Utah Central Railroad

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This page was last updated on February 5, 2010.

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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 construction of a connecting railroad line south from Ogden to Salt Lake City, and later into almost all parts of the state, exerted a much greater impact on the local populace and economy than did the joining of rails at Promontory. In early 1869, prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad, leaders of the Mormon church began organizing a railroad to connect Salt Lake City with Ogden, and the soon-to-be-completed UP main line, with Brigham Young reportedly saying, "If the Union Pacific won't come to Salt Lake City, then Salt Lake City will go to the Union Pacific." The Utah Central Rail Road was organized on March 8, 1869, the same day that UP was completed into Ogden (which probably explains why Young was not in attendance at the Ogden ceremony), and just three weeks after the Utah Territorial Legislature passed the Railroad Incorporation Act, on February 19, 1869. (Reeder, The History of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883, Appendix I, p. 420; Appendix II, pp. 428-441)

The completion of the Utah Central in 1870 was the beginning of a statewide rail network. In May 1871, Utah Southern Railroad began building south from Salt Lake City. During the following two years several railroads were proposed in the territory. A few were successful; most were not. Brigham Young promoted the completion of locally organized railroads more as a benefit to the communities they served than as profit-making enterprises; however he did not discourage members of the church from working for railroad builders as a source of cash to improve their farms and lifestyles. These "Mormon Roads," so named because they were organized and managed by local church leaders as well as local businessmen, radiated like spokes of a wheel from the population centers of Salt Lake City and Ogden. They included the already-noted Utah Central and Utah Southern, along with Utah Western, built west from Salt Lake City, and Utah Northern, which was built north from Brigham City, later connecting with Ogden. Others were projected east from both Salt Lake City and Ogden and from other points on the Utah Northern and the Utah Southern. Two present-day historians described the Mormon Roads well: Leonard Arrington said, "The Mormon railroads were not particularly profitable, but they were needed, and they served the economy, and they helped to assuage [reduce] the bitterness of the Mormons at the failure of the two transcontinental railroads to satisfy their construction contracts in cash." Mark Hemphill put it well when he said, "Mormon railroads would tie together the Mormon people, distribute the fruits of their fields, develop Utah's mineral bonanzas, and make the Mormon kingdom prosperous." (Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, p. 350; Mark Hemphill, Union Pacific Salt Lake Route, p. 12)

Utah Central Organized

The story of Utah's pioneer local railroad, the Utah Central, begins with Brigham Young's unfulfilled desire to see the transcontinental railroad built through Salt Lake City. With the decision made in favor of Ogden, he immediately set about proposing a connecting road to Salt Lake City. The surveying of the Utah Central was started by Chief Engineer Jesse W. Fox, Sr., at Ogden on May 15, 1869. (Deseret News, December 26, 1919, cited in "Utah Central and Other Railroads", Hidden Treasures of Pioneer History, Volume 1, 1952, pp. 3-4)

Two days later, on May 17, just a week after the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory, Brigham Young held the groundbreaking for the Utah Central line at Ogden, near the Union Pacific depot at the west end of Fourth Street. With "no great display" and "no speech making," Young and his counselors in the church leadership broke ground, cutting the sod with a spade. The sod was "borne away in fragments as a memento of the event." (Athearn, Union Pacific Country, p. 265; Reeder, The History of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883, p. 67; Brigham Young, in Millennial Star, reprinted in Heart Throbs of the West, Volume 2, p. 381, also in a separate lesson pamphlet, p. 27)

The rail and equipment to build and initially operate the Utah Central came from UP. With the transcontinental line completed, Young approached UP seeking payment due him, and the church, under the grading contracts he held with the company. Because of Union Pacific's difficulties in getting the government bonds for the completion of the transcontinental rail line, there were delays in payment for those and other grading contracts. On May 19, 1869, Brigham Young wrote to UP's Thomas Durant informing him that the grading was completed and that Young was due "some three-quarters of a Million Dollars." In July 1869, Brigham Young agreed to take rails, tools, and rolling stock from Union Pacific in partial settlement for the $1.14 million remaining on payment for the original $2.13 million contract for grading UP's line. The negotiations took place in Boston between Bishop John Sharp, along with Joseph Young, and the UP board of directors. The directors agreed to $940,138 and left $198,000 to arbitration. (Klein, Union Pacific, Volume I, pp. 246, 247)

