History of Railroads in Utah
Courtesy of Utah History Encyclopedia. (Links Added)

Historians agree that the driving of the golden spike marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, on 10 May 1869 was one of the most important events in United States history, as it was also in Utah history. In fact, 1869 is considered to be a benchmark year in Utah history--the pioneer era coming to an end with the coming of the railroad.

Brigham Young, as community leader and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, foresaw the impact that the coming of the railroad would have and wanted the transcontinental rail line built through Salt Lake City. He was aware of the role that a railroad could play in tying a community together as well as connecting a region with the outside world. After representatives of both the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met with him and explained the difficulty and extra expense of a route through Salt Lake City, Young accepted the decision and helped wherever he could to speed the completion of the project, including arranging for the use of local contractors for the construction of the tracks across the territory.

The construction of a connecting railroad line south to Salt Lake City, and later into almost all parts of the state, had a much larger impact on the local populace than did the joining of the rails at Promontory. In early 1869, prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Mormon Church leaders began working on the organization of a connecting railroad between Ogden and Salt Lake City. In January 1870 that line was completed, connecting Salt Lake City to the national rail system. One of the benefits that the Mormon Church received from the coming of the railroad was the availability of low-cost transportation that would help to bring large numbers of its members to the new Zion. From places as distant as Europe, new members came by way of the ports of call along the East and Gulf coasts.

The Union Pacific was the first of the major railroad companies to successfully build within Utah's borders, connecting with the Central Pacific tracks at Promontory in 1869. Twenty years later, Union Pacific had become the largest railroad company in the territory. In 1889 the Union Pacific consolidated the control of its interests in Utah and Idaho through the organization of the Oregon Short Line and Utah Northern Railway.

In 1893, however, Union Pacific was forced into bankruptcy along with its subsidiary railroad companies. The Oregon Short Line emerged from bankruptcy in 1897 as an independent company, and the reorganized Union Pacific emerged from bankruptcy in 1898. The former Oregon Short Line had controlled much of the traffic that the Union Pacific depended on, and the new situation was no different. Within two years, the new Oregon Short Line was again under the full control of the reorganized Union Pacific.

The Union Pacific lines west from Evanston, Wyoming, down Weber Canyon to Ogden follow the original Union Pacific route into Utah. The Oregon Short Line routes in Utah included the Union Pacific lines between Salt Lake City and Ogden, as well as the lines north of Ogden. The lines operated by the Union Pacific south and west of Salt Lake City were originally those of the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, which completed its route to Los Angeles in 1905. Instead of building a new route through Utah, in 1903 the Los Angeles and Salt Lake purchased the former Utah and Pacific Railroad line between Milford and the Nevada state line, that was completed in 1899. The new company also purchased the former Utah Central/Utah Southern line between Salt Lake City and Milford, completed in 1880. Both lines were purchased from the Oregon Short Line Railroad, which had purchased the Utah and Pacific line in 1901.

Also included in this 1903 sale was the Oregon Short Line's new standard-gauge line west of Salt Lake City, called the Leamington Cut-off. Completed in 1903, the new line ran west from Salt Lake City and then south through Tooele before it connected with the former Utah Southern route at Lynndyl. The new line roughly paralleled the former narrow-gauge Utah Western Railway, completed in 1877 between Salt Lake City and a point just north of Stockton called Terminus. Union Pacific gained control of the Utah Western in 1881 and reorganized the company as the Utah and Nevada Railway.

The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway completed its narrow-gauge line between Colorado and Salt Lake City in March 1883; it was extended to Ogden two months later. The company was reorganized in 1889 as the Rio Grande Western Railway to enable it to finance the conversion of its line from narrow gauge to standard gauge. In 1901 the Rio Grand Western came under the control of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in Colorado. The original Denver and Rio Grande Western, after 1884, and the Rio Grande Western after 1889, were independent railroads until 1901. In the seventeen years that the two companies were independent, they succeeded in completing a network of branch lines that put them in direct competition with the Union Pacific in the state of Utah. In addition, the Rio Grande also had a virtual monopoly on the movement of coal out of the state.

