August 22, 1847, at the weekly church meeting, Brigham Young named all of the creeks entering the Salt Lake Valley from the east. Starting at the northern end of the valley he called the first creek City Creek; the second was named Red Butte Creek; the third was christened Canyon Creek - now Emigration Creek; and the fourth one, between Canyon Creek and Mill Creek to the south, officially became Big Canyon (or Kanyon) Creek, with the geologic defile through which it traveled aptly being referred to simply as Big Kanyon Creek Kanyon. (2)

Many of the pioneers had noted the possibility of Big Kanyon being improved as a means of traveling through the Wasatch Mountains and entering Salt Lake Valley from the east. The ease of travel in the upper portions of the canyon, from Kimball's Junction westward over the summit to the present location of Mountain Dell Reservoir, abruptly changed for the worse in the canyon's lower three miles, with severe curves and roughness. Parley P. Pratt (after whom the canyon is now named) took it upon himself to do some early exploring through the canyon and into the area north of present-day Park City that was called Parleys Park, today referred to as Snyderville Basin.

Beginning on June 30, 1848, Pratt rode up Canyon Creek (now Emigration) Canyon, crossed over Little Mountain Summit and descended into the North Fork of Big Kanyon Creek Kanyon. He then proceeded past what is now Lambs Canyon and crossed over the summit into the very large high mountain meadow, a basin shaped area called a "park", which forms the head waters of East Canyon Creek. This high meadow basin soon became known as "Parley's Park." Upon his return he reported to Brigham Young that there was much timber and grazing lands in the vicinity. He also reported that 16 to 20 miles distant from Great Salt Lake City, there were suitable sites for the quarrying of sandstone as a building material. Parley Pratt also recommended to the church High Council that they appoint a formal exploration party to look into the possibility of building a road through the canyon; an action which was immediately taken. (3)

Parley Pratt's Golden Pass Toll Road

On July 3, 1848, Parley Pratt, John Van Cott, and Daniel Spencer left the Salt Lake Valley and spent three days exploring Pratt's proposed route. In their written report to the High Council upon their return they stated that a good wagon road could be built for about $800, and that such a route would be the only practical pass to be found for a good road from Great Salt Lake City to the upper parts of the Weber River. Such a road would thus do away with the then-present road which descended the tortuous and steep Big Mountain Pass at the head of what was then called the North Fork of Big Kanyon and what is now called Little Dell Canyon, site of today's Little Dell Reservoir. They suggested that $500 be spent "forthwith" to divert the present road via Henefer, East Canyon, and Big Mountain Pass to the route above the lower part of Big Kanyon (through Mountain Dell) and continue it over the summit to the Weber River, with the work in the lower portion of Parleys Canyon being held off until after that season's harvest. (4) When others failed to act on the exploration party's suggestions, Elder Pratt was given a charter to open the road as a private enterprise. In his autobiography Parley Pratt states that in July 1849, after tending to his crops for that season, he commenced work on the road and continued until November when he was required to see to the harvest. (5)

The first reference to his new road being used comes on December 19, 1849, when a party of missionaries bound for France left Great Salt Lake City on October 19, 1849, and proceeded up Emigration Canyon, over Little Mountain Summit and "took Parley's new route." (6) The party spent the night of October 20 near present day Gorgoza, passed through Parley's Park on October 21, and that night camped on the Weber River. (7) Pratt further states in his autobiography that in February 1850, after returning from his calling to explore southern Utah in January, he again commenced work on his road and that by July of that year it was sufficiently complete to be opened for use. (8)

The first group to use Pratt's "Golden Pass Road" was a group of eight men from Kendall County, Illinois, who called themselves the "Newark Rangers". They signed a letter describing the route as being "good, for a new road." (9)

Pratt collected a toll for the use of his road which consisted of 50 cents for each vehicle drawn by one animal; 75 cents for each one drawn by two animals, 10 cents for each draft, saddle, or pack animal; five cents per head of loose stock; and a single cent for each head of sheep. When Captain Howard Stansbury and his Corps of Topographical Engineers survey party passed through the canyon in August 1850 they were required to pay a total toll of $6.00 at the toll house (believed to have been located at the mouth of the canyon near Sentinel, or Suicide Rock), but not without comment. They recorded that they had to unload their wagons three times and unhitch their mules a dozen times "on account of the crookedness of the road." Parley Pratt in his autobiography recorded that he collected $1,500.00 during that first season of 1850. It was estimated that 6,000 travelers used the "Golden Pass Road" that year. (10)

The Golden Pass Road fell into disrepair after 1851, when Pratt sold his interest in the road to finance his calling to serve a church mission to Chile. (11) Unfortunately it is not recorded to whom he sold his interest but the lack of upkeep must have made for some public outcry. And it is public outcry that spurs politicians into action. On February 16, 1852, the Territorial Legislature approved a bill entitled "An Act For Improvement of Big Kanyon Creek Road". The law provided an unspecified appropriation for some work to be done on the road. On January 16, 1855, the Legislature took further action in the form of approving a bill entitled "An Act To Incorporate The Big Kanyon Road Company" which provided for a territorial charter of the enterprise, although it is not known who the individuals were that were involved in the organization. On September 29, 1855 two men, W. W. Phelps and a Mr. Rhoades, traveled to Parleys Park and returned to Great Salt Lake City via Parleys Canyon. On October 3, they made the comment that "the road down Big Kanyon will take considerable labor to make it even a passable road." (12)

