Salt Lake & Mercur Railroad (1894-1913)

This page was last updated on June 10, 2019.

(Return To the Salt Lake & Mercur Page)

The Salt Lake & Mercur Railroad

By Larry M. Southwick
History 156 R
August 8, 1966

The Salt Lake and, Mercur was a railroad typical of its times, built to serve a small area for mining purposes, Mercur, and lasting only as long as the mining camp did.

Mercur, or Lewiston as it was originally called, was first a silver camp. Silver was discovered there in 1870 and the town was booming by 1872. The silver era was over by 1880.[1]

In 1879, Arie Pinedo found cinnabar ore and so named the mine Mercur after the German word for mercury, the product of this ore. Quicksilver mining was abandoned in 1884. Gold was found by assay in 1883.[2]

At first an amalgamation technique was tried to recover the gold. Capt. Joseph Smith put up an amalgamation mill in March, 1889, and spent $9-10,000 with no substantial results. Then in 1890, Gil S. Peyton and Hal W. Brown with Smith incorporated the Mercur Gold Mining and Milling Co. with a capital of $5,000,000 and bought Pinedo's Mercur claim. John Dern, E. H. Airis, and John Heimrich of Fremont, Nebraska bought 30,000 shares at $1 each. Of this, $25,000 was spent by Capt. Smith on an amalgamating mill at Manning, the $5,000 left was spent on the mine and fixing up the wagon road to Manning.[3]

The mill would produce no gold and only Peyton and Brown would spend any more money. They tried the McArthur-Forest cyanide process, which worked. The two men left in about a year, selling their interest to Dern. The mill at Manning was changed to the cyanide process, enlarged to fifty tons, then to one hundred tons in 1893. With the goal of lower ore shipping costs to the Manning mill, the Salt Lake and Mercur Railroad was completed from Mercur to Fairfield via Manning. In 1895 Capt. J. L. DeLaMar bought the Golden Gate group of mines which became his Mercur Mines. In 1897-1898, the Golden Gate Mill was built, a 500 ton cyaniding plant. In 1896 and again in 1897, DeLaMar had tried to purchase the Mercur Gold Mining and Milling Co., but the price was more than be thought it was worth.[4]

In 1899, DeLaMar and Dern consolidated their holdings, becoming the Consolidated Mercur Mines Co. Eventually all of the ore was treated at the Golden Gate mill, the Manning mill being used after 1900 only intermittently for tailings.[5] In February, 1901, Con. Mercur had the 1000 ton Golden Gate cyanide mill and the 600 ton Manning cyanide mill.

In 1899, there were ten mills in the area using the cyanide process, among them were the Geyser-Marion, Mercur, Golden Gate, and Sacramento in Mercur; the Sunshine and Overland in Sunshine; and the La Cigale and Daisy on the West Dip where West Mercur is.[6] By 1917, these mills had treated 5,583,513 tons of ore valued at $19,034,984. The first five paid $3,881.323 in dividends. MGMM Co. paid $1,481,000 and the Mercur Mines Co. paid $689,812.99 in dividends to August 1, 1900 and Con. Mercur to July 13, 1913, paid $1,374,500.7 Five more mills were added in 1899. There were a hundred mines in the area showing pay values, some of the ore assaying $10-30 per ton in gold.[8]

Electricity was provided by a transmission line laid from L. L. Nun's Telluride electric plant in Provo Canyon to Mercur, a distance of 32 miles.

Water was almost nonexistent in Lewiston Canyon, although there was a spring on the divide between Lewiston and Ophir (East) Canyon. This water was sold in wagons at 1 cent per gallon. As early as 1892, Col. E. A. Wall had conceived the idea of bringing wader from East Canyon using water power to drive the pump through a Pelton Wheel. By 1893, Wall had the cooperation of the farmers for the water, but no money. With assistance from Capt. T. B. Rhodes, money was obtained from W. S. McCornick and Theo. Bruback of Salt Lake City and the Gold Belt Water Co. was organized. During the Summer and Fall of 1895, the power plant was installed and pipe laid over the 8000 ft. divide under the management of Bruback and superintendents Wall and Rhodes.[9] The water went to a 45,000 gallon storage tank then by gravity down to the town.[10] Water for milling was provided for about 1/3 cent per gallon and to an ordinary household of six persons for about $3 per month. The Company also provided water to West Mercur, Sunshine and to Manning.[11]

By the Fall of 1913, the grade of ore had dropped so low and labor costs were becoming so high that the Con. Mercur was forced to close down.

