Utah Railroads In "The Beehive State"

Utah railroads are recognized for their historic role in being the site of the completion of our country's first transcontinental railroad, which took place at Promontory on May 10, 1869 between the meeting of the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad (today the site is home to the Golden Spike National Historic Site). History aside, Utah's traffic has typically been natural resources like coal and copper although with Union Pacific's main line running through Salt Lake City don't be surprised to see a little bit of everything traveling through the state! During its height the Beehive State was once home to four Class I railroads although today the state's trackage is mostly under the control of Union Pacific (with its ownership of the Southern Pacific, Western Pacific and Denver & Rio Grande Western); the rest operated by BNSF Railway and a few short lines like the historic Utah Railway.

Utah is often overlooked as a place where electrified interurbans were once found.  The state was actually home to one of the more successful and well-managed such operations, the Bamberger Railroad.  It was successful it even maintained its own signaling system.  After the family-run business was sold in 1956, new ownership promptly abandoned the line in 1959.

Roger Puta captured this beautiful scene of Western Pacific's train #17, the westbound "California Zephyr," boarding at Salt Lake City, Utah around 10:40 PM on the night of November 15, 1968.

While Utah railroads date back to the connection of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory just a year later in 1870 the Utah Central Railway completed its main line from the transcontinental connection at Ogden with Salt Lake City, a distance of some 40 miles. Following the Utah Central other important lines to traverse Utah include the Southern Pacific through the purchase of the Central Pacific Railroad, the Union Pacific's Overland Route which ran through northern Utah, the Western Pacific Railroad's main line which would terminate in Salt Lake City, and the D&RGW had extensive branch line service in central and eastern Utah along with its main line to Salt Lake City. 

What appears to be one of the Rio Grande's powerful 4-6-6-4's works its way over Soldier Summit within Utah's Wasatch Mountains in a snowy scene dating to the 1940s.

With two main lines along with operating most of the state's trackage today, perhaps the UP is the most-recognized and influential railroad ever to operate in Utah. The Union Pacific Railroad's original main line (that is still in use today and quite busy) is the Overland Route, which runs between Ogden, Utah; Omaha, Nebraska; and Chicago. Today's Union Pacific is much different from the system prior to 1980 as it operates as far north as Seattle, as far west as Los Angeles/Long Beach, as far east as Minneapolis, and as far south as Dallas, Brownsville, and New Orleans (and about every west in between!).

A Rio Grande PA/PB/PA set is eastbound with the new Budd-built, stainless-steel equipment for the "California Zephyr" near Ironton, Utah on March 16, 1949. The train officially launched a few days later on March 20th. Otto Roach photo.

While UP dominates the Beehive State one shouldn't forget about the historic Utah Railway. The railroad is still based in its original headquarters located near Martin, Utah and is nearing its 100 birthday in 2012 having been incorporated in early 1912. Today it continues to carry on in much of the same way as it was originally intended, hauling coal. For more regarding the Utah Railway please click here.  Along with the Utah Railway and UP, BNSF makes a brief appearance in the Beehive State, operating a single line through the northern half of the state and reaching Salt Lake City.

Union Pacific's train #104, the eastbound "City of Los Angeles," kicks up the snow as it passes through Unitah, Utah on December 19, 1970. Bringing up the rear is 10 roomette/6 bedroom sleeper "Pacific Emblem" (#1413), built by Pullman-Standard in February, 1950. Roger Puta photo.
Union Pacific caboose #25715 brings up the rear of a freight passing through Utah's Echo Canyon in December, 1984. Roger Puta photo.

Along with BNSF a few shortlines also operate in Utah and include the Deseret Western Railway and Salt Lake Garfield & Western Railway.  Utah's railroads today operate nearly 1,500 miles of trackage with the state's peak mileage topping out at 2,161 during the 1920s. Because Utah has historically always featured through main line routes with few secondary and branch lines it still retains about 68% of its original rail infrastructure. For more information on Utah railroads, in terms of route mileage over the years please take a look at the chart below.

* Utah's first railroads were, of course, Union Pacific and Central Pacific which officially completed the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869.  To read more about this endeavor please click here.  In the end, UP built 70 miles from the Wyoming border to the meeting point while CP constructed 159 heading easterly from Nevada.  In an ironic twist of fate, UP's section west from Omaha, Nebraska was relatively easy in comparison to CP's crossing of the rugged Sierra-Nevada's.  However, in Utah roles were reversed as it was essentially a straight shot across the desert for CP while UP crews were forced to carve out a right-of-way through the Wasatch Mountains' Echo Canyon.

A Union Pacific track worker hustles through the Echo Canyon in his speeder during December, 1984. Roger Puta photo.

Utah railroads are also home to the famed California Zephyr as Amtrak has been continuously operating the train over much of its original route dating back to the days of the CZ's ownership under the D&RGW, CB&Q and Western Pacific. And, Utah is now home to the highly anticipated Frontrunner commuter rail system operating between Salt Lake City, Pleasant View and Ogden, Utah which opened in 2008.   While the Golden Spike National Historic Site is likely the most well known railroad museum in Utah other interesting sites include the Heber Valley Historic Railroad, which operates a historic Baldwin steam locomotive and runs over ex-Denver, Rio Grande & Western Railroad trackage (the Heber Branch) in the beautiful Provo Canyon region. 

Southern Pacific FP7 #6447 has Rio Grande's train #18, the "Rio Grande Zephyr," at Becks, Utah on May 19, 1970. Roger Puta photo.

Other interesting museums include the Ogden Union Station Railroad Museum and the Western Mining and Railroad Museum.  In all, not only is the exquisite natural beauty of Utah alone worth a trip to the Beehive State but also seeing its interesting and unique railroad operations make a visit quite rewarding as well.  Finally, for great reading about a number of now-abandoned Utah rail lines please click here. Lastly, please click here to visit UtahRails.net, which generally covers the state's railroad history.

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Header Photo: Drew Jacksich


Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!