Overland Mail And Stage Route

Parleys Canyon became an important link in the Overland Mail route of the United States Post Office. The three different phases of the Overland Route development: the "Jackass Mail" of the 1850's; the Pony Express; and Overland stagecoaches of the 1860's; each used either the entire Golden Pass road from the Weber River to Salt Lake City or just the portion of it from Mountain Dell to Salt Lake City. Prior to the establishment of the Pony Express the mail from the East - "the States" - was handled by a contract originally awarded to Samuel H. Woodsen in 1850. The contract passed through several hands during the 1850s eventually ending up with the three organizers of the Pony Express: Alexander Majors; William H. Russell; and William B. Waddell. In 1859, these three also purchased the Salt Lake City to San Francisco mail contract from George Chorenning, who had been operating it since 1851. (13) The only known reference to the difficulties encountered along the route through Parleys Canyon comes on January 11, 1860, just prior to the April 1860 start-up of the Pony Express. The reference, in the Journal History of the LDS Church, states that "the mail 'from the States' was due on the 10th but arrived on the 11th due to heavy snow between the Weber and the city along the route through Parley's Park, which was chosen as the best route for the mail during the winter. The most recent date in the mail from New York and other Atlantic cities is December 10th." (14)

When the Pony Express began operation in April 1860 - the first rider from the West arrived in Salt Lake City on April 7 and the first rider from the East arrived on the 9th - their chosen route was along the Mormon Trail from Echo to East Canyon and over Big Mountain Pass. After descending Big Mountain Pass the Express riders continued down what is now Mountain Dell Canyon to Parleys Canyon and completed the portion of their route into Salt Lake City by passing down the lower part of Parleys Canyon. The urgent need for a rapid message service between the East and California which was being filled by the Express was soon better filled by the completion of the transcontinental telegraph in 1861; pushing the Pony Express into its place in history after only 19 months of operation. Brigham Young took advantage of being able to send the first telegram from Salt Lake City to the East on October 18, 1861, by addressing it to President Abraham Lincoln and assuring him that the people of Utah Territory were loyal to the United States. (15)

Stagecoach service through Parleys Canyon was begun in August 1858 by the Leavenworth & Pikes Peak Express Co. when their first 10 coaches arrived at Atchison, Kansas, by Missouri River steamboat. The 10 coaches were immediately put into service on the company's route between Atchison and Salt Lake City, in cooperation with the Central Overland California Express Company which operated another stage line between Salt Lake City and Sacramento, California. (16) The exact route through Parley's Canyon is not clearly known but upon consolidation of these two companies into the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company on July 1, 1861 (17), the stations listed through the Parleys Canyon vicinity were the same as those that were listed for the Pony Express. (18) It was during this time, circa 1858, that the town of Mountain Dell was established at the site of what is now Mountain Dell Reservoir. The town was originally referred to as Hanks' Station because it grew up around the stage station that was run by Ephraim K. Hanks. (19) The station was later run by a man by the name of Hardy, who may have been the same man who became the Bishop of the Mountain Dell Ward of the LDS Church. Mountain Dell was referred to as Hardy's Station or Bishop Hardy's as early as August 1864. (20)

A change for the Overland mail route came in 1862. On March 21, the Overland mail contract of the United States Post Office was transferred to the Overland Stage Co., organized by Ben Holladay. (21) Evidence of the change is that a new stage station was established at the ranch of William Kimball at the north end of Parleys Park in 1862. (22) In June 1864 William Kimball was named as the Postmaster of the newly established Parleys Park Post Office which was set-up to serve the residents of communities as far away as Heber City and Park City. (23)

Territorial Toll Road

Parley Pratt's "Golden Pass Road" was by this time becoming the major thoroughfare for travelers to the East. In the Journal History of the LDS Church for the years 1860, 1862, and 1863 there are numerous references to immigrant wagon companies arriving in Salt Lake City after having traveled through the canyon and also references to companies of church missionaries traveling through the canyon and rendezvousing at Kimball's Ranch in Parleys Park to continue their trip east. (24)

On November 16, 1864, the Deseret News printed an editorial which stated: "The amount of travel over the Wasatch Mountains is calling loudly for a well laid and made road kept in thorough repair. There is a tolerable road by way of the Big Kanyon Creek Kanyon, Parley's Park and Silver Creek upon which much has been expended but a large expenditure is needed to complete it as it should be and keep it in good repair." (25) In answer to this call, along with others, the Legislature, while it was in session during January 1865, considered a bill that "would charter a company to construct a full road from Weber River, via Parley's Park and Parley's Kanyon, to the city..." (26) Apparently the bill did not pass because the matter was brought before the next session in 1866. Governor Charles Durkee in his message to the Legislature on January 1, 1866, in calling for further legislation on the subject, made the following statement about the Parleys Canyon road: "The road from this city, through Parley's Park to the Weber River, is the avenue through which passes the greater portions of the imports for the Territory. The road is an extremely difficult one and although much labor has been expended upon it, it is still, for much of the year, impassable." (27) On January 19, 1866, the Legislature approved a bill entitled "An Act Establishing a Territorial Road From Great Salt Lake City To Wanship, Summit County" and also appropriated $6,000 to build it. (28)

