Sunday, April 14, 2013


            If one was to set about inventing a landscape conceived to confound and thoroughly discourage a railroad engineer, one could hardly have done better than to provide a map of Utah. Intersected with deep canyons, steep mountain summits reaching 9,000 feet, large tracts of waterless desert and temperature extremes running from well over l00o to minus 400 , this is not a place particularly friendly to track-laying and rail travel. Despite all this – and more – Utah became the lynch pin to a transcontinental railroad system destined to change America and one which would eventually make possible the prosecution of a two front war which would save the world.

            The story behind the building of the transcontinental railroad, culminating with the famous driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point in May, 1869 is well-known; especially among Utah school children.  As early as 1862, the idea of connecting the east and west coasts was gathering steam but had to take a back seat to the Civil War. By 1865 though, the Central Pacific from Sacramento, and the Union Pacific from Omaha/Council Bluffs had plans which were taking shape. The decision to run the line through Wyoming and Utah as opposed to a much easier southern route was influenced by post- Civil War politics while California statehood issues won out over a possible northern route to Oregon. In the end, the obstacles presented by Weber and Echo Canyons in Utah challenged the best engineering minds among the world’s premier railroad thinkers, and would influence the design and production of the world’s most powerful locomotives for the next century.

            In the decades that followed the coming of the “Overland Route” and the telegraph lines which came with the iron rails, railroads blossomed in the Utah Territory. While the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific may have dominated both local and national headlines, dozens of “feeder” and “connecting” lines were spawned, encouraged by silver, copper, iron, coal, mineral, timber and agricultural production as well as by passenger travel and accelerating colonization. Names like The Newhouse, Copper Gulch & Sevier Lake Railroad, The Little Cottonwood Transportation Co., The St .John & Ophir, The Oregon Short Line, The Deseret Western and the Tintic Range R.R. suggest just a few rail operations known now but to history books. It was only natural that Park City’s silver mines, Summit County’s Coal fields, and the military installation at Camp Douglas would generate rail traffic, while the need to connect up with the San Pedro & Los Angeles tracks to the southwest added to the build-out. In fact at one time or another in the course of the 1900s, more than 100 separate railroads built and traveled Utah’s network of tracks, many of them narrow gauge; a track width more friendly to the sharp turns and steep grades found in the territory. These small, often-remote operations were often referred to accordingly as “Sidewinders”. Due to challenging grades, a second – or “helper” – locomotive was commonly hooked up, giving its name to the town of Helper, in Utah’s coal country.

            Thanks to the facilities the two big transcontinental companies needed to support western operations, Ogden quickly became a key rail center, with Salt Lake City also benefiting from passenger services. The decision to span the Great Salt Lake led to construction of an initial 12-mile-long trestle requiring the cutting of 38,250 trees, some of them up to 120 feet in length.

            During the 1940s, 70 to 80 passenger trains passed through Ogden or Salt Lake each and every day, at a time when 90 percent of all material and passengers were carried by rail. It was the transcontinental railroad that permitted the U.S. to fight both an Atlantic and Pacific war and it was the supply line to victory for the Allies in both theaters. The need to pull a 36oo ton train through the Wasatch range led Union Pacific and ALCO to develop the famous “Big Boy” steam locomotive, twenty-five of which were eventually built, each of which eventually traveled more than one million miles, carrying freight between Ogden and Omaha, at speeds of 70-80 miles per hour.

            Alas. . . the age of steam is also a matter of history, but the same heritage which gave us the world’s most powerful steam locomotive can also be thanked for giving locomotive lovers a lineage of diesel EMD’s built by General Motors that still make one’s heart beat faster today. One of today’s tall container trains of 100 cars is capable of carrying freight which would otherwise fill 250 tractor-trailer highway units; and with a crew of two! (Interestingly, Utah is the only western state whose dozens of railroad tunnels required no enlargement to accommodate these 20-foot-high loads.)

Built by the Norris Locomotive Works in Philadelphia in 1862, this 4-4-0 engine bearing the Central Pacific “No. 1” on display in Sacramento’s Railroad Museum is reminiscent of the early days of western railroading.

Once one of the “Titans of the Wasatch”, a Union Pacific “Big Boy” (4-8-8-4) was capable of moving hundred-car loads up and over Weber Canyon fueled by the 32 tons of coal and 25,000 gallons of water carried in its tender.        
Built by General Motor’s Electro Motive Division in 1950, this EMD F7 diesel locomotive bearing its proud Western Pacific color scheme was a symbol of the age of streamline passenger trains such as those on which the author performed military escort duties in the early 1950s.

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