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The History Of Utah's Railroads, 1869-1883

By Clarence A. Reeder, Jr.

(Return to Reeder Manuscript Index Page)

Chapter 8

The Salt Lake City Railroad Company

The need for a public transportation system in Salt Lake City was stressed at least as early as August of 1871, by the non-Mormon newspaper the Salt Lake Tribune. Salt Lake City, it was claimed, had a population in that year which exceeded 40,000 people; and the limits of the city stretched beyond the distances that a person could reasonably walk. It would certainly be desirable to provide the city with a transit system similar to those of other cities of comparable size.[1]

Brigham Young recognized the need for a street railroad in Salt Lake City and encouraged a group of Mormon businessmen who, in some cases, already had railroad experience to charter a road. These men, Brigham Young, Jr., John W. Young, S. B. Young, LeGrand Young, John Pike, Moses Thatcher, William B. Preston, P. L. Williams, Hamilton G. Parke, and W. W. Riter, organized the Salt Lake City Railroad Company on January 24, 1872. The capital stock of the company was $180, 000 divided into 3,600 shares of $50 each which was to be issued at the rate of $20,000 for each mile completed. John W. Young subscribed to 170 of these shares, and each of the other men mentioned above took from one to three shares. The company planned to construct a single or double track street railroad from the Utah Central Railroad Depot at Third West on South Temple Street to each part of the city where there was a demand. The estimated length of this road, which was not well-defined, was about nine miles and the cost approximately $150,000. Five directors--John W. Young, Brigham Young, Jr., LeGrand Young, William W. Riter, and John N. Pike--were elected to manage the affairs of the company. This road, like nearly all other city railroads of the day, was to be powered by mules or horses.[2]

John W. Young and William W. Riter assumed the principal roles in building the road. Young, who became the president of the company, attended to management matters while Riter, who was appointed superintendent, concentrated on the construction of the road.

John W. Young's first task was to prepare a franchise to present to Salt Lake City to permit the railroad to operate. This was drawn up on January 25, 1872, and was considered and approved with amendments by the City Council before the April 29, 1872, meeting of the railroad's directors. At that time the franchise, which called for the City Council to approve fares, designate routes and "recapture" the roadbed if the company failed to comply, was approved by the directors.[3]

At the same meeting the board approved the issue of $135,000 on bonds at the rate of $15,000 per mile for the nine miles contemplated for the road. This was necessary because only $9, 500 of capital stock had been sold and only 10 percent of that amount had been received--clearly not enough to finance construction. Daniel H. Wells, a member of the Mormon Church First Presidency and Mayor of Salt Lake, and Hiram B. Clawson, Brigham Young's son-in-law, agreed to purchase these bonds and were issued a mortgage on the railroad.[4]

With assurance of financial support, John W. Young went east and was able to purchase track for the road. He had earlier purchased two second-hand cars for the line. The cars were small one-horse models manufactured by J. G. Brill & Son of Philadelphia, and they arrived in Salt Lake City on March 6, freshly and brightly painted.[5]

William W. Riter began construction of the first section of the street railroad in late March of 1872. This section began at the Utah Central Railroad Depot at Third West and South Temple and ran eastward along South Temple Street to the southwest corner of the Temple Block. It then went south along West Temple to the Townsend House on First South, then east to East Temple Street (Main) and south past the Salt Lake House and the Walker House to Third South Street, then east to First East Street (State), then north to the Salt Lake Theatre on First South, then east two blocks along First South to Third East and the American Hotel.[6]

While Riter supervised the actual construction, John W. Young was responsible for furnishing all materials and supplies; and he entered into agreements with local contractors to provide the necessary ties, timber and other construction materials.[7]

The initial section of the Street Railroad was completed and placed in operation on June 24, 1872.[8]

The next addition to the line was the extension of the track from the Utah Central depot to the Temple Block in order to transport granite blocks from the granite quarry in Little Cottonwood Canyon, via the Wasatch and Jordan Valley, and the Utah Southern railroads, to the site of the construction of the temple. This particular portion of the line was constructed of standard gauge in order to eliminate the necessity of changing cars at the depot. The line was completed by the end of July and the first carload of granite, weighing ten to twelve tons, entered the Temple Block on July 31 pulled by two span of horses and two yoke of oxen. It was soon found, however, that the light track used for the Street Railroad could not stand the heavy weight of the granite. Heavier thirty-pound rails were then put down, and the company obtained permission from the City Council to use a locomotive to pull the cars loaded with granite to the Temple Block. The first cars, five in number, pulled by a locomotive, made the run between the depot and the Temple Block on the heavier track on August 28, 1872.[9]