On September 2, Bishop Sharp agreed to accept the rolling stock and track materials with an apparent value of approximately $600,000 as partial payment on the agreed $940,000 amount. By the time of his death in August 1877, Brigham Young no longer had any financial interest in the Utah Central Railroad, but Union Pacific still owed him $130,000 on the grading contracts. (Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, p. 267)

The Boston settlement for the grading contracts also gave Utah Central trackage rights over UP between Ogden and Echo Junction, for a period of five years, to get coal from mines near Coalville. (Athearn, Union Pacific Country, p. 103)

Completion of the Utah Central to Salt Lake City allowed carloads of coal to be directly shipped into the city. The first two carloads, carrying coal from the Wasatch Mine of the Wasatch Coal Co. at Coalville and consigned to Frederick A. H. F. Mitchell, arrived in Salt Lake City on January 13, just three days after a January 10, 1870, celebration for the completion of the Utah Central. ("The Year Of 1870", Our Pioneer Heritage, Volume 14, 1971, p. 14.) (A later account states that it was two carloads -- "The Year Of 1870", Our Pioneer Heritage, Volume 14, 1971, p. 44.)

Unfortunately, research has not identified other documentation about Utah Central trains operating direct from Salt Lake City to Echo, by way of Ogden and Weber Canyon, and returning with carloads of coal from Coalville. The ready availability of Coalville coal would be important to Utah's early economy, especially considering the documented monopoly and stranglehold that UP was to gain on Utah's coal supply, beginning about 1874, at expiration of that five-year period. H. H. Bancroft, in his 1886 History of Utah, states that most of the supplies of coal needed for Salt Lake City and the northern settlements came from the Coalville mines. (Arrington, Utah's Coal Road in the Age of Unregulated Competition; Bancroft, History Of Utah, p. 737)

Coal was a vital resource needed by Utah's growing population and economy, both as a source of home fuel and for the coal-fired power plants of mining, smelting, and manufacturing enterprises. Coal was so important that in 1854 the Territorial legislature offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who discovered a source of coal within 40 miles of Salt Lake City. In 1860 William Kimball and John Spriggs attempted to claim the prize for their Coalville mine, but were denied because the coal was found to be inferior, and a legislative committee found that the mine was more than 40 miles from Salt Lake. (Bancroft, History Of Utah, p. 737)

In October 1869, just after the trackage rights agreement was signed allowing Utah Central to provide low-cost transportation for coal, local church leaders in Coalville, Echo, Ogden, and Salt Lake City organized the Coalville & Echo Railroad. (Deseret Evening News, October 26, 1869, cited in Reeder, The History of Utah's Railroad, 1869-1883, p. 321)

Their goal was to build a rail line between the coal mines at Coalville and a connection with the Union Pacific main line, at Echo, 40 miles east of Ogden. It was the second of the Mormon roads to make use of the labor of local church members to construct the grade and lay the ties and rails, the first being the then-under-construction Utah Central. Progress was rapid, but soon stalled after grading was completed, with the company unable to finance the rails. Labor for grading was readily available, as was timber and labor for the laying of ties; but the iron rails required cash, something that the region simply did not have.

Work lay dormant for another year until investors became interested and organized the Summit County Railway. That company completed the tracks from Echo to Coalville (five miles) in 1874 as a three-foot narrow-gauge railroad, and reached Park City in 1880, converting the entire 28-mile line from narrow-gauge to 4 feet 8-1/2 inches standard-gauge at the same time. The same tracks later became Union Pacific's Park City Branch. UP abandoned the Park City Branch in 1987. The operation of the Park City Local, a mixed passenger and freight train, from Ogden to Park City and back was a daily event remembered by many persons with an interest in railroading in Ogden.