The Western Pacific Railway started construction in 1906 and was completed between Salt Lake City and Oakland, California, in 1909. The company was controlled by the same people who controlled the Rio Grande, and its line was completed as a Pacific Coast extension of the Denver and Rio Grande tracks. In 1908 the Denver and Rio Grande consolidated its various branch lines and subsidiary companies in Utah and Colorado, including the Rio Grande Western, to finance the completion of the Western Pacific line. The route was completed west from Salt Lake City around the south end of the Great Salt Lake, continuing due west across the salt desert to the Nevada line at Wendover. Rio Grande lost control of the Western Pacific in 1916, with the latter railroad company remaining independent until it was merged with the Union Pacific in 1982, giving Union Pacific direct access to the ports of Oakland and San Francisco.

The Southern Pacific came into the state by leasing the original line of the Central Pacific. Although most of the Southern Pacific's line in Utah is located west of the Great Salt Lake, that part of the railroad which crosses the lake is unique in the nation. In 1903 the Southern Pacific completed one of the longest railroad trestles ever built when it constructed a new line across the north arm of the Great Salt Lake. In 1959 the trestle was replaced by an earthen fill dirt causeway. In 1988 the Southern Pacific and the Denver and Rio Grande Western merged, forming the fifth largest rail system in the nation.

The growth of a network of railroads in Utah began with the completion of the Utah Central between Ogden and Salt Lake City in January 1870, and with the start of construction of the Utah Southern south from Salt Lake City in May 1871. Brigham Young viewed the completion of these railroads more as a benefit to the communities they served rather than as profit-making enterprises. These "Mormon Roads," as some historians have called them, radiated like spokes of a wheel from Salt Lake City and Ogden. They made the movement of goods and people easier within the territory, and included, in addition to the Utah Central and the Utah Southern, the Utah Western, built west from Salt Lake City, and the Utah Northern, which was built north from Brigham City and later connected with Ogden.

Also among the Mormon Roads was the Summit County Railway, completed between Echo and Coalville, and extended to serve the silver mines in Park City in 1880. At the same time that the railroad was being completed into Park City, it was also being converted from narrow gauge to standard gauge. In 1881 the line was sold under foreclosure to the Echo and Park City Railroad, a Union Pacific subsidiary.

Other railroads were planned in the region to move Coalville coal to the Park City mines, as well as furnish competition to Union Pacific's monopoly in moving Wyoming coal to Salt Lake City. The first company to construct a line was the Utah Eastern Railway, completing its narrow-gauge line between Coalville and Park City in 1880. Both the Summit County and the Utah Eastern companies reached Park City on the same day over virtually parallel routes. Union Pacific soon gained control of the Utah Eastern company, however, and shut it down in December 1883. Much to Union Pacific's chagrin, another local road soon was successful in reaching Park City. This time it was the Salt Lake and Eastern Railway, completed up Parley's Canyon from Salt Lake City in 1890. Just before its track reached Park City, the company was reorganized as the Utah Central Railway. The Rio Grande gained control of this line in 1898, realigned and rebuilt the worst parts of it, made it standard gauge, and operated the route as its Park City branch until 1946, at which time most of the line was removed. Union Pacific operated its Park City Branch, originally the Summit County Railway and later the Echo and Park City Railroad, until late 1987. The line was removed during the summer of 1989.

The development of Utah's abundant mineral resources also included the building of a large network of railroad branch lines to serve the transportation needs of the mining industry. The availability of low-cost transportation did much to help Utah gain its reputation as one of the nation's treasure houses.

The earliest railroad lines built to move Utah's minerals were the American Fork Railroad, completed in 1873, and the Utah Southern Railroad extension, built to serve the rich Horn Silver Mine near Milford in 1880. Other early mining railroads included two built by Charles Scofield that are sometimes called the Scofield lines. They were the Wasatch and Jordan Valley line and the Bingham Canyon and Camp Floyd line, built to tap the silver mines in Little Cottonwood Canyon and in Bingham Canyon; both were completed in 1873. A third Scofield line, the Utah and Pleasant Valley, went south from Springville in 1879 to reach the newly discovered Winter Quarters coal mines.