An amendment to the Act passed at the same time set the locations for the toll gates, which were located near Lambs Canyon and in Silver Creek Canyon just southwest of Wanship. The amendment also made it possible for the convicts of the State Penitentiary to be used for some of the labor in the construction of the road. (29)

The upkeep and operation of the new toll road became the subject of regular attention by the Territorial Legislature. In January 1869 they approved an amendment to the original Act which defined some of the duties of the Superintendent of the Salt Lake City to Wanship wagon road. The amendment made three stipulations: first was that the Superintendent cancel the accumulated toll which was owed by the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company of the LDS Church for the year 1868 - $1,866.00; second was that the superintendent was not to collect any toll for the second section of the road, that part of the road which traversed the summit, between Hardy's Station at Mountain Dell and Ferguson's settlement near East Canyon Creek on the other side of the summit, until May of each year; third was that the superintendent was not to collect a toll from any party when the expenses of collecting that toll would exceed or equal eighty percent of the toll to be collected. (30) On February 18, 1870, the Legislature approved another amendment which allowed the superintendent to not collect a toll at any time that he felt it appropriate not to do so. (31) During the 1872 session the Legislature made a move which reduced its direct involvement in the operation of the toll road through Parleys Canyon. On February 13, 1872, they approved still another amendment which gave the superintendent instructions that he was to no longer collect any tolls and that he should sell all of his tools and equipment and deposit the proceeds in the Treasury of the Territory. This amendment also repealed all of the previous amendments and the original Act itself. (32)

These acts of the Territorial Legislature may seem like they were cutting themselves off from a source of regular income. In reality though, traffic over the former Golden Pass Road must have been way down. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, along with the completion of the Utah Central Railroad between Ogden and Salt Lake City in January 1870, allowed the immigrant traffic to come to Utah by rail. The railroad now carried most of the regular passenger traffic, along with most of the freight traffic, both at a reduced cost of time and money. The Legislature making these changes to the duties of the superintendent may simply have been acknowledging an already existing situation. The final act that took away the superintendent's duties altogether acknowledged that there probably wasn't much for him to do anyway.

The route of the territorial toll road through Silver Creek Canyon remained as the major route between Echo and Salt Lake City. It paralleled the Utah Eastern Railway's route through the canyon (abandoned in 1887), as well as the Summit County Railroad. The latter was controlled by Union Pacific which renamed it as the Echo & Park City Railroad. Later it became Union Pacific's Park City Branch. The same route became U. S. Highway 189, and later serves today's Interstate 80. (Wikipedia article about U. S. Highway 189)

Railroad Route

During the years between 1868 and 1870, community and business leaders became aware of the potential benefits of system of railroads within the territory. At the time there was much concern by these people, and the public in general, about the virtual monopoly that the Union Pacific Railroad had on the coal supply for the northern Utah communities. Coal was badly needed both as a source of home heating fuel and as a source of energy for the manufacturing and smelting industries that were just beginning to grow in the territory. Coal had been discovered in 1854 in Coalville, but with the Union Pacific charging excessive freight rates to move it to Salt Lake City the only alternative was to use slow, but less costly, freight wagons between Coalville and Salt Lake City along the territorial road through Parleys Canyon. (33) This situation was ripe for a railroad to be organized to transport the coal to Salt Lake City, and this is exactly what happened. On January 25, 1873, the organizers of the Salt Lake & Echo Railroad filed their articles of association (or incorporation) with the Auditor of Public Accounts. (34) This group of non-Mormon Salt Lake City businessmen proposed to build a narrow-gauge railroad from Salt Lake City to Coalville via Parleys Canyon and then to Echo, a station on the Union Pacific. (35) However, their plan must have run into problems because no further reference to their company can be found. Fortunately this one failed attempt did not deter others from trying to accomplish the same thing. Within two days of each other the Utah Eastern Railroad and the Salt Lake & Coalville Railroad, on June 11 and 13, 1874, respectively, each filed their articles of incorporation. Both companies had the same proposed purpose - to build a railroad between Salt Lake City and Coalville by way of Parleys Canyon. (36) The organizers of the Utah Eastern were principally Mormon businessmen and those of the Salt Lake & Coalville were mostly Gentile (non-Mormon) businessmen.

The competition between the two for notoriety and financial participants was apparently quite fierce. The conflict was, however, brief because when Brigham Young added his influence to the efforts of the Utah Eastern, the Salt Lake & Coalville promoters faded into history. There is some irony to the conflict because even when the Utah Eastern had the field to itself it still failed to gain the necessary financial support that would allow it to build its proposed road (37) and it too faded into "never built" status, along with the other 150-plus of Utah's railroads that never got beyond the proposal stage.