Grading for the Utah Central was already under way when on June 10 and 11, 1869, Brigham Young, along with the chief engineer and other officers of the railroad, made a trip north from Salt Lake City to Ogden, locating the proposed route along the way. The grade then under construction from Ogden ran west from the Weber River up to the bench of the West Ogden Sand Ridge, using an ascending grade not exceeding 0.75 percent (nine inches of rise in 100 feet of distance, or 40 feet rise in the distance of one mile). That original grade and trackage is still being used today, as Union Pacific's Evona Branch, which crosses the Weber River and parallels 24th Street through West Ogden. (Deseret Evening News, June 16, 1869, cited in "Utah Central and Other Railroads", Hidden Treasures of Pioneer History, Volume 1, 1952, pp. 4-5; also in "Utah Railroads" in Our Pioneer Heritage, Volume 10, 1967, p. 142)

First Rail

The settlement of the grading contracts in September 1869 between Brigham Young and UP provided Utah Central with its much needed rail. With that critical component available, Young's son, John W. Young, organized track-laying crews, also from local church wards, and commenced putting down tracks at Ogden on September 22, 1869, at a point called "Weber Junction." (Deseret Evening News, January 3, 1870, cited in "Railroading in Pioneer Days", Heart Throbs of the West, Volume 2, 1940, p. 381, also in a separate lesson pamphlet p. 27)

The line west from the connection with Union Pacific to the crossing of the Weber River, basically paralleling today's 24th Street viaduct, was to play a significant role in the later separation of UP and Southern Pacific trackage in the Ogden yard; north of the line is SP and south of the line is UP. The track was laid across the Weber River by October 12, 1869, and by the end of the next day the tracks reached three miles west of the river crossing.

The First Rail -- We have received a dispatch per Deseret Telegraph Line to the effect that track laying of the Utah Central Railroad commenced at Ogden this morning. (Deseret News, September 29, 1869)

Progress of the Utah Central -- We have received information from F. Little, Esq., Assistant Superintendent of the Utah Central Railkroad, that the track is laid across the bridge over the Weber River, and that the switch and siding east of the bridge are completed. The crossing for the point, where the Utah Central crosses the Union Pacific, and two horsecars of iron, arrived yesterday. These will greatly help accelerate the work on the road. (Deseret News, October 13, 1869)

Initial progress was rapid because the tracks were first laid on the west side of the river prior to the bridge being completed. The normal rate was about a half-mile per day. By the time the track-laying crews reached Kaysville, 17 miles south of Ogden, on November 19th, they were building a mile of track per day. ("The Year Of 1869", Our Pioneer Heritage, Volume 13, 1970, pp. 52-53; Deseret Evening News, November 20, 1869)

Ten days after reaching Kaysville, the Utah Central tracks reached Farmington. Operations began between Ogden and Farmington, 21 miles distant, on December 6th. Brigham Young halted construction at Farmington to wait for a additional rails to be delivered from Union Pacific. (Corporate History of the Oregon Short Line Railroad, 1916; Deseret Evening News, December 23, 1869)

With the completion of the road to Kaysville, horse-drawn stages began operating between end of track and Salt Lake City, and as each community was reached, the stages shortened their route. The track-laying toward Salt Lake was resumed at Farmington and progressed on to Bountiful, another six miles. Bountiful was reached on December 22 and the road was completed to Salt Lake City (36 miles) during the first week of January 1870, with a "last spike" ceremony being held on January 10. Passenger service between Ogden and Centerville began on January 5th, with stage service carrying passengers into Salt Lake. Stage service was no longer needed after passenger service formally began to Salt Lake City on January 12th. (Ogden Junction, Volume 1, Number 2, January 5, 1870, p. 3; Reeder, The History of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883, pp. 72, 73, 76-78, 85.) (Oregon Short Line corporate history shows the completion date as January 10th, the same date that other sources list as the date of the "last spike" ceremony.)