The large quantities of coal in eastern and central Utah were just being discovered in the early 1880s when the Denver and Rio Grande Western completed its line into Salt Lake City during 1883. The Denver and Rio Grande Western was able to improve its position in Utah by purchasing all three of the Scofield lines. The former Utah and Pleasant Valley track shortened the Denver and Rio Grande's route between eastern Utah and Utah Valley. The purchase of the other two Scofield lines gave the company some guarantee of holding the highly valued mining traffic once it reached the Salt Lake Valley.

The construction of the Rio Grande line through what is now Carbon County provided transportation for the coal from the mines as they were discovered and developed. The discovery of coal mines in Price Canyon was followed by the development of other coal mines at Sunnyside.

After the turn of the century, additional coal mines were developed at Kenilworth, Hiawatha, Mohrland, and in Spring Canyon. Later railroad lines built to serve the region's coal mines included the Kenilworth and Helper Railway, the Southern Utah Railroad, the Utah Railway, and the National Coal Railway, which completed its line in 1925 to serve the newly developed coal mines located in Gordon Creek Canyon. The Carbon County Railway was completed in 1923 to furnish coal to the new steel mill at Ironton, near Springville in Utah Valley. This line was a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation and was closed in 1984 along with other U.S. Steel properties in the state. The Utah Railway remains in service today, moving huge amounts of coal from Carbon County mines to the Intermountain Power Project near Lynndyl.

By 1915, in part because of the availability of low-cost transportation, coal had become a major contributor to the economic growth of the state of Utah, and remained such until the late 1940s.

The Tintic Mining District near Eureka was developed in the early 1870s, just after the coming of the transcontinental railroad. The silver, lead, and gold ore was of such high value that the first mines were successful even with the high cost of wagon transportation. The first railroad that arrived in the district, the Union Pacific-controlled Salt Lake and Western Railroad, was actually headed toward California in competition with the Central Pacific. Construction stopped in 1882 at Mammoth Mills in the Tintic Valley south of Eureka. Within a year the company completed a branch into Silver City, and in 1889 a branch was completed to serve Eureka. The line immediately began transporting ores out of the district. With the availability of low-cost rail transportation, many of the marginal mines became successful operations.

By the end of 1891 the Rio Grande-controlled Tintic Range Railway had completed its line into the Tintic District from Springville and gave the Union Pacific line some needed competition. Other railroad lines built to serve the mines around Eureka were the Eureka Hill Railway, the Goshen Valley Railway, and the New East Tintic Railway. Both the Eureka Hill and the New East Tintic roads used Shay locomotives, which are a special type of gear-driven locomotive designed for use on railroads with steep grades and sharp curves. The New East Tintic later came under Union Pacific control, and its two Shay locomotives, along with a third purchased later, were the only ones of their type on the Union Pacific lines.

Other mining districts in the state attracted other railroad companies. The Deep Creek Railroad was built to serve the copper and gold mines in the Deep Creek District along Utah's western border. The Los Angles and Salt Lake Railroad built branches in Iron County to move iron ore from the mines to steel mills in Utah County as well as in California and Colorado. The St. John and Ophir Railroad was completed between the Union Pacific tracks at St. John and the silver mines in Ophir, along the western slope of the Oquirrh Mountains.

Just south of Ophir was the fabulous gold-mining district of Mercur. In 1895 the Salt Lake and Mercur Railroad completed its line into Mercur from a connection with Union Pacific's former Salt Lake and Western line at Fairfield. The track was constructed along some of the most tortuous curves and grades of any railroad track in the state. This line was among those in the state that used Shay locomotives as their sole source of locomotive power; the other railroad lines included the New East Tintic; the Eureka Hill; the Logan City Transit; the Copper Belt; the Kenilworth and Helper; the Crescent Tramway; the Newhouse, Copper Gulch and Sevier Lake; and the Salt Lake and Alta.

