The History Of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883

By Clarence A. Reeder, Jr.

(Return to Reeder Manuscript Index Page)

Chapter 1


And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. Isaiah 2:2

The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. Isaiah 35:1

Since the day that we first trod the soil of these valleys, we have built our homes, our cities, have made our farms, have dug our canals and water ditches , have fed the stranger, have clothed the naked , have immigrated the poor from foreign lands, and have placed them in a position to make all comfortable. We have built roads and railroads and have subdued this barren country and made it blossom as the rose. Brigham Young, 1876

The development of Utah from an uninhabited wilderness in 1847 to a self-sustaining, and to some degree prosperous, Territory peopled by 100,000 inhabitants in 1877, may be attributed largely to the leadership of Brigham Young. During the last decade of this period the tool he used most effectively to promote this development was that of railroads.

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were the first to touch Utah. Their junction at Promontory Summit in the Territory on May 10, 1869, bound the nation, which stretched for more than two thousand miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, into one conveniently traversable unit. Once the road was completed, the months that had been required for travel across the continent were reduced to mere days; freight destined for the Great West could be shipped reasonably inexpensively and conveniently, and the economy of the entire nation was strengthened. Utah partook of all of these benefits and profited from them; but just as important, the transcontinental railroad provided the base from which Brigham Young and other farsighted Utahns built a Territorial system of railways. The Mormon leader and his people gained their first experience in railroad construction by taking and completing the contracts for the bulk of the grading work required of the transcontinental roads in Utah. This experience provided valuable knowledge that was used in construction of their own iron expressways. President Young, both by word and action, made it undeniably clear that he intended to support the creation of a railway system that would link the communities of the Territory together and that the system would be used to develop "Zion" and bring both increased spiritual and temporal prosperity to his people.

Once the rails of the national road touched Utah, the Mormon leader moved with amazing speed and energy to marshal his people in the construction of the Utah Central Railroad to link the city of Salt Lake to the bypassing transcontinental line. This venture of the Mormon people, under the direction of their ecclesiastical leaders, was completed in January of 1870, just ten months after the company had been chartered.

This effort was followed by the construction of the Utah Southern and the Utah Northern railroads which were built primarily to join the major cities of northern and central Utah, located along the Wasatch Front and in Cache Valley.

A second group of railroads was constructed to tap the rich mining areas of Utah. Two of these were built into the canyons of the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains that towered above the Salt Lake Valley. They were the Wasatch and Jordan Valley Railroad, and the Bingham Canyon and Camp Floyd Railroad. A third road, the American Fork Railroad, wound its way up the canyon for which it was named in the mountains east of Utah Valley. Each of these early mining roads formed a junction with the Utah Southern as that road pushed its way through the Mormon farming communities in the valleys south of Salt Lake City. A fourth line, the Summit County Railroad, was constructed from a junction with the Union Pacific Railroad in Echo Canyon to the rich coal mines around Coalville. Still another road, the Utah Western, was pushed west from the Utah Central track in Salt Lake City to the numerous mines of the Tooele and Stockton area; this iron highway also provided convenient transportation to the inviting beaches of the Great Salt Lake.

All of the local railroads mentioned thus far were in operation by 1875 and had been built as a result of the leadership or endorsement of Brigham Young. Salt Lake City became the hub around which these railroads operated; and it also enjoyed the benefits of an intracity street car system that provided "front door" transportation throughout the community from the depots of the railroads that entered the city.

The development of a railway system continued at a reasonably rapid pace between 1875 and 1883. Brigham Young continued to exert an influence in railroad promotion until his death in 1877, after which time other prominent Mormons assumed leadership roles. This prominence was shared, however, with nationally known railroad financiers and non-Mormon or "Gentile" Utah businessmen who entered actively in Utah railroad promotion.

In this second period of development, there were extensions of existing lines and the chartering of new railroads that reached untouched sections of the Territory. The Utah Southern Railroad Extension pushed southward from the "end of the track" of the Utah Southern to the rich mining districts of Beaver and Iron counties. A branch line, the Sanpete Valley Railroad, was built to the coal fields in the valley for which it was named. The Utah and Northern replaced the Utah Northern and laid track through Idaho and Montana to a junction with the Northern Pacific Railroad at Garrison, Montana. Park City, a rich mining community in the mountains east of Salt Lake City, was joined by rail to Coalville and then to Echo by two parallel railroads--the Utah Eastern, and the Echo and Park City. The Union Pacific financed the building of the Salt Lake and Western Railroad from a junction with the Utah Southern to the Tintic Mining District in Juab County.

