The History and Economics of Utah's Railroads

(Return to Johnson Index Page)

By David F. Johnson

Chapter 1

What The Railroads Meant To Utah

Before the Railroad

Probably no region in the United States was so much in need of railroad communication as was the Territory of Utah in 1869. Up to the time of the settlement of Salt Lake Valley, the growth of the nation had been along the seacoasts and the inland waterways. No sizeable community found itself far from contact with the relatively cheap means of transportation -- by water.

Yet, here was this unique community of over forty thousand persons in 1860[1] nearly a thousand miles from the nearest navigable water, dependent on wagon hauls over mountains and desert for every article which could not be produced locally. Freight was hauled in wagons holding from 5,000 to 7,000 pounds,[2] pulled by many yoke of oxen; and it required a full summer to make the round trip from Independence, Missouri, to Utah. A great volume of traffic moved in this way. In 1860 as many as five hundred of those freight wagons frequently passed Fort Kearney, Nebraska, in a single day, westbound to Utah and the Pacific Coast.[3]

Such a means of transportation, of course, resulted in prohibitive prices in Utah on all imported goods. In the 1850s the freight costs were around $250 a ton from the Missouri River to Sutter's Fort, California. Passenger fare for the trip was $300.[4] This resulted in prices such as $1 a pound for flour and $1.50 a gallon for kerosene.


Because of this isolation, the self-sufficiency of the people, in every way possible, was the goal of Brigham Young. Soon after the first settlement in the Salt Lake Valley, steps were taken to bring about this ideal. Saw mills and grist mills were the first established; and before many years had passed, nearly every settlement boasted one or more of these mills. Early operations were begun, also, in the textile industries-the first "public carding machine" commenced operations in 1848, and another was "opened" in 1851. Weaving operations commenced about the same time. By 1855 Matthew Gaunt was producing five hundred dollars' worth of cloth weekly in a mill on the Jordan River south of Salt Lake City.[5]

Cotton fabric was first manufactured in Utah territory in 1854, when thirty yards were produced from Utah-grown cotton. A large mill was erected at Washington (Washington County) in 1866.[6] Efforts were also made at linen and silk manufacture using locally-grown raw materials, neither of which met with much success.

A critical shortage, of leather goods appeared soon after the arrival of the pioneers in the valley, and steps were taken to establish a leather industry. Samuel Mulliner exhibited the first leather produced in the territory in 1850 - one skin. This industry was hampered by a shortage of suitable tanning materials, but many plants were in operation between 1850 and 1870.[7]

The census of 1860 shows, among other things, seven plants making furniture; thirteen, boots and shoes; ten, flour and grain mill products; three, hats and caps; one, machinery; and three, wool carding and cloth dressing.[8] Other local industries made soap, brooms, candles, beverages, pottery and others.[9]

Great sums were spent, also, in attempts to develop sugar and iron industries.[10] Sugar making machinery was shipped from Europe and hauled from the Missouri River by wagon, but the process was not successful. Iron ore was discovered in the southern part of the territory in 1850, by Parley P. Pratt, and steps were immediately taken to develop the industry. In his message to the legislature of the State of Deseret on December 2, 1850, Brigham Young called attention to the discovery of iron ore and urged an appropriation to aid in its development. On December 3, 1850, Iron County was organized,[11] and a colony was soon established. The Cedar City Iron Company was organized and was making some progress, but was short of capital and workers. The Deseret Iron Company was formed in Liverpool, England, early in 1852. Iron was actually produced in the fall of 1852; but due to high costs, Indian depredations and floods, the experiments finally had to be acknowledged a failure in 1857 - one which had cost the territorial government about $150,000.[12]


The economy of the territory was almost completely agricultural. What other industries existed were, as has been stated, based on the attempt to make the community self-sustaining. After the first winter, the pioneers managed not only to hold their own in foods, but were able to provide supplies of various sorts to the immigrants passing through to California. One hundred and eight thousand bushels of wheat were produced in 1847, and 385,000 in 1859.[13]


