The History and Economics of Utah's Railroads

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By David F. Johnson

Chapter 3

The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad System In Utah

The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad in Utah grew out of some of the earliest mining roads in the territory. The first of these was the Bingham Canyon and Camp Floyd Railroad, which was organized September 10, 1872 to run from a junction with the Utah Southern near Sandy to the Bingham Canyon mining district. Sixteen miles of this line had been graded and tied by June 1, 1873; but completion was held up because of a delay in arrival of the rails. The road was completed to Bingham on November 21, 1873.[1] It was built both broad and narrow gage from Sandy to the smelters at West Jordan, and narrow gage from West Jordan to Bingham. This was done to facilitate the shipment into the smelters of coke and other supplies from the Utah Southern without change of cars. By 1879 the line had also been extended from Bingham to Highland-although this grade was too steep for locomotives, and the empty cars had to be pulled up by mule power. A two and one-half mile branch from Bear Gulch to the Old Telegraph and other mines was also completed at this time.[2] The Bingham Canyon and Camp Floyd was organized by local citizens assisted by Eastern capital for the purpose of aiding the mining development of Bingham district. As the mines in that area continued to be productive, the road profited and is still in operation although much of its ore traffic no longer exists. It became part of the Rio Grande Western on September 1, 1881, and was standard gauged to Bingham in 1890.[3]

The companion road to the Bingham line, the Wasatch and Jordan Valley Railroad, was incorporated on October 11, 1872, to build a narrow gage line from Sandy to Alta in the Little Cottonwood mining district. It was promoted by local men, C. W. Scofield, president, and G. M. Young, secretary and superintendent, and was capitalized at $500,000. Construction began in January, 1873, and the road was completed to Granite on May 3 of that year. By September 28, it was finished to Fairfield Flat, eleven and one-half miles from Sandy.[4] The line was completed to Alta before 1879. Between Wasatch and Alta the grade was too steep for even the most powerful locomotives, being at one place nearly six hundred feet to the mile; consequently, the empty cars had to be drawn up by horses. The loaded cars were allowed to coast down over a line completely covered, above Granite, by snowsheds-a trip agreed to have been quite a thrilling experience.[5] The traffic consisted almost entirely of ores from the Alta mines bound for the sampling works at Sandy.

The Wasatch and Jordan Valley Railroad was acquired by the Rio Grande Western on December 31, 1881. Because of the excessive grades, it was never too profitable to operate; and with the failure of some of the mines in the 1880s, that section between Granite and Alta was abandoned. The lower part was later repaired for use in hauling granite from the quarries at the mouth of the canyon.[6] The Rio Grande Western standard gauged the line between Sandy and Wasatch in 1890,[7] but this, too, must have been subsequently abandoned, as it is reported the tracks were laid on the old roadbed from Midvale to Wasatch in 1913-1914,[8] the line then being known as the Salt Lake and Alta. Alter also states that narrow gage tracks were again laid to Alta in 1918, but no evidence to support this statement was forthcoming.[9] On the contrary, no record of abandonment of the line was found, and personal inspection of parts of the old roadbed indicate that tracks have not been in place for many years. The last of this line, a spur east of Sandy, was torn up in 1943.

The third line acquired by the Rio Grande was the Utah and Pleasant Valley Railroad, another narrow gage line, which was organized in 1875[10] by a group of Springville residents, to run from a connection with the Utah Southern at Provo to the coal fields of Pleasant Valley, just over the summit of Spanish Fork Canyon. According to the Journal History, construction started in 1876[11] and progressed slowly for several years. Reports in 1877 indicate progress in grading, with expectations of beginning to haul coal for the next winter.[12] That these expectations were not met is shown by another Journal History entry-a report that twenty-five miles of grade were complete and grading was being discontinued till spring, when laying of rail was expected to commence.[13] The road was apparently completed between Springville and the mines in 1879, as an entry of November of that year states that coal was being hauled and grading going on between Springville and Provo.[14] Sloan wrote in 1879-80 that the road was rapidly nearing completion, being finished by New York capitalists whose object was the mining and selling of coal.[15] The road changed hands in 1881,[16] with C. W. Scofield as president. It was sold to the Rio Grande on June 14, 1882.[17]

The Utah Eastern Railroad was not, strictly speaking, a part of the Rio Grande system; but -in the later years, of its existence, its affairs were tied in closely, in some respects, to those of the Rio Grande; and the economics of the Rio Grande system were, in part, a logical continuation of the story of the Utah Eastern.