Two lines, the Utah and Pleasant Valley Railroad and the Sevier Valley Railroad, were built to exploit the coal fields of central Utah. Shortly after their completion they became part of the main line of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad as it pushed west from Denver, Colorado, to Ogden in 1883. The "Western, " as this road was often called, formed a junction with the Central Pacific at Ogden and, with its connections to the east, became a competitor to the Union Pacific for the transcontinental trade.

The completion of the Western to Ogden in 1883 marks the conclusion to the period encompassed by this paper. This date was selected by the writer for three reasons. First, it marks the end of the period in which the Union Pacific controlled trade coming from the East; second, most of the populated areas of the Territory had been reached by rail as of that date; and third, it denotes a time when all the independent railroads had been consolidated under the control of either the Union Pacific or the Denver and Rio Grande Western. The remaining major road, the Central Pacific, served both of these competing giants as a link to the West Coast. After 1883 an entirely new era of railroad development took place in Utah and provides interesting information for another study.

Utah's Railroad Incorporation Act

All of the railroads that were to be constructed and operated in Utah were incorporated under the provisions of an act passed by the Utah Territorial Legislature on February 19, 1869, and titled "An act providing for the incorporation of railroad companies and the management of the affairs thereof."[1] The purpose of the act was to provide uniform rules to govern the construction and operation of railroads. It was passed as the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were nearing their eventual junction at Promontory Summit, and as Brigham Young and other church leaders were making plans for a short line railroad from Ogden to Salt Lake City.

There are a total of forty-eight sections of the act which describe in great detail the regulations which were to govern the construction and operation of a railroad in the Territory of Utah. The act is reproduced, along with its amendments in 1874 and 1876, as Appendix II of this thesis where it can be reviewed at the reader's leisure. Some of the provisions of the act are important to an understanding of this work however, and it is appropriate to review them at this point.

Section One of the act authorized ten or more persons, two-thirds of whom were to be residents of Utah Territory and subscribers to stock of the contemplated railroad company, to form a corporation for the purpose of constructing, owning and maintaining a railroad.

Section Two required a minimum of $1,000 of stock to be subscribed for each mile of railroad proposed. Ten percent of that amount had to be paid in cash before articles of incorporation, or association could be drawn up. This section also provided that not less than five nor more than thirteen directors were to be elected by the stockholders to manage the affairs of the company.

Section Three required that the articles of incorporation include the name of the company, the number of years it was to continue in existence (not to exceed fifty), the amount of capital stock of the company, the estimated cost of construction of the road together with the cost of right-of-way, the cost of motive power and other appurtenances, the names of the directors and the terminals of the proposed road, and its length and route.

Other sections provided for the election of a president, a vice president, a secretary, and a treasurer; the board of directors were to be the electing body. An annual meeting of the stockholders was to be held and the directors would be elected by that group.

The act also required a railroad company to build and maintain a sturdy fence on both sides of its track on parts of the road that ran through land that had been or might be improved. If the company failed to build and maintain such a fence and if any cattle or other domestic animals were killed by an engine or cars, the railroad was liable to pay the owner a fair market price for the animal unless it could be shown that the owner was negligent or otherwise at fault.

A bell of at least twenty pounds weight was required to be mounted on each locomotive engine and rung at a distance of at least 100 rods from the crossing of any street, road, or highway, and kept ringing until the engine had crossed. Failure to do this would result in a $100 fine for each occurrence, half of which would be paid to the informer and half to the Territorial treasurer. Of this bell, James Bonwick--an Englishman writing of his travels on the Utah Central Railroad--said:

Our screech [English train whistles] need not be of a nature to arouse sleepers, and trouble the pain tossed ones within a radius of miles, when another note would do as much, and soothe instead of alarming. Instead of screaming when passing through a station or other places of danger, a bell attached to the engine is rung by the stoker. The tone of our bell, as we crossed streets on our approach to Salt Lake City station was more melodious than an alpine horn. The effect of this upon the comfort of the nervous travelers can be understood.[2]

A railroad company was also under obligation to provide an adequate number of regularly scheduled freight and passenger trains to meet all customer demands. The schedule of these regular runs was to be posted for the public to see. The company could not refuse transport anyone who paid the established fare, nor could it haul freight or baggage in a passenger car.