Utah Central Completed

According to Seymour B. Young, Brigham Young's nephew and a contractor on the grading near Beck's Hot Springs north of Salt Lake City, the laying of Utah Central rails into Salt Lake City was completed at about noon on December 30, 1869. The grand celebration commemorating the event took place 10 days later, on January 10, 1870. For the celebration, a railroad flat car was decorated as a platform to hold dignitaries of the Utah Central (most of whom were also leaders in the LDS Church), Union Pacific, Central Pacific, the national press, and representatives of the U. S. Army stationed at Camp Floyd. Four brass bands were also in attendance, playing for the 15,000 citizens that participated. Just after 2 p.m., Brigham Young drove the last spike holding the last rail to the last tie. The last spike was fashioned of iron, and Young used an iron maul, both made specially for the occasion from native Utah iron. At last, because of a rail connection at Ogden, Salt Lake City had its connection to the East. (Seymour B. Young, in "Utah Central and Other Railroads", Hidden Treasures of Pioneer History, Volume 1, 1952, pp. 24-25)

By mid-January 1870, 10 trains were operating through the Ogden terminal daily, including those of Union Pacific, Central Pacific, and Utah Central. To support these operations, both UP and Utah Central built and maintained facilities in Ogden. Utah Central completed a 14-foot by 60-foot enginehouse, along with a 700-foot-long, multi-span wooden bridge over the Weber River. UP completed a two-story, 20-foot by 40-foot express office; a 20-foot by 65-foot passenger house; a two-story 24-foot by 90-foot eating house with four rooms on the first floor and 12 rooms on the second floor; a two-story 20-foot by 30-foot baggage house; and a one-story 20-foot by 50-foot lodging house. Improvements for the UP mechanical department included a two-story, 20-foot by 35-foot car department; a 20-foot by 30-foot Master Mechanic's house, and a 40-foot by 157-foot enginehouse. (Ogden Junction, Volume 1, Number 1, January 1, 1870, p. 3)

With the increasing exchange of traffic among the three roads, improvements continued in the Ogden terminal. In October 1882, the original single-stall Utah Central enginehouse, built in late 1869 at the west end of Fifth Street (now 25th Street), at Wall Avenue, was torn down and replaced by another located nearer the Weber River, and adjacent to the Utah Central tracks. (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, October 5, 1882)

UP built a two-stall enginehouse adjacent to its small turntable located in the area south of the Utah Central tracks, and between its main line and the Weber River. Although the original UP enginehouse was abandoned by 1890, and the turntable "taken up," Utah Central's enginehouse remained in place until UP completed a new all-brick, 20-stall roundhouse in 1897 just south of the Utah Central line.

The September 1869 settlement for the Union Pacific grading contracts also provided the Utah Central with its first locomotive. Utah Central No. 1 was a 4-4-0 built by Hinkley & Williams as Union Pacific No. 15 in 1866, was sold to Utah Central on October 14, 1869. ("The Year Of 1870", Our Pioneer Heritage, Volume 14, 1971, p. 22; Best, Iron Horses To Promontory, p. 177)

During January 1870 Utah Central No. 2 was delivered new, and on February 7, 1870, Utah Central received two additional new locomotives, Nos. 3 and 4, from McQueen & Co. of Schenectady, N. Y. The reported total cost of the two newest locomotives was $12,000. (Deseret Evening News, February 10, 1870; Ogden Junction, February 9, 1870)

Regular passenger service began with two trains running daily each way. A third ran on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The semi-annual conference of the LDS Church was an especially big source of revenue. On May 7, 1870, 11 carloads of conference-goers bound for Salt Lake City from Ogden required the muscle of two engines. ("The Year Of 1870", Our Pioneer Heritage, Volume 14, 1971, pp. 44, 45)