The Utah Eastern Railroad came into being solely as a result of the coal famines suffered almost every winter in Salt Lake City. As has already been stated, not only was there a shortage of coal in the city, but what was available sold for about eight dollars a ton, although it cost less than two dollars a ton to produce at the Union Pacific mines in Wyoming. For many years the coal deposits on the upper Weber River had been known. Mining operations had been carried on there since the early 1870s, if not before; but coal shipped from there to Salt Lake City, a distance of just over forty miles, had to be shipped via Union Pacific, or hauled by wagon; and the Union Pacific saw to it that coal shipped from these mines did not arrive in Salt Lake any cheaper than that sold from their own mines.

Much newspaper space was devoted to accounts of the coal shortage year after year.[18] The first attempt to provide Salt Lake City with direct independent rail connections to the Coalville mines took form on June 13, 1874, when the Salt Lake and Coalville Railroad was formed to construct a line from Salt Lake City via Park City, connecting with the Summit County Railroad at Coalville.[19] This road was capitalized at $1,000,000, but was never built. On December 29, 1879, the Utah Eastern Railroad filed articles of incorporation.[20] It was organized wholly by Salt Lake interests, who immediately set out to raise the $700,000 authorized capital stock.

Probably no local railroad promotion scheme aroused so much public enthusiasm as did the Utah Eastern. Scarcely a week passed by without the appearance in the local newspapers of an editorial extolling the virtues of the proposed line, recalling the sufferings during the winter months, and asking for increased support throughout the period of its construction. These editorials took pains to point out that even if the Union Pacific should cut rates to a point where the Utah Eastern could not compete, the object of the road-cheaper coal for Salt Lake City-would have been achieved. The local road, if it could not compete, could cease operation. Its very existence would be enough to keep the Union Pacific rates down, as any time they attempted to increase rates the Utah Eastern could again start operation. That this did not turn out to be the case will be seen later. However, the road captured the imagination of the people, and a great many local citizens invested in it. Provision was made for issuance of shares of as little as ten dollars, so that all would have a chance. It was truly to be a people's railroad.[21]

Grading commenced early in 1880 at Coalville and was pushed rapidly ahead. Tracklaying was begun on November 5, 1880, and the road was completed to Park City on December 9, 1880. In the meantime, the Union Pacific owners, looking out for their own interests, had begun building their parallel line, the Echo and Park City, and the two roads were completed the same day. In spite of the popular support, the capital raised by the Utah Eastern backers was not sufficient to complete the line even as far as Park City. The owners of the Ontario Silver Mine at Park City, however, being as desirous of an adequate coal supply as anyone, made the railroad a loan of $100,000 to run its trackage to Park City.[22] This act eventually and ironically resulted in the downfall of the railroad. Having now two railroad connections, the Ontario Mining people had no further interest in extending the line to Salt Lake, and the capital of the road was exhausted. On December 14, 1880, it commenced hauling coal to the Ontario Mine, resulting in immediate savings of over two hundred dollars a day to the mine owners,[23] but the road was unable to supply much coal even for those willing to haul it by wagon from Kimballs to Salt Lake.

At this point began the disillusionment of the investors and citizens of Salt Lake City. An editorial of December 18, 1880 called for extension of the road at least for the seven miles from Kimballs to Parley's Canyon Summit to eliminate the uphill portion of the haul for the loaded coal wagons.[24] Had this been done, possibly coal could have been hauled profitably to Salt Lake by wagon, as the distance would have been roughly only thirteen miles, all downhill; but the severity of the winter snows at the summit made it unlikely that even this project would have been satisfactory.