In 1933, because of advances in metallurgy and an increase in gold prices, the Con. Mercur was opened up. However, these operations were never very large and were generally idle from the beginning of World War II.

On July 17, 1894, the Salt Lake and Mercur Railroad Company was incorporated to build a line from Fairfield to Mercur via the Manning mill, about 10 miles. The capital stock was 20,000 shares at $5 each. The cost of construction, cars, right of way and buildings were estimated to be $50,000. The subscribers were A. A. Noon, Provo, 1000 shares; Joseph G. Jacobs, S. L. C., 450 shares; Reed Smoot, Provo, 25 shares; John J. Stewart, S.L.C., 25 shares; Henry G. McMillan, S.L.C., 25 shares; Chas. D. Moore, S.L.C., 470 shares; and Frank Pierce, 5 shares. The first five were the directors with Stewart as secretary. These 2000 shares provided the $1000 per mile considered necessary to build the road.[12]

In July of 1894, Col. C. D. Moore started the survey.[13] The road had considerable difficulty in procuring the needed money for the rails and it was September 28 before the rails arrived at Fairfield. At that time, the road was graded as far as the mill site at Manning. It was expected that the line would reach that point within the week so that work could begin on enlarging the Manning mill. There was a force of 60 teams at work and 16 more were to be added the next week.[14]

It was not until October 8 that tracklaying began in earnest. The grade was completed to within three miles of Mercur. The rail laying was expected to proceed at the rate of one half mile per day, so that the mill at Manning could be reached by November 1.[15]

On January 19, 1895, the last spike was driven, a cause for much rejoicing in Mercur. The road would have been completed on the 18th, but the supply of spikes gave out. Only about three hours of rail work remained at that time.[16]

The cost of hauling ore to the mill was reduced from the 80 cents per ton by wagon to 25 cents per ton by rail.[17]

The construction of the line was under the management of Joseph G. Jacobs, who was active in contracting and subcontracting railroad work in the West. He was an experienced railroad builder before he came to Utah in the 1890s.[18] C. D. Moore was the chief engineer.[19]

The road had been built during a period of general business depression, attesting to the permanence and value of the Mercur mines. [20] The building of the road provided jobs for 250 Utah men; most of the material came from local markets. A branch was built to the Golden Gate mill to provide the coal needed for roasting the ore which was preparatory to the cyanide treatment.

In 1897, La Cigale, on the West Dip near where West Mercur is, experienced a minor boom.[22] Partly because of this, the articles of incorporation were amended on August 23, 1897, to provide for the construction of a six mile branch to La Cigale. There was also to be a 12 mile extension from Fairfield Switch along the southwest slope of the Oquirrh mountains and the northern and eastern edge of Rush Valley in the direction of La Cigale. There two branches were never built, though, probably because the La Cigale rush lasted only a couple of years. At this time, the road, including the spur to the Golden Gate Mill, was 13 1/3 miles long. The capital stock was increased to $500,000 to account for the higher cost of the original construction and to pay for the new branches. The stockholders, with about 20,000 shares, had put in $300,000 on the line. These shares were turned in for 60,000 shares at $5 per share to account for their investment and the remaining 40,000 shares were to be used to finance the new construction at $25,000 per mile. The stockholders at this time were John Dern, 6992 shares; E. H. Airis, president, 6993 shares; Hal W. Brown, 5000 shares; H. G. McMillan, 25 shares; J. J. Stewart, 25 shares; and J. G. Jacobs, 5 shares. [23]

On May 4, 1903, the original Articles of Incorporation were filed with the Secretary of State of Utah. In 1894, Utah had been a territory.[24]

The road was originally laid with 30 pound rail; later some of this was replaced with 40 pound rail. The road ran from Fairfield Switch, elevation 5,116 feet, to the Mercur mine, 10 1/2 miles, and to the Mercur depot, about 12 miles. It crossed a divide of about 7,100 feet. The road was standard gauge, 56 1/2 inches, with a maximum grade of 4.2 percent and a maximum curve of 42 degrees -- the first standard gauge road with such sharp curves.[25]

The road originally had 11 cars, most of them probably side dump cars to supply ore to the Manning mill and a passenger car, a narrow gauge coach on standard gauge trucks. Because of the sharp curves, Shay engines were used.

