Salt Lake City Streetcars

Excerpted from The Power To Make Good Things Happen, The History of Utah Power & Light.

By John S. McCormick

This page was last updated on October 22, 2006.

Utah's first street railway began operation in Salt Lake City in 1872. On January 31 of that year a group of young Mormon businessmen, with the encouragement of President Brigham Young, organized the Salt Lake Street Railway Co. The founders of the company included John W. Young. Brigham Young. Jr. Seymour B. Young. LeGrande Young. John Pike. Moses Thatcher. William B. Preston. P. L. Williams. Hamilton G. Parke. and W. W. Riter. On April 26, 1872, the Salt Lake City Council granted the company a franchise. In the next two months a mile-and-a-half of track was laid from the Central Pacific Depot at 400 West and South Temple along South Temple to West Temple. on West Temple to First South. along First South to Main Street. and along Main to Third South. A trial run was held June 20. Regular service began on July 17 with a second-hand horsecart pulled by four mules borrowed from Brigham Young's private stable. Soon two additional cars with a capacity of twenty passengers each were added. Mules imported from Missouri pulled them.

At the time. Salt Lake City had a population of about 15,000 people. Its wide. unpaved streets were dusty in summer and quagmires in wet weather. Hundreds of shade trees had been planted. Pat Lannan, who later became owner of the Salt Lake Tribune, was the leading butcher. F. Auerbach and Brothers. "The People's Store." was at 55 South Main Street. There was one Congregational, one Methodist. and one Baptist church. Non-Mormons. or Gentiles, comprised about fifteen percent of the population, but were growing rapidly in numbers and by the early 1890s nearly outnumbered Mormons. The Walker House was the leading hotel. The Salt Lake Theatre, in all its splendor, attracted many of the country's great stars.

In 1873 the Mormon church acquired control of the Salt Lake Street Railway Company. Brigham Young became president, located company offices in the offices of the church's First Presidency, and ordered "Smoking Prohibited" signs placed in the cars. Under Mormon church sponsorship lines were extended, first to a length of seven miles and later to every important part of the city. By 1883 the company had fourteen cars in operation, nine miles of track, eighty-four mules, and thirty regular employees. One of the most popular lines ran out to Wasatch Springs on Second West and Eighth North, carrying invalids and others for "health treatments" in the natural hot baths there.

For the Mormon church. the most valuable part of the line extended from the Utah Central Depot to the Temple Block because it facilitated the transportation of granite blocks and other materials and equipment used in building the Salt Lake Temple. That, in fact, was probably the main reason the church bought the company.

In 1888 the church sold the railway company to a Mormon businessman, Francis W. Armstrong, who was also mayor of Salt Lake City at the time. It was sold so that the federal government would not confiscate it under the provisions of the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which had been passed in an effort to pressure the Mormon church into giving up plural marriage, its cooperative economic practices, and what were seen as its undemocratic political values and practices.

Shortly after he bought the railroad, Armstrong decided it should be electrified. On February 20, 1889, the board of directors agreed and increased the company's capitalization to $1,000,000 to finance the project. Construction began the next month on a power plant. When finished it housed four 60-horsepower boilers with twin settings and a 200-horsepower Corliss engine.

The first commercially successful electric streetcar systems in the United States were established in the mid-1880s. The cars used direct current and picked up the power from overhead wires. A flexible cable extended from the cars to a small, four-wheel device called a troller that rode on the wires. "Troller" was soon corrupted into "trolley," which became the generic term for electric streetcars. The superiority of trolleys to horsecars was obvious from the start. and soon the traction boom was on. By the end of 1889 there were 154 electric street railway systems in operation in the United States and 4,000 miles of track. By 1900 that had increased to 909 companies and 15,000 miles of track, and ninety-seven percent of the street railways in the country were electrified. The impact of traction on the electric power industry was immediate, and it was not long before furnishing electricity for the trolleys was one of its most important functions. Indeed, for a time traction was its most stable business.

Regular service on Salt Lake's newly electrified railroad began at 7:30 p.m. on August 16. 1889, when more than 150 people, including the First Presidency of the Mormon church, territorial and city officials, representatives of the press, and prominent residents boarded six cars for a ride. John Held's band "discoursed fine music as the cars moved over the lines." A speed "equal to that of an express train was made for a short distance, just to show the passengers what can be done with the electric cars," the Deseret News said. The cars were "models of comfort and elegance," the paper continued, "and ride far more smoothly than did the old ones."

For a few months the company had the field to itself, but in January 1890 competition reared its head with the organization of the Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company. Within a few months two other electric railroad companies were also established, the East Bench Railway Company and the Fort Douglas Rapid Transit Company. Both remained small and offered little threat, but for the next 10 years bitter fighting existed between the two larger companies as they battled for prime routes and customers. On one occasion employees of the Salt Lake Rapid Transit Co. were busy laying tracks down West Temple. Unknown to them a crew of 150 men from the Salt Lake Street Railway Co. was quickly and quietly tearing up the ties and tracks that had just been laid. The Rapid Transit men had nearly completed their work before they were aware of what the rival company was doing.

In 1901 the bitter competition ended when all the companies merged to form the Consolidated Railway and Power Co. It in turn merged in 1904 with the Utah Light and Power Co., to form the Utah Light and Railway Co., so that for the first time one company furnished electricity in the Salt Lake and Ogden areas for all purposes, including streetcar systems. Previously streetcar companies had either operated their own power facilities or had purchased power from another company. In 1906 railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman, who controlled the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroad systems, bought the company. Over the next few years he spent several million dollars expanding the company, paving streets, and upgrading service. In 1907 he built what is now known as Trolley Square in Salt Lake City as company maintenance shops. Shortly after work began to improve the system, Harriman visited Salt Lake with W. H. Bancroft. president of Utah Light and Railway. Bancroft was more than a little concerned about spending so much money, feeling that it was extravagant and unnecessary. "It's all right, Bancroft." Harriman said. "It costs something, of course, but it makes a city. It builds up a state. Let the good work go on."