From this point, the affairs of the road languished. On August 18, 1881, a report was made of an agreement with the Rio Grande Western, indicating that road would build a line over Parley's Summit to connect with the Utah Eastern.[25] Whether this report was erroneous or not is unknown. The report probably grew out of the fact that the Salt Lake and Park City Railway, a company capitalized for $520,000, was incorporated in June, 1881. The public suspected this might be a Rio Grande scheme, as the officials were the same as those connected with the Sevier Valley Railroad (correction: Sevier Valley Railway, ed.), an acknowledged Rio Grande branch. The general sentiment was, "If it is Rio Grande, the road will be built-and soon." Rio Grande or not, the road was not built.

By 1884 the fortunes of the Utah Eastern had reached low ebb. Reference in 1883 indicates that it still had not been built to Salt Lake and in 1884 had ceased operations. No trains had been run, actually, since December 20, 1883. In November, 1884, a great amount of local indignation arose upon discovery that the Union Pacific had obtained control of the Utah Eastern through the purchase of securities issued to the Ontario Mine in 1880. In 1887 an inspection was made by a receiver who had been appointed at the insistence of the original stockholders. The line was found to be in a general state of disrepair with bridges out, etc., and much of the rolling stock appropriated by the Union Pacific for use on the Utah Northern. The inspector thought the road could be put back into operation without too much expense, but it is not known just what action was taken.[26]

By 1888 the Salt Lake and Eastern Railroad was under construction from Salt Lake to Park City.[27] This may have been the aforementioned Rio Grande sponsored line. It was pushed rapidly ahead, utilizing parts of an existing roadbed, indicating that either the Utah Eastern or another of the predecessor companies actually had completed some grading. The road was completed in 1890.[28] Whether the line of the Utah Eastern from Coalville to Park City was usable at this time cannot be ascertained. At any rate, its importance no longer existed because the Rio Grande was delivering coal by then from the Carbon County fields.

The Salt Lake and Eastern, whose name had been changed to the Utah Central, was acquired by the Rio Grande in 1898.[29] Some doubt exists as to what finally became of the Utah Eastern. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Freight Shippers' Guide and Directory states that it was acquired by the Rio Grande in 1898 and that part of the line became the upper fifteen miles of the Provo Canyon branch to Heber City.[30] As no record was found of the Utah Eastern ever having been built to Heber City, it is believed that this fifteen miles consisted of that part of the Utah Eastern between Kimballs and Park City, and became the upper part of the Park City branch. However, the Utah Eastern may have been reorganized, repaired, and possibly extended in the time between 1887, the date of the last available information, and 1898 when the Rio Grande took over.

The Union Pacific line is today the only one between Coalville and Park City. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Park City branch was abandoned in 1946; so today the Utah Eastern, once so dear to the hearts of the citizens of Salt Lake City, no longer exists.

The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway was incorporated in Utah on July 21, 1881, a subsidiary of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway of Colorado. On September 1st of the same year, it purchased the narrow gage Bingham Canyon and Camp Floyd Railroad; and the Wasatch and Jordan Valley, also narrow gage, on December 31st. Thus the Denver and Rio Grande Western, in 1881, consisted of a length of narrow gage line from Alta, directly across the valley to Bingham. Contracts were let early in 1882 for the construction of a narrow gage line from Salt Lake City, south and eastward to the Colorado border. This route utilized the line of the Utah and Pleasant Valley, running from Springville to Scofield, which was acquired on June 14, 1882. By August 1st of that year the line from Salt Lake had reached Springville, and a new line was finished over Soldier Summit from Tucker, then called Clear Creek Station, on the Utah and Pleasant Valley, to Pleasant Valley Junction. On this date the Denver and Rio Grande leased the entire length of the subsidiary system's trackage and operated it as a detached line. The Pleasant Valley Coal Company had, by this time, opened its properties; and with a through line, Pleasant Valley to Salt Lake City, the coal famine days were ended, the Union Pacific coal monopoly broken.