During this period of the early 1870s, the silver mining camp of Parley's Park City (later just Park City), began to grow in prominence because of the development efforts of men like George Hearst and John J. Daly. (38) (John J. Daly was a close friend, but no relation to Marcus Daly, of Anaconda and Butte, Montana fame.) The tremendously rich Ontario Claim had been discovered in July 1872 (39) and there were many other mines that were in need of transportation for either their ores or their valuable concentrates from the reduction mills. The mine and mills also needed a supply of coal for their steam boilers. The need for transportation of coal into the mining camp, and mining products out was soon filled by two railroads from the Coalville area; the standard-gauge Summit County Railway (later the Echo & Park City Railway) and the narrow-gauge Utah Eastern, a completely different organization than the one mentioned earlier. These two railroads both built into Park City in December 1880 and shared the traffic in and out of the mining camp. The Utah Eastern was eventually controlled and later abandoned by the Echo & Park City, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad. (40)

During the late 1870s and early 1880s, there was a boom in the development of Utah's railroads. Denver & Rio Grande Railway (of Colorado) became interested in extending its lines into Utah. To do this its organizers put together a group of interested parties who were residents of the territory, to satisfy the incorporation laws. This group of men gained control of several independent lines or incorporated lines of their own to build where they thought there might be a market for the services of a railroad. One of these newly organized companies was the Salt Lake & Park City Railway, incorporated on May 25, 1881, with the proposed route of following Parleys Canyon from Salt Lake City to Park City, with a branch to Coalville to supply Salt Lake City with cheaper coal. (41) At this same time the Utah Eastern Railroad was in operation between Coalville and Kimball's Ranch, with a branch to Park City. The Salt Lake & Park City intended to connect with the Utah Eastern at Kimball's and do away with the steady stream of coal freight wagons that were operating between there and Salt Lake City. In July of the same year the Denver & Rio Grande decided to consolidate its interests within the territory and make them part of a grand plan to build a rail line into every possible location in the territory that might have a need for one. Their plan was to construct over 3,000 miles of tracks extending in all directions within the territory. To do this they incorporated the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway on July 21, 1881. An hour later on the same day they filed articles of consolidation for this company and two others that they controlled, which included the Salt Lake & Park City line. (42) With all of the legal and financial maneuvering required to build this proposed system of rail lines (most of which were not built) the Salt Lake & Park City got lost in the shuffle and it too faded into history.

There was another rather half-hearted attempt at building a railroad up Parleys Canyon to connect with the unfinished Utah Eastern. On May 21, 1883, the Salt Lake Eastern Railway filed its incorporation papers. (43) It too was organized by Salt Lake businessmen in hopes of cashing in on the silver boom that was taking place in Park City. This line also failed to get beyond the planning stage and is only remembered for its name and its intentions.

Salt Lake City in the 1880s was a rapidly growing community. Its population doubled between 1880 and 1890 due mainly to large numbers of immigrants entering the city, most of whom were Mormon converts coming to "The Gathering Place". All of this in-migration soon led to a building boom and a great need for building materials more permanent than adobe brick and logs. One of these building materials was sandstone and it was to provide transportation of cut sandstone and sandstone rubble for foundations that John W. Young, Brigham's son, built his Salt Lake & Fort Douglas Railway during the years between 1885 and 1888. (44)

The railroad extended from Salt Lake City eastward to the sandstone quarries located in Emigration and Red Butte canyons. In addition it was built onto the military reservation of Fort Douglas in order to transport military supplies. The company also built a branch south along the Salt Lake & Jordan Canal (through what is today Sugar House) in the direction of the Cottonwood Canyons. The purpose of this branch was to get the granite from the quarries in Little Cottonwood Canyon into Salt Lake City for the building of the LDS Salt Lake Temple. This branch was not completed beyond the north bank of Mill Creek but it did serve as a beginning point of another project which concerns us in our story of Parleys Canyon.

At about the same time that John Young had pushed his Cottonwood Branch as far south as he could, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce contacted him about building a branch up Parleys Canyon to the shale beds that were located there. (45) He immediately began working on the branch, although his eagerness cannot be attributed solely to the transporting of shale. The possibility that the railroad could serve as a direct link between Salt Lake City and the silver boom town of Park City was almost certainly on his mind. Work on the branch began in May 1888 (46) and by August it became apparent that the financial resources of the Salt Lake & Fort Douglas could not support the venture. In order to provide finances solely for the construction of the line up Parleys Canyon to Park City, Young incorporated the Salt Lake & Eastern Railroad on September 22, 1888. (47) By the time that the new company was organized, contractors for Young's Salt Lake & Fort Douglas had graded eight miles up the canyon and had laid four miles of track. (48) When the new company took control, the contractors continued working but were eventually halted by winter weather. The forces of the railroad had managed to lay the rails as far as Mountain Dell before the weather forced them to stop until spring. Construction resumed in May 1889 and a year later the track reached Park City. (49)

In late 1889 it was becoming difficult for John Young to get financial backing for his railroads. This in addition to a lack of operating income from the companies forced him to reorganize and consolidate some of his railroad interests into a new company. On April 8, 1890, a month before reaching Park City, the Salt Lake & Eastern became part of the new company which was called the Utah Central Railway. (50) The name was available because the previous Utah Central, which had been controlled by Union Pacific, had itself been consolidated with other UP-controlled railroads in Utah and Idaho to form the Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern on July 27, 1889. (51) John Young may have picked the name to take advantage of the general good reputation that it carried with it because of its association with Union Pacific. (52)

