Utah's Electric Railroads

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Articles by Michael Laine

This page was last updated on October 22, 2006.

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Digitally scanned from mid 1980s issues of "Gandy Dancer", the bi-monthly newsletter of the Wasatch Division of the National Model Railroad Association.


The state of Utah once had an extensive network of electric interurban and street railroads. All of the larger cities and most of the population of the state were served by one or more electric railroads. There were also several interesting branch lines which connected smaller towns and recreational areas to the electric mainlines. Compared to other parts of the country, the Utah electric railroads were very successful and lasted until a relatively late date. The Bamberger Railroad, the Salt Lake and Utah, the Utah-Idaho Central, and the Salt Lake, Garfield and Western Railroad were all still providing passenger service at the end of World War II.

In the following issues of the GANDY DANCER, I hope to provide a short review of most of the electric interurban and street railroads of the state of Utah. I hope these articles are of some interest and allow the readers of the GANDY DANCER to enjoy the electric railroad heritage of their state.

The Early Street Railroads of Salt Lake City (1872-1901)

(Gandy Dancer, May/June 1987)

Did you know that Salt Lake City had the first public mass transportation system in the intermountain west? In fact, between 1872 and 1960 no less than ten major companies were involved in the development of mass transit efforts in the Salt Lake Valley. These transportation companies have a rich history of success and failure that reflects not only the growth and development of Salt Lake City and Utah but the nation as a whole.

[photo caption] An early Salt Lake City Railroad 16 foot single truck electric streetcar built by John Stephenson Company of New York. According to the destination sign this car runs between Warm Springs (840 North 300 West, where Children's Museum is now located) and Liberty Park. Note the primitive coil spring mechanism at the base of the trolley pole.

The Salt Lake City Railroad Company

(Gandy Dancer, May/June 1987)

Public transit in Utah began in 1872 when the pioneer Salt Lake City Railroad Company (S.L.C.RR.Co.) started service with a single horsecar pulled by two rat mules imported from Missouri. The initial route began near the Utah Central Railroad Station at the junction of Third West and South Temple Street. The line then traveled eastward on South Temple to West Temple where it turned south and ran to First South Street. The tracks then turned and ran east on First South Street to Main Street where they turned south again and ran to Third South Street. Although a ride on the horsecar cost 5 cents and was said to be somewhat less efficient then walking, the railroad enjoyed considerable success. A popular saying in Salt Lake City was " If I have the time I'll take the streetcar, if not I'll walk."

By the late 1880's, the first successful electrified streetcar system was already operating in Richmond, Virginia. The advantages of electric traction over mule power where obvious and the management of the S.L.C.RR.Co. immediately decided to electrify four miles of line and double the mile service on the remaining line. The first electric streetcar made a successful trial run on August 8, 1889. According to an account in the Salt Lake Telegram "The car sped up grades in fine style, and people along the line stared as though an apparition were flying by".

Electrification of the Salt Lake City Railroad proved to be a tremendous success. The railroad expanded at a phenomenal rate and by 1893 the Company operated 42 miles of track with 63 electric trolley cars.

[photo caption] The original car barn, machine shop, and power house of the Salt Lake City Railroad was located on Second East between First South and South Temple Street. Amazingly, much of this little-knokn building complex still exists and is part of the Rick Warner Chrysler Plymouth Dealership (47 South 200 East). An inspection of the machine shop building in the foreground revealed evidence of three blacksmith furnaces and a small turntable used to turn single truck cars in the shop. Also on this site is an old stable used to house mules in the days before electrification.

The Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company

(Gandy Dancer, May/June 1987)

With the obvious potential of electric transportation, competition developed quickly. The Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company (S.L.R.T.Co.) began operation in 1890 and soon included routes on State Street (all the way to Murray), First Avenue, Second South, the Rio Grande Depot, Calder's Park (later Wandemere and now Nibley Park), Smoots Pleasure Gardens, Becks Hot Springs, and the West Side Racetrack. The Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company also grew at a phenomenal rate and by 1893 the line operated 32 miles of track with 33 motorized streetcars and 8 trailers.

Several Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company lines duplicated routes already operated by the Salt Lake City Railroad Company. However, since franchises were distributed rather freely at this time, no legal action could be taken. As competition grew disputes were settled in the streets and open fights between the crews were not uncommon.

The early single truck cars of the Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company had a disconcerting habit of centering themselves on the prevalent humps in the light street trackage. Once stopped, the cars would refuse to move until the passengers and crew unloaded and rocked the car over the bump! Most of these cars were also unheated and in the winter months straw was strewn on the floor for the comfort of the paying passengers. After all these were "the good old days".

[photo caption] A Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company open trolley car on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City in the 1890's. Note the unpaved streets and the trolley wire suspended from the massive power line poles running down the center of the street.

The Utah Light and Railway Company

(Gandy Dancer, January/February 1988)

During the 1880's and 1890's the quickest and most convenient form of transportation available in many American cities were electric streetcars . In fact, the growth of urban areas during this period was largely controlled by the location of trolley lines as nobody wanted to live or work more than a few minutes walk from a streetcar route.

By the turn of the century, Salt Lake City had 100 miles of trolley lines operated by highly competitive but inefficiently organized independent streetcar companies. On August 8, 1901, in an effort to improve the local transit situation, the Salt Lake City Railroad, the Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company, the East Bench Street Railroad, and the Popperton and Fort Douglas Rapid Transit Company were merged into the Consolidated Railway and Power Company. A second merger between the Consolidated Company and the Utah Light and Power Company, from which the Consolidated purchased part of its electricity, led to the incorporation of the Utah Light and Railway Company on January 2, 1904.