More financial problems confronted the street railroad in 1873. The financial panic of that year made it impossible for Wells and Clawson to meet their commitments to take the bonds of the road, and there was no money for further construction. At this juncture, Brigham Young, with church resources at his disposal, purchased the bonds and acquired 3,521 of the 3,600 shares of the company stock; at the same time John W. Young gave up the management of the company. From April 19, 1873, when Brigham Young was elected a director and a year later, president of the road, until his death in 1877, he was active in the management of the affairs of the railroad.[10] This gave the Salt Lake Tribune occasion to attack the President from time to time for his interest in temporal matters, as it did after the annual stockholders' meeting in 1877:

At a meeting of the City Railroad Company yesterday, Brigham Young was elected president, secretary and treasurer He will divide the several offices out among himself in the following manner: The Man of Mountain Meadows, president, the Profit Smear and Irrigator, the treasuryship, and the Lying of the Lord the secretaryship. Meantime the Gentiles will ride on the cars and pay their regular tithing when the conductor comes around. Great is Brig![11]

In the spring of 1873 the first construction undertaken by the Street Railroad was a branch line to Warm Springs on Second West and Eighth North. A bath house had been erected there to take advantage of the warm mineral water which flowed from the ground and was reputed to be beneficial to those suffering from crippling diseases, such as arthritis. This branch was about a mile in length from its junction with the main line at West Temple and South Temple streets. The road was also extended eastward from East Temple along First and Third South streets in 1873; and in the following years the railroad reached out to all parts of the city.[12]

The Salt Lake Tribune frequently found fault with the Mormon owned and operated railroad, particularly in its early years of operation. The feats of construction came in for their share of ribbings:

We notice that the City Railroad Company has erected a magnificent suspension bridge across the ditch on East Temple Street. This stupendous work is built of solid red pine beams, and is composed of a single arch, the span of which is at least two feet, and its height above high watermark six inches. Its strength is enormous, as it is intended to be used for the passage of the city cars each of which will weigh a number of pounds without passengers. We are not acquainted with the name of the architect of this work and are unable to give space to the description it deserves.[13]

From the day operations commenced, the Salt Lake City Street Railroad did a thriving business. It was reported that during its first week of operation, 400 to 500 people were riding on the line daily.[14] The City Council fixed the fare at ten cents per ride or 100 rides for $7.00.[15] This fare remained the same until January of 1878 when the company petitioned the City Council to drop the per-capita tax because the large expense in building and equipping the line was not providing an adequate profit, considering the sum invested. It also proposed to drop the fare from ten cents to five cents when tickets in quantities of one dollar or more were purchased. The City Council approved the request, and Salt Lake City had a nickel street car.[16]

There were numerous complaints about the street railroad during its first year or two of operation. The most frequent complaints during the initial year were about the bumpy, uneven ride and the frequency with which the cars ran off the rails, forcing the passengers either to walk to their destinations or assist in getting the car back on the track. These problems were overcome by providing better switches and more adequate ballast and by widening the degree of the turns.

Another problem causing numerous complaints stemmed from the failure of the railroad to publish a time table. The company operated on a schedule that called for a street car to pass every point on the system every twenty minutes during the hours from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily. Special cars would be operated after 9:00 p.m. to provide transportation to and from activities scheduled after that hour. This system continued until after 1883 but complaints became less frequent as the people became accustomed to it. Other complaints included the lack of courtesy on the part of employees, overcrowding from an insufficient number of cars being in operation, and dirty, unsafe and poorly maintained cars. As the railroad gained operating experience, each of these problems was overcome; and complaints that were once aired freely in the newspapers virtually disappeared in a year or two. After that time the railroad and its officers and employees often received praise rather than disdain.[17]

In 1874 Mr. Orson Arnold succeeded W. W. Riter as superintendent and served in that position until he retired sometime after 1890. It was largely due to his wise and efficient management that the road won a reputation for efficiency and dependability.[18]