Most of the new Utah Central's business consisted of hauling supplies into Park City, and transporting the ores and concentrates from the mines into Salt Lake City. Two other major types of business provided traffic for the line. First were the sandstone quarries located along the line into Park City. Second were the ice ponds between Gorgoza and Kimball's in Parleys Park along East Canyon Creek. These ponds were "harvested" for ice during the winter months, with the ice being stored in ice houses. These ice houses, which were located along the right-of-way, would then become shipping points for the sale of ice during the months of need throughout the year. (53)

By the mid-1890s, the silver boom in Park City was rapidly coming to a halt due to the general depression of the world-wide silver market, and the loss of traffic for the Utah Central was significant. With the loss of the mining traffic, the ice and sandstone business was not sufficient to keep the railroad in operation and the company was forced into receivership in November 1893. (54) Receivers appointed by the bankruptcy court operated the line until it was reorganized and purchased by Rio Grande Western Railway interests on December 28, 1897. (55) The new company, called the Utah Central Railroad, was a subsidiary of the Rio Grande Western, which immediately leased the new company's tracks and facilities to itself for operation and maintenance. Rio Grande Western also immediately set about re-surveying the line and by 1900 had completed a major rebuilding which included a relocation of the line between Lambs Canyon and Gorgoza. The new line reduced the steepness of the original grade, and included a 1,100-foot tunnel under the summit. Also included in the rebuilding of the line was its conversion from three-foot narrow-gauge to the standard-gauge that was used by the RGW throughout the rest of its system, and by the majority of the railroads in the country. What was to become the Park City Branch of the Rio Grande Western Railway (later the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1908 and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1921) remained until abandonment in 1946. The last train operated over the line on October 22, 1946. The rails were taken up between Park City and the cement rock quarry located in the lower section of Parleys Canyon, from which there was enough traffic to justify keeping the tracks in place. Even these tracks were taken up in the mid 1950s when the State decided to improve the highway through the canyon. The last evidence of a rail line in the canyon, other than the abandoned roadbed itself, was the substantial concrete overpass that carried the rail line over U. S. 40, just east of the summit. The bridge was removed in 1971, during the initial stages of Interstate 80 construction.

The last train to operate in Parleys Canyon, east of Sugar House, was on Wednesday, January 4, 1956. That last train operated over the six miles of line between Sugar House and the lime stone quarry of Utah Portland Cement Co., and was made up of a D&RGW Fairbanks-Morse switcher, five gondola carloads of limerock, and a caboose. Within hours, buldozers began covering the tracks at the loading station at the quarry, in preparation for the improvement of U.S. 40 in Parleys Canyon, which would see the track buried by 18 feet of fill. After that last train, service was only to Alexander, at the mouth of the canyon, below the Stillman Bridge, where the cement company was to haul its limerock by truck to a new loading station at that point. The engineer was Clarence Morandi and the conductor was Golden Calloway, both of whom had apparently been making the same trip every day since 1946. (Deseret News, January 5, 1956, with photo)

Mountain Dell Reservoir

The water flow of Parleys Creek was originally used as a supply of irrigation water for the farmers south of Salt Lake City. By the late 1880's the city's culinary water supply from City Creek and Emigration Creek was becoming inadequate. In order to gain additional water supply Salt Lake City made an exchange of water from Parleys Creek for irrigation water that it owned coming out of Utah Lake. By this action the city gained control of 82.5 percent of the flow in Parleys Creek, with the remaining portion being owned by the State Penitentiary. (56) In early 1892 the city began construction of a reservoir at the mouth of Parleys Canyon near the base of Sentinel Rock. This reservoir was to be held back by a diversionary dam for a 36-inch aqueduct which would divert the water into the city's water system. (57) An interesting side note is that while boring through the base of Sentinel Rock the contractor found portions of a human skeleton - an occurrence which obviously led to many speculations as to how it got there. (58)

To protect its water supply from any impurities, the city purchased large portions of the watershed lands in Parleys Canyon, including all of the farms in the canyon and their water rights. (59) It was because of this action that the town of Mountain Dell, earlier called Hardy's Station, had to be vacated. The City also passed ordinances prohibiting grazing or "trailing" (the movement from one pasture to another) of livestock in the canyon. (60)

