A Brief History
Trains were still plying the rails south of Richfield, Utah, along what is now the Candy Mountain Express Bike Trail until the early 1970s. The corridor was once the property of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW), stretching as far south as Marysvale, from where it branched at Thistle (more than 100 miles). The history of the branch dates to the late 19th century, which wound its way south through the Sanpete valley and Sevier River valley and was primarily constructed to serve the region’s booming mining interests. Even after this industry played out, the line still saw significant freight traffic for years, and much of the route remained in regular use through the early 1980s. Then a massive mudslide destroyed the Rio Grande’s right-of-way around Thistle, once an important junction point between the branch and its main line. The railroad repaired its primary route through the region but did not feel justified in restoring service on the branch, formally abandoning it later that decade and creating today’s trail.
The classic Denver & Rio Grande Western carved out, quite literally, a successful business of moving freight through the rugged Rocky Mountains between Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah. It would ultimately have two main lines through Colorado and became an important bridge route in the movement of coal, merchandise, passengers, and various other types of freight between California and the Midwest. The railroad hosted the legendary “California Zephyr” streamliner and operated numerous miles of secondary narrow-gauge branch lines throughout Colorado and northern New Mexico to serve the region’s mining industry (including the line to Marysvale). The beginnings of the Rio Grande and its initial intentions, though, were far different than the system that came to be.
The railroad was born as the Denver & Rio Grande Railway on October 27, 1870, intending to construct a north-south corridor connecting Denver with the Mexican border along the Rio Grande River via Pueblo and El Paso. To reduce costs, the D&RG laid its right-of-way to 3-foot narrow-gauge. By 1878, the road had connected Pueblo and Santa Fe. As it pushed south of Pueblo, it hoped to use the coveted Raton Pass in northern New Mexico as means of crossing the steep Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the lowest possible grade. However, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe also had its eye on the pass while building west toward California. The two companies nearly went to war over the right to use Raton, which was ultimately settled in court in 1880. The AT&SF gaining access to the pass, and the Rio Grande built its line through the Arkansas River’s Royal Gorge. Later that year, magnate Jay Gould acquired a large interest in the D&RG, and the company’s future took a different turn.
Instead of building south, the railroad looked west and decided to link the growing area around Salt Lake City while serving the region’s mining industry of gold, silver, lead, zinc, and other profitable minerals. As the D&RG pushed through Salida and Gunnison, with its goal being Green River, Utah, a new subsidiary built east from Salt Lake under a similar name (the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway, later shortened to just Rio Grande Western or RGW). The two joined rails in 1883. Throughout the rest of that decade, the D&RG improved its end of the system by adding additional branches and constructing a lower-grade main line north of Salida through Leadville and Glenwood Canyon. It eventually linked up with its original main line at a point known as Grand Junction, Colorado. This also coincided with the railroad updating its property to standard gauge. The same could be said for the RGW, which was building branch lines in Utah.
In 1890, it began construction of the Sevier Railway, a full subsidiary of the Rio Grande Western, which snaked southward from its main line at Thistle to serve gold mines in the area. It was extended 61 miles to Manti, at first constructed with narrow-gauge but within a year updated to standard-gauge. Next, an additional 26 miles opened to Salina. During 1896, another 40 miles was added, reaching Belknap and additional mines in that area. In 1900, the final 6 miles were laid down and opened to Marysvale, giving the entire branch a length of 132.2 miles. There were two notable spurs along the branch, one reaching Crystal and another to Nephi. In 1908, the Rio Grande Western was fully merged into parent D&RG, which also saw the Sevier Railway (name-only), disappear as well.
In 1918, the D&RG fell into bankruptcy, emerging as the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1921, the classic name for which it is now remembered. As part of the D&RGW, the line south of Thistle was referred to as the Marysvale Branch. Even after mining in the area died, the railroad still originated other types of freight, including coal, coke, ore, sugar beets, livestock, aggregates, sulfuric acid, uranium ore, and wallboard. By 1972, the line south of Richfield saw virtually no use, although north of that point trains continued shipping out significant coal, wallboard, and agriculture. During April 1983, the massive Thistle Landslide destroyed not only the Rio Grande’s main line to Salt Lake but also buried the connection to the Marysvale Branch. The company spent millions to repair its main line, which had to be entirely rerouted via a new tunnel. However, it elected not to restore service to the branch, which was estimated to cost $13–$15 million. The decision frustrated remaining shippers and actually forced some out of business. In 1986, the line was sold for scrap to A&K Railroad Materials, Inc., and by 1989, all rails were removed.
Utah is home to a few railroad-themed attractions, including the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory; Heber Valley Historic Railroad in Heber; Ogden Union Station museum in Ogden; Tooele Railroad Museum in Tooele; and the Western Mining & Railroad Museum in Helper.Do you have Historical Photos of the Candy Mountain Express Bike Trail?
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