About ten miles north of Mercur was the mining camp of Bingham Canyon. By the late 1890s the silver mines in Bingham Canyon were fading. Any further expansion would require much larger financial resources--resources that the local operators didn't have. A series of mining company consolidations, with out-of-state financial backing, took place over the next decade. These consolidations were spurred on by the increasing quantities of copper ore discovered. Copper ore was becoming a consideration because of the growing market for copper, coming mostly from the growing use of electricity in America's households and the consequent need for copper electrical wiring.

In 1903 the Utah Copper Company was organized to mine the vast quantities of low-grade copper ore discovered in Bingham Canyon. Utah Copper, along with Boston Consolidated, and later Ohio Copper Company, soon developed the methods of mining and milling that were needed to make the mining of the low-grade ore profitable.

Railroad transportation played a very important part in the new mining method, which is called open-cut mining. First, steam shovels would remove the capping, or waste material, which covered the ore, and then load it into railroad cards for movement to other locations. As the ore was exposed, the shovels would load it into rail cars and these would be transported to the mills. Both Utah Copper and Boston Consolidated built mills sixteen miles north of Bingham Canyon on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, where the availability of free-flowing springs could furnish enough water for the milling operations. Ohio Copper chose to build its mill at Lark, just outside of Bingham Canyon.

At first the facilities of the Rio Grande Western's Bingham branch, along with the Copper Belt Railway, completed in 1901, were sufficient to handle the growing amounts of traffic. To increase the capacity, in 1907 the Rio Grande Western completed a new line into the canyon, allowing for the operation of larger and heavier trains.

The railroads also built a network of branch lines to serve Utah's major agricultural industries, including dairy products, wheat, sugar beets, and many kinds of fruits and vegetables. Most of the vegetables and some of the fruits were grown to support the state's canning industry, centered mostly in Weber, Davis, and other counties along the Wasatch Front.

The railroads played an important part in agriculture by moving the goods to markets both within and outside of the state. Most of the dairy products were shipped to California, and the wheat was shipped either as grain or as flour to California and the southern states. The destination for the finished sugar from sugar beets was local markets and points in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Utah's canned goods were sold mostly on the Pacific Coast and in the Intermountain West and the Midwest.

The agricultural branch lines which the railroads built were almost solely used for the movement of sugar beets from the fields to the sugar factories. The major sugar-beet-growing regions included the Cache Valley, the Bear River Valley, and Weber and Davis counties. Also included were parts of Salt Lake Valley, Utah Valley, and the areas around Gunnison and Delta.

The Oregon Short Line built several branch lines in these beet-growing regions. Three branches were built in the Cache Valley, four were built in the Bear River Valley, and both the Oregon Short Line and the Denver and Rio Grande completed branches into the area west of Roy and Clearfield, as well as building short spurs in the West Jordan, Spanish Fork, and Gunnison areas. The Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad built two branches to serve the region around Delta. Beet-loading stations were also built at many points along the railroads' other branch lines and some of the main lines themselves. In the period between 1895 and 1940, before the widespread use of trucks, railroads were the most efficient way to transport sugar beets to the factories, located in the Cache Valley, the Bear River Valley, Brigham City, Ogden, Layton, West Jordan, Spanish Fork, Gunnison, and Delta.

The canning industry in the state placed Utah as the eighth-ranked producer of canned goods in the nation. Of the more than seventy-five canning companies that have been in business in the state, less than fifteen were truly successful and able to remain in business year round. Each of these successful canning factories was serviced by a direct railroad connection, allowing direct shipment of their canned goods to waiting markets. The largest canneries were located in West Ogden and in Smithfield, which remains today as the only cannery operating in the state. Successful smaller canneries were located in Tremonton, Perry, North Ogden, Roy, Hooper, Clearfield, Syracuse, Morgan, Murray, and Spanish Fork.