Accidents occurred on the road from time to time, and the company was faced with several law suits to recover damages for injury. It is interesting to note, however, that claims resulting from injuries to Mormons were often settled by referring the case to the Council of Twelve Apostles or other high governing bodies of the church.[19]

But there was one kind of complaint that could not be overcome. That was against the mules and horses which pulled the little cars. True to their reputation, these mules were frequently stubborn and caused great difficulty from time to time. Occasionally the animals would become frightened and break away from the car on a run, as occurred in May of 1874 when four mules drawing a street car broke away at the corner of First South and Main streets and charged down Main at full gallop, causing people to scatter in all directions. The driver of the car released his brakes, and, taking advantage of the down grade, let the car with its load of passengers rush after the animals, catching them at the Walker House on Third South Street.[20] In November of 1873 a pair of mules named Sin and Misery took fright and, pulling the car behind them, dashed down South Temple toward the depot. Before the end of track was reached, the driver and conductor, thinking discretion the better part of valor and being aware that there were no passengers on board, left the car. Once the car was left entirely to the animals, they came to a sudden stop! The crew remounted, and the car proceeded on its way.[21] Nor did the caution, "Gentlemen, don't get behind those mules," go unheeded very often.[22]

A classic example of the "mool" problem was published in the Salt Lake Tribune in 1876:

Yesterday afternoon two drunken men were on one horse, riding him as fast as he could go on Third South street, east from the Federal Court House. On nearing First East street one of the men's hat fell off. The horse was wheeled round, and riding past the hat on the run, one of the riders leaned over to pick it up as he passed. In this act both of the riders lost their balance and fell to the ground. The four mules attached to the street car, which was just then approaching from the west, took fright and shied, pulling the car off the track and commencing a lively runaway down the road. The passengers filed out of the car in a lively style, but on reaching the first ditch the car stuck fast, and the mules, breaking loose, tore away down the street at full speed. One of the drunken fellows got on to his horse and put out after the mules. On overtaking them he caught up the lines, and wrapping them around the horn of his saddle, stopped his horse, but the runaway mules went on, taking with them the horn of the saddle. The mules were finally halted near the east end of the street car track, without doing any further damage.[23]

Nearly all of the various runs of the Salt Lake City Street Railroad led to a central turntable in the center of town at First South and Main streets. As the cars were drawn to the turntable and situated firmly upon it, the mules would be moved sharply to the left or right side, thereby turning the car on the rotating table until it had reversed itself and was ready to start its run back to the end of its line. As the line grew, additional turntables were added; and this system of turning the cars was used until the road was converted to electric power in 1889.[24]

The street cars used on the road varied considerably from one another. Some had both a front and rear entrance and required the services of both a driver and a conductor. A number of others had only a front entrance, which eliminated the need for a conductor. The driver, in addition to handling the mules. was charged with the responsibility of seeing that passengers deposited either cash or tickets in a box mounted on the side of the car at the front near the entrance. If a passenger failed to pay his fare, the driver had a small bell he rang as a reminder.[25] One of many poems written about early street car lines was applicable to this kind of car:

Then there's the bob-tailed one horse cair,
With only one driver and no conductair,
Where the passenger has to deposit his fare
In a box tuck up near the fierce drivair.
And just as you're clawing around in the air,
To get your hand full of change in that 'ere,
The one-horse yanks' round a sharp cornair,
And down you tumble, and there you air.[26]

In July of 1874 a steam-driven street car arrived in Salt Lake City. It was manufactured by E. Remington and Sons of Illion, New York, and was called a "dummy." The steam generating apparatus, small and compact, was in one end of the car while the steps and platform were at the other. Having four wheels and operating on the principle of a steam locomotive, the "dummy" could carry a load of passengers and pull several other cars as well. It was equipped with steam pipes to provide heat in cold weather. In early August of 1874 it went into operation on the Warm Springs line.[27]

The animals and cars for the railroad were housed at two locations. The main stable and car shed was located at the eastern end of the First South Street line at Thirteenth East. It was equipped with a turn-table in order to move the cars directly into the sheds.[28] The second stable and car shed was located just north of First South on Second East on property Brigham Young had purchased from Wells Fargo & Company. These sheds were used to house the animals and employed on the Warm Springs line.[29]

The Salt Lake City Railroad Company continued to operate with mule power until February of 1889 when conversion to electricity began.[30] The road then operated as an electric railroad although it passed through several consolidations and name changes. In 1923 the first gasoline powered bus was purchased by the company; and from that time on, busses gradually replaced the street car until the cars last cars were taken out of operation shortly after the end of World War II.[31]


[1] Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Mining Gazette, August 31, 1871.