Almost immediately the reservoir and dam at the mouth of Parleys Canyon became subject to damaging floods that washed away various portions of the structure and the adjacent Rio Grande Western railroad track. In order to curtail and control the floods that were happening with great regularity, the city began planning, upon the suggestions of the City Engineer in 1903, for the construction of a dam and reservoir located at the forks of the canyon above the "narrows". (61) In December 1915, the plans were approved for the construction of an "Eastwood multiple-arch reinforced concrete dam". This dam was to be built to a partial height of 105 feet above the stream bed and would hold back an estimated 915 acre-feet (or 315 million gallons) of water. As an allowance for later expansion of capacity of the dam, plans were also approved for the dam to be built later to a full height of 145 feet with a holding capacity of 23,000 acre-feet of water. (62) The contract for construction was let on December 15, 1915, and excavation work was begun in April 1916. The dam was completed in August 1917 at a cost of just over $136,000. In 1924 it was decided to complete the construction of the dam to its originally planned full height of 145 feet. The contract for this enlargement was let in the fall of 1924 and construction commenced right away. The project, which was completed within a year, also included repairs to the original portion of the dam due to some of the concrete used in its construction being defective. (63) In 1926 the city decided that the best way to accomplish permanent repairs to the original portion of the dam was to "waterproof" it on the water side with a coating of asphalt (actually gilsonite) impregnated wool felt built up in layers to a thickness of just over an inch. This project was begun in September 1926 and was completed by December of the same year. (64) In 1971 and 1972 further repairs were needed to strengthen the deteriorating 50-year-old concrete structure.

George Washington Memorial Park

When Salt Lake City purchased much of the watershed in Parleys Canyon in the 1890s to protect its water supply, it obviously a lot of undeveloped land on its hands. In an attempt to allow public use of the land, the city set aside 7,000 acres in May 1932 and designated it as the George Washington Memorial Park. (65) During 1935, a project was started to replant trees in the park using the depression era Civilian Conservation Corps. (66) These trees were needed to replace the many trees that had been removed for timber during the pioneer times. If you will remember, one of the reasons that Parley Pratt gave a favorable report about "his" canyon in 1848 was that it had an abundant supply of timber. This supply was exploited almost immediately by men who built numerous saw mills in the area of Lambs Canyon and Mountain Dell. Two of the saw mills were run by the Hardy family and one source has it that Lambs Canyon got its name from a man named Lamb who built a saw mill at the mouth of that canyon. (67)

In 1959, also as a better public use of its land in Parleys Canyon, the city built the present Mountain Dell Golf Course. The course was greatly improved by the addition of a clubhouse in 1965.

Highway Development

The old territorial toll road through Parleys Canyon remained as a dirt track for wagon and horseback travel between Salt Lake City and points east. As gasoline-powered automobiles began to replace horse-drawn wagon as a preferred means of road transportation, the drivers of the new autos discovered that roads in better condition were needed because of the increased over-the-road speed of the autos.

As part of the original Mountain Dell dam construction in 1917, the former territorial road, located at the bottom of the canyon, was relocated further up on the south side of the canyon. (68) This was to be the first of many road and highway improvements in the canyon's history.

America's love affair with the automobile was just beginning. The number of cars more than tripled between 1915 and 1920; from 2.5 million to over 9 million. (69) In response to this rapid growth in the number of automobiles on the nation's roads, Congress in 1916 passed the Federal Highway Act. The law was to serve as a means of cooperation between state and federal governments in the construction of rural post roads, its intent being to improve the mail delivery by the U. S. Post Office. The Act was amended in November 1921 to include cooperation in the construction of a designated system of highways. This financial cooperation would be limited however to just seven percent of a state's total road system. (70)

The amount of traffic between Salt Lake City and points east, including Park City, Heber City, and Coalville, was increasing along with traffic on the rest of the nation's roads. There are no actual figures available for the period before 1925, but for the period between 1925 and 1927, the daily average for the entire year rose from 853 in 1925, to 1,018 in 1927, with a peak number of 2,094 cars on July 17, 1927, in a 10 hour period, a impressive number of cars for an unimproved, ungraded and primitive former wagon road. (71)

To help alleviate the problem, the State Road Commission, along with the Federal Department of Roads, made a proposal for an oiled and improved road from the mouth of the canyon to Mountain Dell Reservoir. Major improvements included re-grading to incorporate a raised center in the road, known as a "crown", to improve drainage (to get water off of the road), along with fills and culverts (to get rid of the water once it was off of the road). The remainder of the road from the reservoir to the summit would also be improved, but left as graded gravel. This improved road was to be extended beyond the summit to Kimball's Junction where it would then branch out in the directions of Park City, Coalville and Heber. The designation of the project was Federal Aid Projects 97A and 97B, to the summit, and Federal Aid Project 103 for the portion between the summit and Kimball's Junction. Construction on the project to Lambs Canyon began in August 1927, and was completed to the fill at Lambs Canyon a year later in August 1928. The project included filling in D&RGW's railroad trestle at the mouth of Lambs Canyon. When completed, the fill was wide enough at the top to accommodate both the railroad and the highway. Construction work from the trestle to the summit was begun in July 1930, and was completed in December 1930, at a total cost of $57,075. To reduce construction costs, part of the project was built on the roadbed of the original narrow gauge railroad which was abandoned and dismantled in 1900 when D&RGW rebuilt its railroad line in the canyon.

The two-decade span of time between the completion of these two projects in 1930, and the post-World War II era, saw the highway in Parleys Canyon improved even more by complete paving and designation as U. S. Highway 40, along with completion of the Stillman Bridge, in 1937, at the mouth of the canyon as an intersection between U. S. 40 and Wasatch Boulevard. During these years the two-lane road through Parleys canyon gained a questionable reputation for being a dangerous route due to its steep grades and tight curves. Many Salt Lake City-bound vehicles, including trucks, failed to make the curve above Mountain Dell dam because of increasing speeds and malfunctioning brakes.