Utah Central was a money-maker right from the first. For March 1870, earnings were $6,518.89. A year later, the road made $18,740.96, and for the same month in 1872 the road had revenues of $26,832.21. In 1876 the annual earnings were $392,346.00, against expenses of $159,609, making costs only 40.6 percent of earnings, a percentage that today's railroads only dream about. (Salt Lake Herald, April 5, 1872)

By the early 1870s Brigham Young, born in 1801, was ready for retirement. He began to lessen his involvement in local business and territorial affairs, reducing his titles and responsibilities to being president of the church, which itself was an all-consuming job. After Union Pacific failed to make good on its promises of settlement on the grading contracts of 1868 and 1869, Young began looking for other sources of cash with which to pay off his sub-contractors on the Union Pacific grading contract. To pay Brigham Young's debt to the subcontractors, in February 1870 the Utah Central issued $1 million in first mortgage bonds. However, because the Utah economy was still cash-poor, there was little local response to the sale of these bonds, even though during the October 1870 general conference of the LDS Church, Young told the church's members that "it is the mind and will of God that the Elders should take the Utah Central Railroad bonds and own the railroad." Young wanted the ownership of the railroad to stay in Utah. Failing to sell the bonds, Young later took a personal loan from Oliver Ames, president of the Union Pacific, for $125,000 to pay off the subcontractors. For collateral, he may have used his personal shares in Utah Central, thereby giving Ames, and therefore Union Pacific, its first foothold in control of Utah's rail lines. Only later research will show what Young used as collateral for such a large loan, and when the loan was actually made. ("Utah Railroads", Our Pioneer Heritage, Volume 10, 1967, pp. 143-144)

In December 1870, Young approached Central Pacific, offering to sell part or all of his holdings in Utah Central. CP was very interested due to its difficulties with UP. Almost immediately after the transcontinental line was completed, Union Pacific and Central Pacific had begun bickering over both major and minor issues, with CP regularly making noises about building a competing line through Utah to the East, parallel to Union Pacific's own. Young's offer fell right in with these plans. When UP officials heard of Young's proposed association with Central Pacific, they made an offer of their own. Throughout 1871, talks continued, with Young likely playing one side against the other, keeping in mind that his interest was to get cash to fulfill his obligations to his grading subcontractors, who had stopped work on their own farms in order to work on the grading contracts, and who were suffering due to lack of cash, either from their unattended crops or the grading contracts. Eventually, Union Pacific prevailed. Contrary to his earlier strong desire to deny UP an interest in the Utah Central, but with the motivation to make good on his debts on the grading contracts, Brigham Young in April 1872 sold 5,000 of his 7,600 shares in Utah Central (of 15,000 total shares outstanding) to Union Pacific. (Reeder, The History of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883, p. 103)

Young still disliked dealing with the UP, but was resigned to the necessity of doing so. The Mormon church paid an average of $100,000 per year to UP in fares for its missionaries and immigrants alone. But because the original settlement of the grading contracts included a guarantee of half-fare tickets for church members, the railroad was less than cordial. In January 1876, Young complained, "they snap and snarl every time they have the significant pretext until I am tired." (Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, p. 384)

By the time of his death in August 1877, Young no longer had any financial interest in the Utah Central Railroad, but UP still owed him $130,000 on the grading contracts. (Reeder, The History Of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883, p. 57)

Union Pacific gained firm control of Utah Central in 1878 by combining the shares already owned by its officers and directors with the 5,300 shares (increased by 1878 from the original 5,000 shares) the company had purchased from Young. (Reeder, The History of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883, p. 103)

UP consolidated its interests in Utah railroads in July 1881 when Utah Central Railroad merged with Utah Southern Railroad and Utah Southern Railroad Extension to form a new, Union Pacific-controlled Utah Central Railway.

More Information

Utah Central Railroad (1869-1881) -- Timeline chronology with updates and new research.