[2] Salt Lake City Railroad Company, Articles of Incorporation, January 26, 1872, Utah State Archives.

[3] Minute Book, Salt Lake City Railroad Company, entries for January 25, April 29, 1872, located at The Utah Power and Light Company, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[4] Minute Book, Salt Lake City Railroad Company, entries for January 19, April 29, 1872.

[5] Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Mining Gazette, March 6, 1872.

[6] Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Mining Gazette, March 6, 1872; Salt Lake Tribune, June 13, 1872; Deseret Evening News (SLC), March 6, 1872.

[7] Contracts, John Gibson with John W. Young, March 22, 23, 1872, L. D. S. Church Historian's Office, John W. Young Railroad Letter File.

[8] R. R. Anderson Transcript, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California, Utah Collection.

[9] Salt Lake Tribune, July 9, August 1, 15, 1872; L.D.S. Millennial Star (Liverpool), August 27, September 24, 1872; Deseret Evening News (SLC), August 14, 1872.

[10] Minute Book, Salt Lake City Railroad Company, entries for April 19, 1873, April 22, 23, June 11, 1879; Letter, W. W. Riter to Brigham Young, L.D.S. Church Historian's Office, W. W. Riter Letter File.

[11] Salt Lake Tribune, May 6, 1877.

[12] Utah Mining Journal (SLC), January 15, 16, 17, 1873; Salt Lake Herald, January 31, September 17, 25, October 24, 1873, December 27, 1874, June 6, 1875, March 26, December 28, 1881, June 4, 1882; Salt Lake Tribune, April 15, October 5, 1873; Deseret Evening News (SLC), September 8, November 2, 1874, March 25, May 28, 29, June 26, 1875.

[13] Salt Lake Tribune, June 4, 1873.

[14] The L.D.S. Millennial Star (Liverpool), July 30, 1872.

[15] William W. Riter transcript, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California, Utah Collection; Salt Lake Herald, May 7, July 10, 1872; Deseret Evening News (SLC), June 5, 1872.

[16] Minute Book, Salt Lake City Railroad Company, entry for January 28, 1878; Deseret News (SIC), February 6, 1878.

[17] Utah Mining Journal (SLC), January 15, 16, 17, 1873; Salt Lake Herald, January 31, September 17, 25, October 24, 1873; Salt Lake Tribune, April 15, October 5, 1873; Deseret Evening News (SLC) January 18, 1875.

[18] Deseret Evening News (SLC), April 17, 1875; Deseret News (SLC), May 9, 1877.

[19] Minute Book, Salt Lake City Railroad Company, entries for March 11, June 15, 1878.

[20] Salt Lake Tribune, May 17, 1874.

[21] Salt Lake Tribune, November 18, 1873.

[22] Salt Lake Herald, August 2, 1873.

[23] Salt Lake Tribune, April 23, 1876.

[24] Deseret Evening News (SLC), September 8, November 2, 1874, March 25, 1875; Salt Lake Herald, December 27, 1874, June 6, 1875.

[25] Deseret Evening News (SLC), August 14, 1872, April 25, September 4, 15, 27, November 28, December 24, 1873; SaltSalt Lakeald, March 14, June 28, July 12, November 25, 1873; Salt Lake Tribune, June 21, 1873.

[26] Salt Lake Herald, November 13, 1875.

[27] Daily Ogden Junction, July 21, 1874; Salt Lake Herald, August 7, 1874.

[28] Deseret Evening News (SLC), August 14, 1872, April 25, September 4, 15, 27, November 28, December 24, 1873; Salt Lake Herald, March 14,-June 28, July 12, November 25, 1873; Salt Lake Tribune, June 21; 1873.

[29] Deseret Evening News (SLC), May 28, 29, June 26, 1875.

[30] Minute Book, Salt Lake City Railroad Company, entry of February 20, 1889.

[31] "Salt Lake City Says Goodbye to Street Cars," The Circuit, (Utah Power and Light Company Magazine), June, 1941, p. 3.