In 1914 Utah Light and Railway Co. merged with Salt Lake Light and Traction Co. to form Utah Light and Traction Co. That year the new company carried nearly 39 million passengers over 146 miles of track in Salt Lake City and throughout the Salt Lake Valley. As in the rest of the country, the electric street car had become the accepted means of urban travel. "Cars run from the earliest dawn till the latest hour at which people are moving, meaning nearly all the time." One observer said, "and the service during the busier parts of the day is rapid and continuous. Young and old, rich and poor, all God's children ride the trolleys."

Ogden, Logan. and Provo also had electric street railways. A mule-drawn system, the Ogden Electric Railway Co., began operating in Ogden in 1884 and was electrified in 1891. Bought in 1900 by David Eccles, it was renamed the Ogden Rapid Transit Co. By 1914 it operated thirty-seven cars over 45.2 miles of track and generated its own power from a steam plant on Washington Blvd., between Nineteenth and Twentieth streets. The company's business was a combination of freight and passenger trade. One line ran up Ogden Canyon to resorts such as the Oaks, the Idlewild and the Hermitage and on to the small towns of Liberty, Eden, and Huntsville. Because of its scenic beauty the Ogden Canyon line was very popular and remained an attraction until 1932 when a paved road for automobiles was finished up the canyon.

In 1910 Eccles established another electric streetcar system, the Logan Rapid Transit Co., in Logan. One of its two lines ran between the Utah State Agricultural College and the railroad depot on the west side of the city. The other extended from Smithfield north of Logan to Wellsville on the south.

The success of the electric trolley in urban service led to its use for operation between cities. The first electric interurbans in the United States were built in the early 1890s. In 1895 there were 539 miles of interurban track in this country. That increased to a peak of 15.580 miles in 1916.

Five interurbans were built in Utah, though there were never more than four in operation at any one time. As in the rest of the country, they were an important stimulus to the growth of the electric power industry. Utah's first interurban was the Bamberger. Established in 1891 as a steam operation. it connected Salt Lake City and Ogden and served the intermediate Davis County as well, including the Lagoon resort that its owner, Simon Bamberger, had founded in 1896. Bamberger was a prominent businessman, lawyer, and politician. In 1916 he became the first Democrat and the first non-Mormon to be elected governor after Utah became a state in 1896. Electrified in 1910, the Bamberger line provided passenger service until 1952.

Utah's second interurban was established in 1891 as the Saltair Railway Co. Owned by the Mormon church, it extended from Salt Lake City to the church-owned Saltair resort on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. In 1892 its name was changed to the Salt Lake and Los Angeles Railway Co. which reflected an intention to eventually extend the line all the way to California. Originally a steam railroad, it was electrified in 1919. That same year a 2.22-mile extension was built to Garfield to serve the copper smelter there. The line also hauled a variety of freight: salt from the Royal Crystal Salt Co., whose huge drying [beds] lined the railroad's right-of-way for several miles; livestock; fresh water for Saltair; and supplies for a cement plant on the lake. At its peak it operated 16 trains daily.

The Emigration Canyon Railroad was probably the least known of Utah's interurbans. An electric operation from the first, the Mormon church built it in 1907 to haul rock and sandstone from Emigration Canyon to Salt Lake for use as building material. Initially it hauled only freight, with Yards located at Fifth South and University streets, where the cargo was transferred to waiting wagons. In 1909 regular passenger service to the lodges and resorts in the canyon was added. The line operated from late spring until early fall. It ceased operation in 1916 when concrete had replaced stone as the most common foundation material, and passenger revenue had fallen off.

A fourth electric interurban began operation in 1913. It was the Salt Lake and Utah Railway Co., called the "Orem Line" after its owner, Walter C. Orem of Boston, who had built a number of interurbans in the eastern United States. Eventually it extended southward from Salt Lake City down the west side of the Salt Lake Valley via Riverton and through the Jordan Narrows into the Utah Valley to Payson. It also had a 9.7-mile branch line to Magna that came into service in 1917. The Orem line carried both freight and passengers and at its peak operated twenty-six trains daily.

The last of Utah's interurbans, the Utah-Idaho Central, was incorporated January. 1. 1918, and was an outgrowth of the city railway systems of Ogden and Logan. The line extended northward from Ogden through Logan to Preston, Idaho. David Eccles. who owned the company, initially planned to extend the line to Yellowstone Park. He didn't carry out this plan, but by the end of its first year of operation the line was running sixteen trains a day between Ogden and Preston. It operated until 1947.

Supplying electricity to Utah's street and interurban railroads was an important stimulus to the growth of the electric power industry in the region. Even more important was supplying electricity to the mining industry. Utah was rich in mineral resources, in particular gold, silver, lead, zinc, copper, and coal. Little was done to develop them, though, until the coming of the railroad in 1869. The spread of a network of rails throughout the territory in subsequent years made possible the cheap shipment of large volumes of freight to distant markets. After that, mining began to develop on a large scale, and Utah's economy took on a new dimension, with rich mines flourishing in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City, the Oquirrh Mountains west of the city, at Rush Valley in the Tintic Mountains, and at many central and southern Utah sites. By the end of the nineteenth century, mining was the major industry in the state second only to agriculture. According to the 1860 census, there were four miners working in Utah. In 1870 there were more than five hundred, and by World War I about 10,000. The value of minerals mined annually in Utah increased from $1.5 million in 1870 to over $100 million by the middle of World War I.