The discovery of iron ore in 1850 was the first of commercial value in the territory. Coal was discovered in. Southern Utah about the same time. In 1854 the territorial legislature offered a reward of one thousand dollars to any resident who would open a good vein of coal, not less than eighteen inches thick, within forty miles of Salt Lake City, that could be worked profitably.[14] This led to the discovery of coal on the Weber River near Coalville, but the reward was not paid as the distance was somewhat more than forty miles.[15] The first productive mines were opened at Coalville in 1863 and 1865. A lead furnace was built by Bishop Isaac Grundy at Minersville in 1858 to make bullets from local lead ores.[16]

The search for other minerals was strongly discouraged by the church authorities. Thus, the first discoveries of precious metals were made by the Gentiles. General Patrick Edward Connor, the commander at Fort Douglas, has credit for organizing the first mining district. The discovery was made in Bingham Canyon in September 1863, and the district organized in December of that year as the West Mountain mining district. The Rush Valley mining district was organized in 1864. Stockton was surveyed that year, and by 1866-1867 lead-silver ores were smelted there. Other discoveries were made rapidly between 1863 and 1868. Ore was shipped from the territory by several parties in 1868, but costs of supplies and transportation made it impossible to operate profitably. Activities came to a standstill until the advent of the Union Pacific.[17]


Prior to the railroads, Utah's only commercial contacts with the outside were through the arrival of the immigrant groups, the long trains of freight wagons, and sporadic arrivals of the stagecoaches. The gold rush to California in 1849 proved nothing short of a Godsend to the people of the territory. After two years in the valley, they were desperately in need of all sorts of goods; especially clothing, tools, etc. During 1849 thousands of gold seekers, including freighters, passed through Salt Lake en route to California. Having come this far, anxious for provisions, and desirous of lightening their load and hastening their journey, they flooded the market with their outfits, and their cargoes, until many of these goods could be obtained in Salt Lake for less than the price commanded in the Eastern markets.[18]

In the 1860s Utah merchants entered into the freighting and trading business. In 1863 five hundred teams crossed the plains eastward and back, returning with immigrants and freight. The Walker Brothers established their large store in 1858, and distributed not only in Salt Lake City but throughout the territory. In 1864 Eldridge and Hooper freighted in goods worth $230,000 and William Jennings' train of the same year brought in goods valued at more than $250,000.[19] Still, these people were not able to deliver merchandise at much less cost than other freighters; so, after the gold rush period, the Utah citizens again found themselves paying exorbitant prices for all imported goods. As time passed, the local industries were able to supply an increasing amount to satisfy the needs of the people, but the territory never succeeded in achieving self-sufficiency. The coming of the railroad changed all this.

After The Railroad

The completion of the first transcontinental railroad had an instantaneous effect on the economy of the territory. S. A. Kenner, writing in 1904 in Utah As It Is, has this to say:[20]

It would be manifestly impossible for one who was not here when there were no railroads to grasp in its fullness the greatness of the transformation which the rails have wrought. How true it is that the first locomotive bell which resounded in the gorges of the Wasatch Mountains tolled the death knoll of old conditions, while, at the same time, signalizing with joyous notes the ushering in of the new! No more the wearisome, long drawn-out marches from frontier to frontier, sore footed, wearied, worn and wan, with months of time consumed, means squandered, and opportunities deferred or lost; no more prohibitive tariffs on the necessaries of life, with the use of luxuries restricted to the very few; no longer living in the shadow of civilization, but basking in its full-orbed glow! The change was so sudden and yet so complete that it seemed almost like waking from a dream, or like passing into another sphere of existence; and yet it had come so quietly, so apparently naturally, that the marvel was no sooner upon us than it had passed away.

John Henry Evans in The Story of Utah, lists four general effects of the completion of the Union Pacific:[21]

(1) Reduced the cost of manufactured goods imported from the East.
(2) Caused the failure of many local manufacturing establishments.
(3) Threw teamsters out of work.
(4) Gave a new impetus to the dormant mining industry.

Upon the establishment of railroad connection with the East, prices fell so rapidly that many local merchants were forced to take a loss on the goods which were on their shelves.[22] Within a short period of time, the retail cost of many articles was reduced by more than half.

