The History Of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883

By Clarence A. Reeder, Jr.

(Return to Reeder Manuscript Index Page)

Chapter 12


The metamorphic effects wrought in the Territory of Utah as a result of railroad development during the fourteen years between Promontory and the spiking of the Denver and Rio Grande Western at Ogden were remarkable. The role individual railroads played in that transformation has been woven into the history of each road as it has unfolded in the preceding pages. The overall significance and effects can be briefly summarized.

The key figure in Utah's early railroad development was Brigham Young. As President and Prophet of the Mormon Church, his people believed that he received divine guidance. Therefore his authority and directions, both spiritual and temporal, were almost unchallenged among the faithful members of the Mormon religion who in 1869 composed over 90 percent of Utah's population.

President Young had carefully developed and expedited a plan for the orderly growth of Utah Territory from the time of its settlement by the Mormons in 1847. Exercising a dominant influence in the determination of economic policy, he had stressed the improvement of agricultural methods and products, the stimulation of home industry, and the gradual development of essential mineral deposits such as coal and iron ore for local use. He early realized that a key to the development of the Territory was a transportation system that was economical, safe and rapid; and in the last half of the nineteenth century, this meant railroads.

The Mormon President, anxious to see the transcontinental railroad completed and just as anxious to see cash, which was scarce in the Territory, flow abundantly to his people, readily accepted the invitations from the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad officials to contract the grading of the roadbed through much of Utah. He subsequently subcontracted the actual work to prominent Church leaders; and by exerting his authority as temporal as well as spiritual leader, he called upon his people to undertake the construction of the roadbed as a Church-sponsored project. Brigham Young and his people, in meeting the obligations of the contract, presented a unity of effort which was a uniquely different experience in railroad building. The nation had not previously witnessed a people working together in harmony under the guidance of their religious leaders to accomplish a temporal task which was treated as though it had been divinely inspired. In stark contrast to the "hell on wheels" camps that followed the construction crews who built the transcontinental railroad outside of Utah, the Mormon railroad construction camps were generally models of clean living and cooperation; community prayer was said twice daily, and men did not hesitate to bring their families to the camps. Order was the common preoccupation and cooperation the key word, and the people took great pleasure in their work.

An estimated five to ten thousand Mormons worked on President Young's contracts for the transcontinental railroad and won admiration from officials of both the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific for their efficient and excellent work. Most important, however, this experience gave Brigham Young the confidence to embark on the construction of a system of short line railroads in Utah that were built under even more unique circumstances.[1]

The first of these was the Utah Central Railroad Company. Brigham Young organized this railroad and provided the overall direction for its construction. To build this railroad. Brigham Young called upon the members of the Church to voluntarily perform the labor in the same way he called upon them to build a meeting house or work on a welfare project. This generally meant that their work was rewarded by the enjoyment of the fruits of their labor rather than by cash payments. In this case, remuneration was made by giving stock or bonds of the Utah Central or by giving railroad tickets which could be used for rides on the line once it was completed. Much of the labor was performed by immigrants who used this means to repay the Church for the cost of their transportation to Utah. Receipts for tithing payments were also allowed to the workers and for those in need, credits which could be used for food and supplies from the Bishop's Storehouse or ZCMI were given. In every way this was a church and community project and a break from the tradition of government subsidy for railroad construction.

The names of those who were to supervise the work were presented in Church meetings and sustained in their calling by the people. These men in turn instructed the bishops of the wards along the route to direct their members to complete the portion of the road that was located within or near their ward boundaries and to call those members to labor by Church authority.

The Utah Northern, Utah Southern, Summit County and Salt Lake City railroads were also constructed in a similar manner. This system of Church-supported construction provided for a greater ownership in the road by the actual users than was generally found outside of Utah. As Moses Thatcher said of the Utah Northern Railroad:

I suppose there is not a road in the United States of equal length the stock of which is distributed so extensively among the workingmen along its line. The iron and rolling stock have been furnished by Mr. Richardson, an eastern capitalist, the rest has been accomplished. . .by the best wealth the world possesses--union of interest and concert of action, backed by the bone and muscle of the independent farmer, the hardy lumberman, and the intelligent miner.[2]

Moreover, when a Church-endorsed railroad company found itself in financial difficulty, it was often aided by President Young who used the resources of the Church to keep it in operation.

If Brigham Young and other prominent Mormon leaders had not exerted the efforts they did in promoting Utah's earliest short line railroads, construction in most cases probably would have been delayed for want of a sponsor and the people of the Territory would not have witnessed even a small part of the development that had occurred by 1883. However, this development would not have been possible with only Mormon support and participation, it required also the financial assistance of outside capitalists and that came principally from the Union Pacific Railroad Company.