Later in 1882 it was decided to build a branch line from Pleasant Valley Junction to the Scofield mines, and abandon the old Utah and Pleasant Valley trackage from Tucker to that point, thus eliminating one of the lines over Soldier Summit. This construction was completed on December 1, 1882. In 1883 extension of the existing main line at both ends was completed. On April 8, 1883 connection was made with the Denver and Rio Grande at the Utah-Colorado border; and on May 21st, the extension between Salt Lake City and Ogden was finished. A through line, narrow gage, between Ogden and Denver now existed, and the absolute monopoly which the Union Pacific had held on all traffic in and out of the Utah territory was broken. The full advantage of the Denver and Rio Grande System was not felt for several years, until the line had been made standard gage: but the effects on the economy of the state began to be felt immediately-as, for example, in an adequate coal supply.

In the period 1885 to 1887, no new construction was done, both the parent and the subsidiary companies going into and emerging from receivership during that time. However, the stage for new expansion was being set.

Quoting from the Denver and Rio Grande Western Freight Shippers' Guide:[31]

In this triennial period of dormancy in the growth of the two Rio Grandes, developments of the greatest import to the mountain region were in progress. Irrigation of arid or desert land took a leap forward. The Salt Lake Valley in Utah, always in the foremost ranks among garden spots of the West, was being more and more intensively cultivated, and its productive area was steadily extended. Utah mining activities rapidly increased, both as regards known mineralized zones and hitherto unprospected regions of the mountains. The great Utah coal field began to yield evidence of gigantic proportions and superior quality of deposit ...

While construction on an extensive scale started up again in 1887 in Colorado, it was not until 1889 that any important new development occurred in Utah. By this time, 1889, it became apparent that if the Rio Grande were ever to occupy an important place among the rail transportation lines of the West, it must move quickly and decisively in standard gauging its lines, and work was started that year. Apparently, the construction was carried on at many points simultaneously as the Salt Lake to Ogden section was completed in December 1889,[32] and in October a passenger over the line reports on the large amount of work going on in Price Canyon in realigning and standard gauging that section -- "an army of workmen swarming like ants all over the hillside."[33] The widening of the gage was completed in Utah by June 10, 1890, and the through line Ogden to Denver was finished on November 14th. Also standard gauged, in 1890, were the Alta branch as far as Granite, the Bingham branch, and the Scofield branch.

A standard gage roadbed was graded from Thistle southward to Manti in 1890, on which narrow gage track was laid,[34] the purposes being to plan for standard gauging later. This line was completed on December 29th.[35] In 1891 a separate corporation, the Sevier Valley Railway Company (correction: Sevier Railway; valley was not part of the name of this company, ed.), was organized for the purpose of extending the Thistle-Manti branch. This extension was constructed standard gage in 1891 and leased to, and operated by, the Rio Grande upon completion July 15th. In the meantime, the original Thistle-Mann branch was standard gauged, thus creating a through standard gage line running from Thistle to Salina.[36]

This branch was built to give the Rio Grande entrance into the fertile valley of the Sevier River. Sanpete County had developed by this time into one of the richest agricultural areas of the state. The original line into this area was the narrow gage Sanpete Valley Railroad Company which connected with the Oregon Short Line track at Nephi-built by Simon Bamberger in 1882 for an English syndicate, known as the Central Pacific Coal and Coke Company, who were interested in developing deposits of coking coal found in Sanpete County near Wales, the original terminus. Evidence exists that the line was first started sometime in 1880 or before. The Journal History quotes a report in June 1880 to the effect that the road was rapidly nearing completion, having received new capital, etc.,[37] and other references this year and in 1881. The road was never too successful, being heavily bonded to the Coal and Coke Company; but plans for extension in 1884[38] were made in hope that by increasing the scope and influence of the line, its profits also would be increased.[39] Apparently not much was accomplished of these plans, as the road was reported to have ceased operations on December 3, 1892, its termini at that time being listed as Nephi and Chester.[40]

Soon after the Rio Grande branch to Salina had been completed, the Sanpete Valley road took on new life and was completed through to Manti by December 1, 1893;[41] and early in 1894 it was engaged in a rate war with the Rio Grande.[42] The line was subsequently taken over by the Rio Grande in 1908 and operated as part of that system until 1946, when it was abandoned. In the meantime, in 1900, the Rio Grande had extended its main Sevier Valley branch on southward to Marysvale, and through Salina Canyon from Salina to Nioche in 1903. This latter spur was built in conjunction with some Rio Grande plans for extensive construction east of the Wasatch Mountains, which are discussed in a later chapter.[43] These plans never materialized and the Salina Canyon Line was abandoned in 1942.