This reduction in prices had a widespread effect on many of the local manufacturing enterprises. It had been no problem for these small, inefficient local plants to produce goods much cheaper than they could be imported by wagon, but almost immediately many items became available at lower prices and of better quality than could be produced locally. After 1870 industries such as hat-making, boot and shoe manufacture, wool carding, cloth dressing and machinery manufacture underwent a decline until by 1880, of these four selected industries, only boots and shoes was even listed in the Census of Manufactures. This business fell off from a high of fifty nine plants to only three by 1900,[23] and was kept alive mainly by the Z. C. M. I. shoe factory. The great Z.C.M.I. enterprises were developed partly as an attempt to keep alive as much of the home industry as was possible by marshalling sufficient capital to set up larger, more efficient operations with a view to being able to compete with imported goods. In this respect, it eventually was at least a partial failure.

On the other hand, the loss of these industries was far more than offset by the growth of new and more important activities for which the locality was more suited.

In the 1850s and 1860s the citizens of Utah had been able to dispose of a small amount of surplus agricultural produce to the California-bound travelers; almost immediately upon completion of the first railway, agricultural goods began their flow out of the state. A report in The Millennial Star on January 11, 1870 states that "Utah beef killed at Promontory has found its way in a refrigerator car to San Francisco."[24] On January 11, 1871, Z. C. M. I. shipped sixty thousand pounds of dried peaches east.[25] One reason for the failure of the local woolen industry was that growers commenced shipping their wool clip to the eastern textile centers where they received better prices and cash for their product.

As has already been noted, the mining industry was dormant, unwittingly waiting for the railroad. A veritable boom in mining commenced in 1869 and continued, with minor interruptions, for many years. The Little Cottonwood, Bingham Canyon and Rush Valley districts led out. In July 1869, the first shipment of ore left the territory by rail, when ten tons were shipped by the Woodhill Brothers to San Francisco.[26] Many smelting and stamp mills were built in the next few years. Benthan Fabian in Resources o f Utah with Statistics of Progress for the year 1872 reported twenty-one smelting works in the territory, with a total capacity of six hundred eighty six tons of ore a day; plus four stamp mills and two steam batteries with a combined crushing capacity of one hundred tons.[27] The first coal shipped by rail to Salt Lake City moved from the mines of the Wasatch Coal Company on January 13, 1870.[28]

The development of mining also brought in a flood of Gentile population, which had a pronounced effect on the political life of the community. This non-Mormon element grew in strength; and for many years the City of Salt Lake was divided into two camps, with the rivalry running at intense pitch. Vice and lawlessness as usual, also came with the mines; but so did the hand of culture. Many famous entertainers appeared in the Salt Lake Theatre, and the city was visited by a great many tourists, including a number of prominent personages.[29]


[1] U. S. Bureau of the Census, Eighth Census of the United States: 1860. Population. (Washington: Government Printing Office).

[2] Milton R. Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1943), p. 222.

[3] Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting, p. 223.

[4] Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting, p. 223.

[5] Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting, pp. 479-480.

[6] Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting, p. 480.

[7] Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting, p. 483.

[8] U. S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Manufacturers. (Washington: Government Printing Office).

[9] Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting, p. 483.

[10] Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting, p. 483.

[11] Journal History, December 3, 1850.

[12] Anna Viola Lewis, "Development of Mining in Utah", unpublished Master's thesis, Department of History, University of Utah, 1941, p. 25.

[13] Department of Public Instruction, Salt Lake City, Utah. Utah - Resources and Activities (Salt Lake City: Paragon Press, 1933), p. 278.

[14] Third Annual Session, Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah, Second Monday of December 1853 to January 20, 1854.

[15] Lewis, "Development of Mining in Utah", p. 25.

[16] Lewis, "Development of Mining in Utah", p. 27.

[17] Lewis, "Development of Mining in Utah", p. 36.

[18] Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting, pp. 235-236.

[19] Hunter, Utah in Her Western Setting, p. 227.

[20] S. A. Kenner. Utah As It Is. (Deseret News Press, 1904), p. 217.

[21] John Henry Evans. The Story of Utah. (MacMillan Co., 1933), p. 234.

[22] Evans, The Story of Utah, p. 233.

[23] U. S. Census of Manufacturers, various years.

[24] J. Cecil Alter. Utah, The Storied Domain. (American Historical Society, Inc., 1932), p. 385.

[25] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 397.

[26] Evans, The Story of Utah, p. 234.

[27] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 408.

[28] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 387.

[29] Orson F. Whitney. History of Utah. (Deseret News, 1916), p. 223.