The Union Pacific's tracks stretched across an area from Omaha, Nebraska, to Ogden, Utah, and when first spiked in place, there was no concentration of people located anywhere along the line except in Utah. That company, because of both the population and the rich mineral deposits in the Territory, saw opportunity in Utah for further development and supported railroad growth in the Territory by investing in the bonds of local railroads. Due to this financial interest, the Union Pacific eventually achieved the ownership of most of the short lines built in the Territory. This takeover by the Union Pacific did not cause problems with the Mormon leadership since, as was expressed on many occasions, the interest and purpose of Church involvement in railroad construction was to encourage transportation facilities and not for permanent ownership or profit.[3]

In pre-railroad Utah the people were isolated from contact with the outside world, and their principal interest was in forcing their high valley homes to produce sufficiently to sustain life. Cultural pursuits were encouraged by Brigham Young, but few were able to partake. The outlook of the people was inward, and new thoughts lay dormant.

After 1869 thousands of people visited "Mormon Country" and left new ideas and infused new interests in the people of Utah. Among the many who came were: President U. S. Grant; the future President James A. Garfield; Robert Ingersoll, the well known agnostic of nineteenth century America who debated religious issues with learned Mormon theologians; the circus with its strange animals and entertainers from the world over, crowned heads of foreign states and nobility from Europe and Asia; senators, governors, government officials and scores of politicians; railroad officials; lecturers; some of the best of the nation's actors and entertainers, to appear in the Salt Lake Theatre; and thousands of others, all bringing stimulating new thoughts and concepts to the people of the Territory.

William Jennings, one of Utah's most active railroad promoters, sums up this new atmosphere:

The railroad coming into Utah was a great blessing as an educator. It is impossible for a people to live by itself without communication. . with the outside world without becoming narrow minded and retrograding. Boys eighteen or twenty years old, sons of Brigham Young and other dignitaries, satisfied their highest ambition when they would ride about the town on horseback dressed fantastically, with leather leggings, Spanish spurs, soft slouch hats with fur twisted around it and hanging down like a coons tail. . . . They would pace about the place shouting and holloaring as they went. They played the part of uncouth roughs. The railroad brought higher civilization and education. Even greater attention to dress and fashion has its elevating influences stimulating ambition and self respect. [4]

The railroads, once operational, played a significant role in populating the Territory. The Mormon converts who had previously formed the stream of pioneers who spent months crossing the plains, rivers and mountains to Zion, by wagon train and hand cart--leaving in their wake numerous dead who did not survive the rigors of the journey--now traveled to their "Promised Land" in a few short days by rail.

Journeying West with the converted Saints were hundreds of other immigrants who were attracted to the new homes in lands now opened by the railroads. Upon reaching Utah, short line railroads swept the new arrivals out into the settlements to a new life centered around farming or mining.

The construction of short line railroads in Utah also made it possible to connect the communities of the Territory with Salt Lake City and the transcontinental railroad and thus facilitated the marketing of the products of the farms and the shipment of supplies. The timber supplies and building stones located in the mountains were carried to the people for construction of homes and commercial enterprises; and railroads reached the rich mining districts and carried large quantities of ore to make those operations profitable. It was also possible for the Church authorities to move rapidly and conveniently among the people and give them guidance and direction.

The most important economic result was in the development of mining. At the time of the advent of the first railroad, the Territory was almost entirely, from necessity, an agrarian one. As the railroads were extended, the full potential of Utah's metallic ore and coal deposits could be realized inasmuch as the proximity of railroads made the extensive development of the mines possible. The gigantic storehouse of mineral wealth that was pouring forth from the mines on the tracks of Utah's railroads brought mills, smelters and refining works into existence.

The sizeable metal mining and smelting industry that ensued provided the livelihood, directly or indirectly, for 40 percent of Utah's working force. This industry demanded increased coal and coke production and this led to the building of additional railroads to reach the coal mines in Summit, Sanpete, Carbon and Emery counties.[5] The products of the mines were the major commodity that the Territory could offer in exchange for cash to purchase incoming products and somewhat maintain a balance of trade. The silver alone produced in Utah between 1869 and 1879 realized $46,798,115 for the economy; in addition to silver, there were over sixty other marketable metallic ores or minerals found in useable quantities in the Territory.[6]

About 30 percent of the people continued to cultivate the arable lands. The railroads aided this agricultural economy in bringing markets to the farmers' doors and encouraged even greater production for an ever expanding market.

The impact of railroad development was felt in all spheres in Utah, but it was greatest in the economic area where the agrarian self sufficient family and village economies were broadened to include mining and other industries and became part of a national commercial orientation.


[1] Arrington, "The Transcontinental Railroad and the Development of the West," p.10.

[2] Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, p. 287, citing Journal History, December 11, 1874.

[3] Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, pp. 291-292.

[4] William Jennings Transcript, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California, Utah Collection.

[5] The Economic Dependence of the Population of Utah (Salt Lake City: Vandergrift & Associates, 1931), p. 22.

[6] Salt Lake Herald, January 1, 1880.