Another auxiliary corporation, the Tintic Range Railway Company, was organized in 1891. A branch from Springville to Eureka was completed that year, and opened to traffic on January 1, 1892. Construction of this line was unusually difficult and costly, but the prospective tonnage of metalliferous ores justified the undertaking. Plans for extension of this branch to the Deep Creek mining district were never carried out. The line was extended in the form of twelve miles of spurs in 1892,[44] but most of these were subsequently abandoned in 1943.

In 1898 the Rio Grande built a branch through Provo Canyon from Provo to Heber City, the center of a small but fertile and productive agricultural area, and also one of the accessible points for trade into the Uinta Basin. This same year the Pleasant Valley branch was extended from Scofield to Clear Creek, by construction through the Carbon County Railway owned by the Denver and Rio Grande. The branch to Sunnyside was built in the same manner.[45]

In 1900 the Rio Grande standard gauged the Park City branch, finishing on July 1st of that year. This entailed the construction of a connection from Sugar House to the yards at Roper, the only previous connection being with the Salt Lake and Fort Douglas Railroad, and much regrading and realigning throughout the length of the line.

A branch from just west of Midvale to Garfield was completed in 1905, and another from two miles west of the same point was begun to run above Bingham to the extensive copper mining operations being developed there by the Utah Copper Company. This line was completed in 1906, the purpose of the two lines being to haul low grade ore from the mining operations to the mill at Garfield.

A healthy growth of the Utah main line traffic, principally due to the phenomenal increase of output of the Carbon County coal fields in 1906, necessitated the double tracking of the main line between Colton and Soldier Summit, which was completed in that year.

During 1912 surveys were made to eliminate the four per cent grade between Tucker and Soldier Summit. The great tonnage of coal and increasing amounts of through freight had reached proportions which could no longer be crowded through this bottleneck.[46] The new line was built in conjunction with the Utah Railway; in fact, the plans of the Utah Railway to build a competing line through from Provo to Carbon County undoubtedly greatly influenced the Rio Grande's decision to improve its own line and give a joint trackage agreement to the new company. Actual construction started in February, 1913, along a new roadbed four and one-half miles longer than the original, making a great "S" curve just west of the summit. At the same time, double tracking of the section between Castle Gate and Kyune was done, so that by January 1, 1914 a continuous double track over the mountains from Castle Gate to Thistle was in operation.[47] Double track operations were also possible from Thistle to Springville under the joint trackage agreement with the Utah Railway, which owned its own line between these points.

The building of the Rio Grande System in Utah had two general economic effects: (1) It opened up vast new sections of the country, by far the most important of which was the Carbon County coal fields, which have yet even to approach full development. In addition large acreages of productive agricultural land have developed in the areas served by that line. Prior to the building of the Rio Grande, the country in Utah east of the Wasatch Mountains had hardly been explored. Practically every county in that half of the state has been organized since the coming of the railroad. The Rio Grande also provided the nearest feasible railroad points for trading in the Uinta Basin area, a district that is just now coming into its own. (2) The Rio Grande ended the monopoly of the Union Pacific on all interstate traffic with Utah. The competition of this new through line has done much to bring rates and services to somewhere near a desirable level.

While the Western Pacific is not actually part of the Rio Grande system, it was originally built by the Rio Grande and should properly be included in this discussion.