Originally the road had three locos, one a 20 ton and the other two 28 tons.[26] These could handle four cars of ore.[27] Later larger engines were employed.

In March, 1895, the road was hauling 150-175 tons of ore a day to Manning.[28] By 1897, the monthly average of ore handled had reached 8000 tons, the overall average since construction was 7000 tons. No freight had been damaged or passengers hurt through negligence of the railroad. [29]

The shops, roundhouse and boarding house were in Manning, with depots at Mercur and Fairfield. All shopping by the road's employees living in Manning was done at either Mercur or Fairfield.[30]

The usual schedule was to leave Manning with a couple of cars of slack coal for the Golden Gate mill at 7:00 in the morning. Then to go down to Fairfield to catch the 9:30 train from Salt Lake City, then to get back to Mercur before noon. After a layover of about an hour, the train left around 1:30 for Fairfield to catch the train to Salt Lake City. Then back to Manning for the evening and tie up. The road had no caboose, so one of the passenger cars was usually at the rear of the train. Often a run was made with just a passenger car and perhaps a car of coal for Mercur. The road prospered for many years, the passenger car often overflowing with people. Mercur even had a hired ball team and flat cars carried the fans down to Fairfield for games.[31]

In 1896, the Union Pacific train out of Salt Lake City to Eureka, Provo, Nephi and Fairfield left at 7:45 a.m. and returned to Salt Lake City at 5:50 p.m.[32]         The trip from Salt Lake City to Mercur then took about five hours. In 1903, the schedule had changed little, leaving at 7:30 a.m. and returning at 5:35 p.m.[33]

The road from Lehi through Fairfield was originally built as a branch of the Union Pacific, the Salt Lake and Western. It was later sold to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake.

A sample crew about 1909 was Jack Ault, engineer, John Zimmerman, fireman, Charles Turner, brakeman, and Bill Thomas, conductor. The section crews used small section cars, being pulled up the hill by a train since it was too steep to use a pump type hand car. The cars then coasted down the hill, using a long wooden lever as a brake. These cars were called "Larrys."[34]

Two fires hit Mercur, the second of which the railroad played some part in. The first occurred on January 6, 1896. It started about 10 at night in the Lewis Hotel, doing about $20,000 damage and killing one person, George Bernard, a barkeep.[35]

A much more devastating fire was that on July 25, 1902. This one started as a result of an explosion in the Oquirrh Hotel and spread rapidly over the town. It lasted from 9 to 12 noon and was halted only when explosions were used to create fire path. It caused about $250,000 damage, $95,000 of which was insured, leaving 1,000 people homeless. On the 25th after word of the fire reached Salt Lake, John Dern and Frank Kimball outfitted a relief train for Mercur that included a ton of flour, 1,000 pounds of beef, 300 of sausage, cheese, butter, rice, coffee, eggs, and salt. At Lehi Junction, an additional ton of supplies were picked up. The special consisted of two baggage cars for the supplies and four coaches to bring out the sufferers. The Salt Lake & Mercur placed all its rolling stock at the disposal of the committee. No fares were collected on the relief train or for any refugees carried down to Fairfield. It was said that the run up to Mercur with the relief supplies was one of the fastest in its history.[36]

Once the Sells-Floto Circus planned a trip to Mercur, but found the curves the Salt Lake & Mercur too sharp for its long circus cars. The circus train consisted of flat cars, closed cars and a coach. Some of the animals were then taken off the train and paraded through Mercur lead by an elephant named Alice, advertising that the circus would be held on a flat near Fairfield. The railroad then provided transportation down to Fairfield.[37]

Only one fatal wreck was known to have occurred on the line, and this was in about 1909. A train hit a broken rail and a combine and a box car rolled part way down the hill. A baby was killed when it was thrown through window of the passenger car.[38]

A humorous incident of the wreck occurred because the box car was filled with beer barrels -- full ones. Some of them rolled part way down the hill and a bunch of kids were hired to roll them to where they could be picked up by a wagon. However, some of the barrels had sprung leaks and full advantage was taken of their injured condition.[39]

When the mines died, so did the railroad. Most of the mills were closed down by 1913, they and the railroad standing idle for a time. Then the railroad was used to carry out the salvageable parts of the mills. Lucius Laudie was appointed receiver of the road by L. L. Nunn, who was apparently owner of the line for some time.[40] There were only two locos left, Shays 9 and 5. The 9 went to Silver Brothers in Salt Lake City for a while then to Cottage Grove, Oregon to a lumber camp. The outfit in Oregon wanted to hire Zimmerman as engineer to come with his loco, but he chose to remain in Utah. The other loco, 5, went either to Alta or to Bingham, neither of which has been verified.