(Read more about the Stillman bridge)

As part of the nation's new interstate highway program, planning was begun in 1954 for a much improved highway to be built through Parleys Canyon. Construction was begun on this new four-lane limited access road in October 1955, with the closing of the lower section of the canyon to allow uninhibited blasting that would reduce both the grade and curvature of the road. The contract was awarded to Gibbons & Reed on July 26, 1955. The road through the canyon remained closed for a full year until the project was completed in November 1956. While the Parleys canyon road was closed, traffic was detoured by way of Emmigration Canyon.

(Portions of the construction in Parleys Canyon was covered, including photos, in the October 1955 and May 1956 issues of Intermountain Industry magazine.)

During the next decade, the continued increases in traffic in the canyon made it necessary for the State Road Commission to again make improvements in its road system. In 1964, as a combined state and federal project, construction began on a new "belt route" freeway to serve all of the Salt Lake Valley's communities. The project began with the improvement of Wasatch Boulevard at the mouth of Parleys Canyon. A large fill was placed across the mouth of the canyon which would allow Wasatch Boulevard traffic to bypass the traffic bottleneck at the old Stillman Bridge, located about a quarter-mile up the canyon. The present, large interchange for Foothill Boulevard, Wasatch Boulevard, and Interstate 80 was installed at the mouth of the canyon during the period of 1964 to 1966.

During the 1960's the design criteria for the nation's system of Interstate Highways changed. The Interstate Highways were to become high-speed superhighways with less curvature and reduced grades, of very limited access and in many instances built in entirely new locations. In 1969, construction was begun on the portion of Interstate 80, which was to proceed through Parleys Canyon. The road in the canyon was again closed to allow still more blasting in the narrow lower section of the canyon. Because of the unique design of the Interstate which consists of two separate lanes of travel it was only necessary to close the canyon for about nine months, between October 1969 and July 1970. Construction was under way for almost two years; from July 1969 to July 1971. The remaining section of the Interstate between Mountain Dell Reservoir and Kimballs Junction in Parleys Park remained under different stages of construction throughout the years between 1971 and 1973, when it was finally completed.

As an indication of the growth in travel by automobile that America experienced, you only need to compare the daily average volume figures for Parleys Canyon to see the change. This figure grew from 853 in 1925; to 1,012 in 1927; to 3,635 in 1954; to 8,134 in 1968 with a proportional growth taking place today. (72)

Parleys Canyon has been an integral of the nation's transportation systems throughout history and it will likely continue to do so in the future. The technology of transportation has been changing continuously and the geography of Parleys Canyon has been changed to match it. As transportation continues to change, land transportation will remain part of the overall picture, and Parleys Canyon will continue to play a vital role. Parley Pratt's Golden Pass Road continues to be the route east from Salt Lake City.


Books and Articles

Carr, Stephen L. The Historical Guide to Utah Ghost Towns. (Western Epics, 1972).

Carroll, Peter A. and David W. Noble. The Restless Centuries: A History of the American People. (Burgess Publishing Company, 1979).

Conkling, Roscoe P. and Margaret B. Conkling. The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857-1869. (The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1947).

Fike, Richard E. and John W. Headley. The Pony Express Stations of Utah in Historical Perspective, Cultural Resource Series, Monograph 2. Utah: Bureau of Land Management, 1979

Knowlton, Ezra C. History of Highway Development in Utah. (Utah State Department of Transportation, no date).

Poll, Richard D., general editor. Utah's History. (Brigham Young University Press, 1978).

Pratt, Parley Parker. Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt. (Law, King, and Law, 1888).

Root, Frank A. and William Elsey Connelly. The Overland Stage to California. (Frank A. Root and William Elsey Connelly, 1901).

Thompson, George A. and Fraser Buck. Treasure Mountain Home: Park City Revisited. (Dream Garden Press, 1981).

Works Progress Administration, Writers Program. Utah, a Guide to the state. (Hastings House, 1941).


Adkins, Marlowe C., Jr., A History of John W. Young's Utah Railroads, 1884-1894. Unpublished Masters of Science dissertation, Utah State University, 1978

Reeder, Clarence A., Jr. History of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah, 1970


Bowthorpe, Asa A. History of Pioneer Sawmills and Local Canyons of Salt Lake Valley, 1961. Unpublished manuscript on file with the Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Newspaper articles

Barker, Clarence. "From Pioneer Trail to Freeway", Deseret News, December 16, 1966

Other Sources

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Journal History of the Church. Microfilm on file at University of Utah Marriott Library.

Union Pacific Railroad. Corporate History of Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, As of June 30th, 1916, prepared in compliance with requirements of ICC Valuation Order No. 20.

Salt Lake City, Utah. Salt Lake City Engineers Office, Annual Reports.

State of Utah. Department of Transportation, correspondence files and Engineering drawings for Federal Aid Projects 97A and 97B.