In 1901 the Union Pacific purchased a controlling interest in the Southern Pacific Railway,[48] a line with which it had always enjoyed favorable operating relationships. This move practically eliminated the-chance of the Rio Grande to get any share of the eastbound through traffic from California points. Consequently, the Rio Grande interests determined that if they were ever again to gain an important share of the California trade, a line of their own would have to be built to San Francisco. The Western Pacific was organized in 1905. It was financed almost totally through a loan from the Rio Grande, a fact which later caused the parent company much financial embarrassment, but work was pushed forward rapidly. Ground was broken on April 28, 1905, and construction was carried on until the line was finished in 1910. The first regular passenger operations between Salt Lake City and San Francisco began on August 22, 1910.[49] Largely because of difficulties encountered in gaining access to the industrial and agricultural areas of the Bay Region, the Western Pacific did not earn money. The inevitable reorganization resulted in the separation of the line from Rio Grande ownership.

The Deep Creek Railroad, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Western Pacific, was begun October 10, 1916 and finished the next year. It ran from Wendover to Gold Hill,[50] and was built to serve the mines of the Deep Creek District, for thirty years the objective of numerous railway promotion schemes. The Interstate Commerce Commission authorized the abandonment of this branch in July, 1939.

Another branch of the Western Pacific, running from Burmester to Warner in Tooele County, was completed in November, 1917.


[1] Edward L. Sloan. Gazetteer of Utah and Salt Lake City Directory. (Salt Lake Herald Publishing Co., 1874), p. 47.

[2] H. L. A. Culmer. Utah Directory and Gazetteer for 1879-80. (H. L. A. Culmer & Co., 1879), p. 28.

[3] Official Freight Shippers' Guide and Directory of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, p. 31.

[4] Sloan, Gazetteer of Utah and Salt Lake City Directory of 1874, p. 46.

[5] Culmer, Utah Directory and Gazetteer for 1879-80, p. 28.

[6] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 498.

[7] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 35.

[8] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 498.

[9] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 498.

[10] Official Freight Shippers Guide, p. 35.

[11] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 499.

[12] Journal History, entry for April 28, 1877., p. 2.

[13] Journal History, entry for January 22, 1878, p. 2.

[14] Journal History, entry for November 23, 1879, p. 1.

[15] Culmer, Utah Directory and Gazetteer for 1879-80, p. 29.

[16] Journal History, entry for February 28, 1881, p. 3.

[17] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 32.

[18] Journal History, entry for October 22, 1873.

[19] Journal History, entry for January 13, 1874, p. 2.

[20] Journal History, entry for December 29, 1879, p. 1.

[21] Journal History, various entries for 1880.

[22] Journal History, entry for December 9, 1880, p. 3.

[23] Journal History, entry for December 14, 1880, p. 3.

[24] Journal History, entry for December, 1880, p. 2.

[25] Journal History, entry for August 18, 1881, p. 2.

[26] Journal History, entries for August 18, 1881, pp. 2-3; April 15, 1883, p. 5; February 11, 1884, p. 4; November 18, 1884, p. 2; March 24, 1887, p. 3.

[27] Journal History, entry for June 13, 1888, pp. 3-5.

[28] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 499.

[29] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 36.

[30] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 36.

[31] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 32.

[32] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 455.

[33] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 455.

[34] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 35.

[35] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 462.

[36] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 35.

[37] Journal History, entry for June 12, 1881, p. 8.

[38] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 136.

[39] Robert W. Sloan. Utah Gazetteer and Directory of Logan, Ogden, and Provo, and Salt Lake City. (Herald Printing & Publishing Co. for Sloan & Dunbar, 1884), p. 110.

[40] Alter, Utah, The Storied Domain, p. 170.

[41] Journal History, entry for December 2, 1893, p. 5.

[42] Journal History, entry for January 26, 1894, p. 6.

[43] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 36.

[44] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 36.

[45] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 36.

[46] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 36.

[47] Official Freight Shippers' Guide, p. 37.

[48] Nelson Trottman. History of the Union Pacific. (Ronald Press Co., 1923), p. 282.

[49] Utah - Resources and Activities. Department of Public Instruction. (Paragon Press, 1933), p. 380.

[50] Utah - Resources and Activities, p. 387.