By November, 1913, the last car of milling machinery from the Consolidated Mercur and the Sacramento had been hauled out by the railroad.[41] Work was then started on dismantling the line. Zimmerman, who had quit the road, rejoined as engineer of the salvage train. The work of tearing up the track from Mercur down to Fairfield took about two months.[42]

The importance of the road was that it helped Mercur prosper. Its original function of hauling ore to the Manning mill was superseded when the Golden Gate mill was built. However, Mercur and its mines and mills still needed supplies: coal, machinery, and food. The line was touted for its breathtaking ride, there was even an open excursion car to take full advantage of the dizzy ride. The road provided cheap transportation of machinery and therefore economical operation of the mills in Mercur.


[1] H. L. Warren, Mercur Gold Fields, The Johannesburg of America, Issued by the Passenger Department of the Rio Grande Western Railway, 1896. Unless otherwise noted, the information for the introductory section came from Douglas D. Alter, "The Ghost of Mercur", Utah Historical Quarterly, January 1961, pp. 33-42.

[2] Ibid.

[3] R. C. Gemmell, Engineering and Mining Journal, LXIII (1897) p. 403-4, 427-8.

[4] Engineering and Mining Journal, LXIII (1397) p. 61.

[5] L. O. Howard, "Romance of a Famous Gold Mine", Salt Lake Mining Review, XIII (June 30, 1913), p. 13-17.

[6] Don Maguire, Utah's Great Mining Districts, Issued by the Passenger Department of the Rio Grande Western Railway, 1899, pp 31-33.

[7] V. C. Heikes, "Camp Floyd or Mercur District," U. S.G.S. Professional Paper III (1920), p 382.

[8] Maguire, op. cit.

[9] Gemmell, op. cit.

[10] Salt Lake Mining Review, XIII, (August 30, 1913), 11-16.

[11] Gemmell, op. cit.

[12] Articles of Incorporation, Salt Lake and Mercur Railroad, filed with the Territory of Utah, July 17, 1894

[13] Salt Lake Tribune (January 1, 1895).

[14] Salt Lake Tribune (September 29, 1894).

[15] Salt Lake Tribune (October 7 and 9, 1894).

[16] Salt Lake Herald (January 19, 1895).

[17] Salt Lake Tribune, (January 20, 1895).

[18] Utah, the Inland Empire, Deseret News Press, Salt Lake City, 1902, page 102-103.

[19] Gemmell, op. cit., page 428

[20] Warren, op. cit.

[21] Salt Lake Tribune, (January 1, 1895.

[22] Engineering and. Mining Journal, LXIII (1897), page 75.

[23] Articles of Incorporation, Salt Lake and Mercur Railroad Co., filed with the Secretary of State of Utah, August 2, 1897.

[24] Articles of Incorporation, Salt Lake an Mercur Railroad Co., refiled with Secretary of state of Utah, May 4, 1903.

[25] Gemmell, op. cit., page 428.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Warren, op. cit.

[28] Engineering and Mining Journal, LIX, page 207, 803.

[29] Gemmell, op. cit., page 428.

[30] John Zimmerman, personal interview, August 1966.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Salt Lake Herald, (January 1, 1896).

[33] Salt Lake Herald, (May 2, 1923).

[34] Zimmerman, op. cit. This is not a fabrication on the part of the author.

[35] Salt Lake Herald, (January 7, 1896).

[36] Salt Lake Herald, (June 26, 27, 1902).

[37] Barnes Cook, personal interview, August 1966.

[38] Zimmerman, op. cit.

[39] H. S. Dykman, personal interview, August, 1966.

[40] Lucius Laudie, personal interview, August, 1966.

[41] Engineering and Mining Journal, XCVI, (1913), page 953.

[42] Zimmerman, op. cit.

[43] Robert LeMassena, Research done for the D&RGW Railway Co. by the Heiland Research Corp., Denver, Colorado.