_____________. Office of Secretary of State, Incorporation records.

_____________. State Road Commission, Bi-annual Reports.


1. Richard D. Poll, editor, Utah's History (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978) pp. 80, 81

2. Journal History of the Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, (Here after cited as "JH".) August 22, 1847, p. 2

3. JH, June 30, 1848, p. 2

4. Clarence Barker, From Pioneer Trail to Freeway, Deseret News, December 16, 1966.

5. Parley Parker Pratt, Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt (Chicago: Law, King and Law, 1888) p. 407.

6. JH, December 11, 1849, p. 12

7. Pratt, op. cit., pp. 412, 413

8. Barker, op. cit.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ezra C. Knowlton, History of Highway Development in Utah (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Department of Highways, no date) p. 735

12. JH, October 3, 1855, p. 2

13. Richard E. Fike and John W. Headley, The Pony Express Stations of Utah in Historical Perspective, Cultural Resources Series, Monograph 2 (Bureau of Land Management, 1979) p. 1

14. JH, January 11, 1860, p.1

15. Frank A. Root and William Elsey Connelly, The Overland Stage to California (Topeka, Kansas: Frank A. Root and William Elsey Connelly, 1901) p. 137

16. Ibid., p.40

17. Ibid., p.41

18. Roscoe P. Conkling and Margaret B. Conkling, The Butterfield Overland Mail 1857-1869 (Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1947) Volume 2, p. 385

19. Stephen L. Carr, The Historical Guide to Utah Ghost Towns (Salt Lake City, Utah: Western Epics, 1972) p. 52

20. JH, August 18, 1864, p. 2

21. Conkling and Conkling; op. cit., p. 333

22. Works Progress Administration, Writers Program, Utah, a guide to the state (New York: Hastings House, 1941) p. 367

23. JH, June 22, 1864, p. 1

24. JH, June 7, 1860, pp. 14, 16; July 1, 1861, p. 7; September 27, 1860, p. 1; October 14, 1862, p. 1; May 19, 1863, p. 3

25. JH, November 16, 1864, p. 1

26. JH, January 12, 1865, p. 1

27. JH, December 10, 1866, p. 2

28. JH, January 19, 1869 p. 1

29. Knowlton, op. cit., p. 770

30. Ibid., p. 774

31. Ibid., p. 780

32. Ibid., p. 782

33. JH, July 14, 1867

34. Salt Lake & Echo Railroad Company, Articles of Association, on file in the office of the Secretary of State.

35. Clarence A. Reeder Jr., History of Utah's Railroads 1869-1883, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah, 1970, p. 330.

36. Salt Lake & Coalville Railroad Company, Articles of Incorporation, on file in the office of the Secretary of State; Reeder, op. cit., p. 331

37. Reeder, op. cit., pp. 331, 332.

38. George A. Thompson and Fraser Buck, Treasure Mountain Home: Park City Revisited, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Dream Garden Press, 1981) pp. 8, 11.

39. Ibid., p. 7.

40. For a better understanding of this event the reader is directed to Leonard J. Arrington, "Utah's Coal Road in an Age of Unregulated Competition." In Utah Historical Quarterly, January 1955.

41. Salt Lake & Park City Railway, Articles of Incorporation, on file in the office of the Secretary of State.

42. Reeder, op. cit., p. 378

43. Salt Lake Eastern Railway, Articles of Incorporation, on file in the office of the Secretary of State.

44. Marlowe C. Adkins Jr., A History of John W. Young's Utah Railroads, 1884-1894, unpublished MS dissertation, Utah State University, 1978, pp. 14-16.

45. Ibid., p. 59

46. Ibid.

47. Salt Lake & Eastern Railroad, Articles of Incorporation, on file in the office of the Secretary of State.

48. Adkins, op. cit.

49. Ibid., p. 64

50. Utah Central Railway, Articles of Incorporation, on file in the office of the Secretary of State.

51. Union Pacific Railroad. Corporate History of Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, As of June 30th, 1916, prepared in compliance with requirements of ICC Valuation Order No. 20., p.29

52. Adkins, op. cit., p. 61

53. Ibid., p. 24.

54. Ibid., p. 100.

55. Utah Central Railroad Company, Articles of Incorporation, on file in the office of the Secretary of State.

56. Salt Lake City, Utah. Annual Report of the City Engineers Office, 1907, p. 74.

57. JH, March 17, 1892.

58. JH, August 8, 1894.

59. Annual Report of the City Engineers Office, 1907, op. cit.

60. Ibid.

61. Annual Report of the City Engineers Office, 1903, p. 57.

62. Annual Report of the City Engineers Office, 1915, p. 95.

63. Annual Report of the City Engineers Office, 1925, p. 42.

64. Annual Report of the City Engineers Office, 1926, p. 48.

65. JH, May 28, 1934.

66. JH, October 18, 1935.

67. Asa A. Bowthorpe. History of Pioneer Sawmills and Local Canyons of Salt Lake Valley, unpublished manuscript on file with the Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1961, no pagination

68. Annual Report of the City Engineers Office, 1916, p. 99.

69. Peter A. Carroll and David W. Noble, The Restless Centuries: A History of the American People (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Burgess Publishing Company, 1979) p. 413.

70. Bi-annual Report of the Utah State Road Commission, 1929-30, p. 25.

71. This information was taken from drawings and correspondence on file with the Utah State Department of Transportation, Salt Lake City, Utah.

72. Deseret News, June 25, 1969.