In 1914, to support Utah's growing canning industry, the American Can Company built one of the West's largest can-manufacturing facilities in Ogden. Between 1915 and 1979, when the plant was closed, the company shipped many railroad boxcars filled with new, empty cans to canneries all over the state and the region.

The railroads also had an important role in Utah's canned milk industry, which produced both evaporated and condensed milk. In 1904 Utah's, and especially Cache Valley's, dairy industry received a major boost when Sego Milk Products Company opened a condensing plant in Richmond, north of Logan. In 1925 Sego built a processing plant in Hyrum. The Borden Company opened its milk-condensing plant in Logan in 1916. The Morning Milk Company opened a condensing plant in Wellsville in 1923, and sold it to the Carnation Company in 1946. The Sego plant in Richmond was served by the Oregon Short Line, as was the Morning Milk plant in Wellsville. The Sego plant in Hyrum was served by a spur of the Utah-Idaho Central electric line. Borden's Logan plant was served by both the Utah-Idaho Central and the Oregon Short Line.

The opening of these plants has been called the single greatest stimulus to the dairy industry in northern Utah. In 1933 milk was collected from nearly three thousand dairy farms and delivered daily to the condensing plants, mostly using the trains of the Utah-Idaho Central interurban railroad and those of the Oregon Short Line's Cache Valley Branch. Between 1926 and 1930 the dairy industry was the third largest farm-based industry in the state, and half of the dairy production came from the annual production of sixty million cans of condensed and evaporated milk.

The story of Utah's railroads includes the completion of electric railroads, including the electric interurban lines and the electric streetcar lines, for the movement of passengers. Between 1890 and 1920 Utah's population more than doubled, from 210,779 to 449,396. Most of that growth was in the urban areas and nearby farming communities along the Wasatch Front. By the turn of the century, the steam railroads were straining to provide the local populace with transportation to local destinations. To fill this need for additional local passenger transportation, several local electric interurban railroads were organized between 1900 and 1910. This group of companies developed into what became one of the largest electric railroad systems in the nation.

Between 1910 and 1920 four separate railroads completed either the electrification of their lines or the actual construction of their lines as electric railroads. The Salt Lake and Utah Railroad was begun in 1914 as an electric line south from Salt Lake City to Provo, and was completed to Payson in 1916.

The Salt Lake, Garfield and Western began in 1891 as the Saltair Beach Railway, running from Salt Lake City west to the new Saltair Resort. Construction began in 1892, at which time the name of the line was changed to the Salt Lake and Los Angeles Railway to show that the company had larger plans. In 1916 the company was reorganized as the Salt Lake, Garfield and Western Railway and made the announcement that the line would be electrified, a process completed in 1919.

The Utah Idaho Central railroad began as the Ogden, Logan and Idaho Railroad. The earlier road had taken over the streetcar lines of both the Ogden Rapid Transit and the Logan Rapid Transit and completed a connection between the two by way of Brigham City in 1915. The Logan Rapid Transit had completed their line north to Preston, Idaho, in 1912. Preston remained as the northern end of a network of electric interurban railroads that spread along the Wasatch Front from Cache Valley south to Payson, at the southern end of Utah Valley. In 1910 the Salt Lake and Ogden Railroad electrified its line between those two cities. The railroad was built by Simon Bamberger and had been completed to Ogden in 1905. In 1917 the company became the Bamberger Electric Railroad.

Simon Bamberger was elected governor in 1917, as the Progressive candidate. And ironically it was the improved road and highway system that he promoted while he was in office which led to the eventual demise of the interurban railroad system in Utah. As people were better able to get around in their own cars, they were less inclined to take the electric-powered trains into and between Utah's major cities. The improved road system also allowed trucking companies to become more competitive, and they gradually took the lucrative package express business away from the interurban lines. The interurban railroad companies were able to gain back some of the lost traffic by offering their own trucking services between the cities that they also served with electrified railroad service.