Under this act a company was given the right to remove any person who refused to pay his fare; such persons could be put off the train at any point that the conductor or employees of the company chose. All employees who dealt with the public were required to wear badges of identification. An engineer in charge of a locomotive or a conductor who was in charge of a train, who was found to be intoxicated, was guilty of a misdemeanor and was liable to a fine of $1,000 and from one to ten years of imprisonment in the penitentiary.[3]

This act, under which all local railroads in the Territory of Utah were chartered, was amended by the Territorial Legislature on February 20, 1874. The amendment expanded a railroad's liabilities for damages to include fires caused by sparks from the locomotive.[4]

A second and more significant amendment was passed by the legislature on February 16, 1876. This amendment established the provision under which two or more railroad companies could consolidate their capital stock, debt, property, assets, and franchises, as agreed upon by the respective boards of directors of the companies involved and with the consent of all shareholders.[5]

An examination of the list of companies chartered under the provisions of this act reveals that over 250 railroads have been incorporated in Utah since 1869. Of these, over sixty were chartered before the end of 1883. Most of those were never built; but nevertheless, they are part of the story of Utah's early railroad history and, in most instances, are discussed in the appropriate chapters of this work. The names and other pertinent information about all of the railroads that were chartered in Utah during the period of the study are found in Appendix I.

Railroad Rights-Of-Way

It became necessary for Congress to establish uniform regulations for granting rights-of-way across public land as railroads began building lines in the western United States where large tracts of land were part of the public domain. Congress passed "An Act granting to railroads the right of way through the public lands of the United States," on March 3, 1875.[6] This act granted a right-of-way to any railroad company that had been organized under the laws of any state or territory or by the Congress of the United States. In order to qualify for such grant, a railroad was required to file with the Secretary of Interior a copy of its articles of incorporation, a map of its route, and a copy of the law under which it was incorporated.

The right-of-way was 100 feet wide on either side of the center line of the road, and the company was given permission to use materials such as earth, stone and timber necessary for construction that were on the public lands adjacent to the railroad. Where the right-of-way or track of a company passed through a canyon, pass or defile, the company could not prevent other roads from the use of them; and if necessary, roads would share the same track at the grade of the first road on location.[7]

Nearly all of the land in Utah was part of the public domain; therefore, all of the territorial railroads were required to file for a federal right-of-way across these public lands as well as to meet the requirements of Utah's railroad incorporation act.

The history of Utah's railroads, as related in the following pages, is a story of a unique method in railroad building and ownership. Their advent in Utah brought momentous social, economic, cultural and religious changes to the people. As the history of these railroads up-folds, these changes will become evident.


[1] Utah, An Act providing for the incorporation of railroad companies and the management of the affairs thereof, Utah Session Laws, 18th sess. (1869), chap. XVI, pp. 10-16. This act is reproduced in full as Appendix II. The only railroads excepted from the requirements of this act were those, such as the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, that received their charters through statutes passed by the Federal Government.

[2] James Bonwick, The Mormons and the Silver Mines (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1872), p. 26.

[3] Utah, Railroad Incorporation Act (1869), pp. 10-16.

[4] Utah, An Act to amend An Act providing for the incorporation of railroad companies and the management of the affairs thereof, Utah Session Laws, 21st sess. (1874), chap. IX, p. 8.

[5] Utah, An Act to amend An Act providing for the incorporation of railroad companies and the management of the affairs thereof, Utah Session Laws, 23rd sess. ( 1876), pp. 217-218:

[6] An Act granting to railroads the right of way through the public lands of the United States, Statutes at Large, vol. XVIII p. 482 (1875).

[7] An Act granting to railroads the right of way through the public lands of the United States, Statutes at Large, vol. XVIII p. 482 (1875).