E. H. Harriman And The U.L.& Ry.Co.

About the time that the U.L.& Ry.Co. was being organized, E. H. Harriman, President of the Union Pacific Railroad and a man who helped shape the west, had his own vision of developing a traction empire in Salt Lake City. In 1906, Harriman purchased 60 per cent of the Utah Light and Railway Company with the idea of developing it into a "world model" electric street railway and power utility company.

As Harriman was financially able to sacrifice any immediate return on his investment, he quickly set out to totally modernize the system. Obsolete remnants were discarded and, to insure a reliable source of electricity, he built the Jordan River Steam Plant and a new hydroelectric plant along the Weber River at Devils Gate .

The street railway was almost completely rebuilt. Eighty miles of track were relaid with heavier rail and most of the routes were double-tracked. Major suburban extensions were also built to Sandy, Holladay, and Centerville. In the central business district, wooden trolley poles were removed from the center of the street and replaced with metal poles. New streetcars were ordered allowing many older cars, some of which were originally horsecars, to be retired. Finally, a block between Sixth and Seventh East and Fifth and Sixth South streets was purchased and a major new modern car barn and shop complex built.

The Sixth East Street Car Barn and Shop Complex

The new Utah Light & Railway Company car barn, shop, and yard complex was constructed by Harriman in 1909 to centralize the maintenance of rolling stock previously carried out in older shops scattered in more residential parts of town. The new complex occupied an entire city square block and consisted of a car barn, machine shop, blacksmith and foundry, carpentry shop, store house, paint shop, heating plant, sand house, material yard, water tank, and a building containing offices and an employee club house.

The fireproof car barn was 430 ft. long and 229 ft. wide and contained 16 through tracks with a capacity for 144 double-truck streetcars. The barn was divided into four 4-track bays each containing 220 ft. long concrete service pits. Several years later the storage capacity of the car barn was increased further when an additional 5-track bay was built along the south side of the building. The front of the building is designed in "Mission Style" and is a series of reinforced concrete arches supported by brick piers and structural steel posts. The U.L.& Ry. Co. monogram appeared above the pier supporting each pair of arched bays. The entire interior of the barn was protected by sprinklers supplied by a 50,000 gallon water tank.

The machine, blacksmith, carpentry, and paint shops consisted of 20 sidings connected by a 50 ft. wide transfer table. The material yard contained three spurs while a fourth spur allowed coal to be delivered directly to the heating plant. For snow-fighting and hauling work, gravel, and coal trains the company owned three electric locomotives and fifty assorted work cars.

By 1914, the Harriman transformation of the Utah Light and Railway Company was complete. During this year, the company hauled a record 38 million passengers and had a gross revenue of $1,482,143. Salt Lake City was a prosperous and rapidly growing western town with a streetcar system generally considered to be one of the finest in the country.

[photo caption] The Utah Light and Railway Company Sixth East Car Barn following the addition of the wide 5-track arch bay in 1917. Note the old single truck open trolleys still being stored for special summer excursion service.

The Emigration Canyon Railroad

(Gandy Dancer, May 1986)

One of the least known electric railroads in the state of Utah was the Emigration Canyon Railroad. The line was built and electrified in 1907, primarily to haul red and white building stone from quarries in Emigration Canyon to Salt Lake City. The builder and main character behind the Emigration Canyon Railroad was Judge LeGrand Young. Judge Young, who was a nephew of Brigham Young, financed the railroad largely with funds from the sale of his property now known as Federal Heights. The grade of the railroad extended eastward and upward from its yard at 5th South and University Avenue (1350 East) some 14 miles to the head of the canyon were a spectacular series of switchbacks carried the line up to the company's two stone quarries. It must have been a great ride as the tracks crossed and recrossed the creek 16 times and climbed grades as high as 8 percent!

The Railroad Company soon realized that a profitable source of additional income could be made by operating passenger trains. In 1909 four wooden passenger cars were ordered and by the end of the year passengers were able to ride to the top of Emigration Canyon for a view of Salt Lake Valley and the Oquirrh Range to the west. A lodge was built at Pinecrest to accommodate hikers and sightseers and soon summer homes began to spring-up throughout the canyon.

The line prospered and by late 1910 the company was providing passenger service with four closed passenger motors and four trailers, two of which were closed and two of which were of the open variety. The trailers were pulled by the motorized coaches and occasionally by one of the line's two box cab freight locomotives. Most of the passenger trains originated at the company's yards at 5th South and University Avenue. However, some advertised trains ran over Utah Light and Traction Company tracks (the local street car company of Salt Lake City) to the front of Hotel Utah at South Temple and Main Street.

During the summer the Emigration Canyon Railroad was very busy and most of the passenger and freight trains ran with full loads. But during the winter the line was hopelessly buried by its worst enemy-snow. All Passenger and freight service was suspended until the spring thaw; although, the line was occasionally opened up as early as February.

The demise of the Emigration Canyon Railroad came as the result of a technological breakthrough - concrete, and even more importantly, cement trucks! The demand for natural stone as a foundation material fell dramatically and the Emigration Canyon Railroad was left with a negligible freight business. The passenger revenue was insufficient to keep the line in the blacks and the company gave up all operations in 1916. Today much of the grade of the Emigration Canyon Railroad has been obscured by paved road and housing along the creek bank. The company's yards are now a parking lot for University students. However, the switch backs above the site of the former Pinecrest Lodge are well preserved and stand as a testimony to one of Utah's most obscure electric railroads.