Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern

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This page was last updated on August 25, 2015.

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(Updated from text originally published in 2005 as part of the book, Ogden Rails)

Ogden Rails, A History of Railroading At The Crossroads Of The West
(Union Pacific Historical Society, 2005)

The Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern Railway was organized on July 27, 1889, by merging the Utah & Northern Railway, the Utah Central Railway, the Utah & Nevada Railway, the Salt Lake & Western Railway, and the Ogden & Syracuse Railway (all in Utah), the Idaho Central Railway (in Idaho), and the Oregon Short Line Railway (in Idaho, eastern Oregon, and southwestern Wyoming), and the unbuilt Nevada Pacific Railway in Nevada. (Corporate History of Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, 1916)

The Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern was organized in part to provide financing for both a new standard-gauge line between Ogden and McCammon, in southeastern Idaho, and the extension of the former Utah Southern Railroad Extension line south from Milford to mines at Pioche, Nevada.

The predecessor Oregon Short Line Railway was incorporated in Wyoming on April 14, 1881 by Union Pacific to build a line by the shortest route - "The Short Line" - from Wyoming to Oregon, hence its name, Oregon Short Line. (Corporate History of Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, 1916; Trottman, p. 180, says that Oregon Short Line Railway was chartered by an act of Congress.)

Construction began in May at Granger, Wyoming, at a connection with the Union Pacific main line, 148 miles east of Ogden. The tracks were completed to Montpelier, Idaho, 115 miles, on August 5, 1882, and to Pocatello, 215 miles, during the fall of the same year. The last 12 miles of track between McCammon and Pocatello, Idaho, was used jointly with the Utah & Northern narrow-gauge line. The OSL shared the U&N grade by laying a third rail, set to standard-gauge, outside of Utah and Northern's three-foot-gauge rails. OSL trains began operating between Granger, Wyoming, and Huntington, in eastern Oregon, in February 1884, and the first through train from Omaha to the Pacific Northwest reached Portland in January 1885. The completion of the Oregon Short Line between Wyoming and Pocatello had an immediate effect on the Montana-bound traffic that was being shipped north from Ogden by way of the narrow-gauge Utah & Northern. Pocatello was 135 miles closer to Montana than was Ogden, and much Montana-bound freight immediately went to Pocatello instead of Ogden.

With growing traffic on the new line between Omaha and Portland, and with the increasing traffic moving north from Pocatello to the Montana mines, the narrow-gauge Utah & Northern north of Pocatello was hard pressed to keep up, due to the delay and cost caused by the change of track gauge at Pocatello. In the early years, the freight had to be transloaded from narrow-gauge cars to standard-gauge cars. Later, standard-gauge cars were lifted and narrow-gauge wheel assemblies substituted for the trip to Montana. Still, it was a cumbersome arrangement at best. Preparation for converting the track to standard-gauge began with engineering studies as early as 1885. Union Pacific officials found that the original Utah Northern line between the Great Salt Lake Basin and the 1875 end-of-track at Franklin, Idaho, had been engineered at less than Union Pacific standards, and would require much more work than simply changing the distance between the rails on the existing grade. On the positive side, the 250-plus miles of line from Franklin through Pocatello to Butte had been built by UP's own forces and would not have to be reconstructed.

By mid 1887, the Utah & Northern was ready to convert its line between Pocatello and Butte to standard-gauge, which took place, amazingly, on a single day. To minimize the disruption in service, men, tools, and materials were distributed along the line over the preceding months, and the changeover was done on Monday, July 25, 1887. The preparation included new bridges, new longer ties, and many general improvements of the grade itself. (Reeder, The History of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883, p. 252)

The line south from McCammon to Ogden, 111 miles long, took another three years to convert because it required more than 50 miles of new right-of-way construction, including a new line through the Bear River Gorge. It was completed in the first week of October 1890, after the Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern had already been organized. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, October 2, 1890, "last rail in widening of old line and building new line")

The new standard-gauge line between Ogden and McCammon included just over 48 miles of newly constructed and relocated main line between Dewey, Utah, and Oxford, Idaho, 21 miles north of the Utah-Idaho line. The new line included 48.58 miles of new construction between Dewey, Utah, and Oxford, Idaho, which is 20.64 miles north of the Utah-Idaho line.

The construction of the new standard-gauge line also included an 8.58-mile Cache Valley connection between the former Utah & Northern narrow-gauge line at Mendon and a station on the new line to be called Cache Junction. Operation over this connection began on October 24, 1890. (Corporate History of the Oregon Short Line Railroad, 1916)

The conversion to standard-gauge of the original 1873 Utah Northern line across the Cache Valley, between Mendon, Logan, and Preston, was completed on October 26, 1890. The entire line between Cache Junction and Preston then became the Cache Valley Branch, which is still being used today by Union Pacific. (Utah Journal, October 22, 1890; ICC Financial Docket 15790, 267 ICC 638)

The remaining 15-mile section of the old narrow-gauge main line north from Preston to the connection with the new line at Oxford, Idaho, was abandoned upon completion of the standard-gauge line. Also abandoned was 12 miles of the original narrow-gauge line between Dewey and Mendon, by way of Collinston Summit. This original route over Collinston Divide was used 25 years later by the Ogden, Logan & Idaho Railway to build an interurban electric line between Ogden and Logan in 1915. (Swett, Ira L. Interurbans of Utah, p. 76)

Within two years, during 1892, Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern completed the 1.09-mile Five Points Branch in Ogden. Built to serve the agricultural area directly north of the city, the branch left the main line north of Ogden at Five Points Junction, paralleling what is now Second Street, east to Washington Street. (Corporate History of the Oregon Short Line Railroad, 1916; Five Points Junction was located 2.94 miles north of Ogden.)

At that point, freight was interchanged with the Ogden & Hot Springs Railroad for movement to and from the agricultural area around North Ogden, north along Washington Street (now Washington Boulevard).

Along with all of Union Pacific's other subsidiary and feeder companies, the Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern Railway was forced into bankruptcy with its parent company in October 1893, and was reorganized as the Oregon Short Line Railroad in February 1897, a new company separate from UP but still controlled by the same individuals, who were bondholders of both companies. The old Union Pacific Railway was sold to the newly organized Union Pacific Railroad in November 1897. By 1900, Wall Street financier Edward H. Harriman had gained control of the new Union Pacific, and set about gathering the former feeder lines back into UP's protective arms. On January 10, 1899, the new UP increased its stock by $27 million and traded that new block of shares to the owners of the Oregon Short Line, in return for full control and ownership of OSL.

More Information

Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern Railroad (1889-1897) -- Timeline chronology with updates and new research.