Two of Utah's interurban companies--the Utah Idaho Central in the north and the Salt Lake and Utah in the south--were able to hold on only until the late 1940s. The Bamberger ceased passenger train service in 1952, using diesel locomotives to remain in the freight business until 1958. Utah's last interurban line, the Salt Lake, Garfield and Western, is still in business today, having converted to using diesel locomotives in 1951. The line stopped running passenger trains during the early 1960s, however.

The Emigration Canyon Railroad was built in 1907 to move sandstone from quarries located in Emigration Canyon down to Salt Lake City for use as building stone. Unfortunately, the company's timing coincided with the availability of cement within the state. Since concrete is a much better building material, the market for building stone (the railroad's traffic base) virtually disappeared within a three-year period between 1909 and 1912.

Streetcar lines were built in Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden, and Logan. The line in Provo consisted of only a single line and was abandoned after being in operation for only six years--from 1913 to 1919. There were six lines in Ogden, with a total length of about twenty-four miles. In Logan there were three lines, totaling just over eight miles, with the longest being from the Oregon Short Line depot to the Utah State Agricultural College.

After the 1915 merger of the Ogden and Logan lines, the new Ogden, Logan and Idaho Company continued streetcar service until the respective cities began paving their streets. At that time many of its lines were removed because the company couldn't pay its share of the paving costs. The Ogden lines were sold to a separate company in 1920, and by the mid-1930s the streetcars in Ogden had been replaced by buses.

The streetcar lines in Salt Lake City were by far the most extensive in the state, beginning with those of the Salt Lake City Railroad in 1872 and the Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company in 1890. These two companies built a large network of streetcar lines throughout the city and outlying area. Other companies also were organized in the 1890s and built lines into other parts of the city. All of the lines were merged in 1901 as the Utah Light and Railway Company and again in 1914 as the Utah Light and Traction Company.

The streetcar system in Salt Lake City reached its peak in 1918 with over 146 miles of tracks, including a line south of Holladay and another line north to Centerville. Beginning in the late 1920s buses began to replace the streetcars, and slowly over the next twenty years the individual lines were abandoned. The last streetcar ran in Salt Lake City in 1946.

The part that the railroads have played in the economic development of both the territory and the state of Utah was a major one. There can be no doubt that without the railroads our state would not be what it is today. The completion of the transcontinental rail line through Utah Territory in May 1869 was the beginning of a much larger story of railroads in Utah that has largely gone untold. The availability of low-cost transportation has as much to do with Utah's economic success as the state's ability to produce the goods being shipped.

A good example of the importance of transportation is the delay in economic development within the Uinta Basin until a network of federally funded highways was completed in the 1930s, connecting the area with the rest of the surrounding region. The region still does not enjoy railroad service to the surrounding areas, although railroads were planned through the Uinta Basin as early as the 1870s.

Of course, with the development of a complete network of modern paved roads and highways throughout the state, along with modern facilities for airline shipment, the role that the railroads play today in the everyday business of the state has been much reduced. Yet the railroads still have a vital role in moving goods and people around and through the state. The amount of rail traffic that moves into, out of, and through Utah is today setting record levels every year. This trend likely will continue, because railroads are still an irreplaceable element in a dynamic chain of the transportation of our nation's goods and services.

See: O. Meredith Wilson, The Denver and Rio Grande Project, 1870-1901, A History of the First Thirty Years of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (1981); Robert G. Athearn, The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Rebel of the Rockies (1977); Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom (1958); Robert A. LeMassena, Rio Grand . . . to the Pacific (1974); and Stephen L. Carr and Robert W. Edwards, Utah Ghost Rails (1989).

Don Strack

Comments & Questions to

Home | Area Codes | Cities | Climate | Credits | Counties | Dining | Dinosaurs | Disclaimer | Education | Entertainment | Government | Health | History | Hot Springs | Industry | Lakes | Lodging | Maps | Media | Mountains | Museums | Parks | People | Photo Gallery | Quick Facts | Quizzes | Recreation & Sports | Religion | Rivers | Sites | Travel | Weather