Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park

Utah

At a Glance

Name: Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park
Length: 28 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Summit
Surfaces: Asphalt, Gravel
State: Utah

A Brief History

Today’s Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park was once a branch line operated by Union Pacific, our country’s largest current railroad, with a current system stretching more than 32,000 miles. This particular spur spanned fewer than 30 miles, running south of the main line at Echo. It was constructed, at first, as a result of the discovery of coal in the region shortly after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The route was planned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which at that time organized a number of different railroads in the state of Utah. Once completed, it would later come under the control of Union Pacific, which used various tactics in eliminating much of its competition in the region. The branch continued operating for many years and was not formally abandoned until the late 1980s, when the property was donated to the state and converted into today’s trail.

In conjunction with the Central Pacific’s building eastward from California, Union Pacific (UP) set out westward from Omaha, Nebraska, in 1863 to complete the Transcontinental Railroad. Council Bluffs, Iowa, was later named the official eastern terminus in 1864, although a bridge was not completed over the Missouri River in 1872. Both companies had been formed following the creation of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, drafted by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1. Once finished, the new project would provide the country with a direct coast-to-coast link by rail and open the West to trade and new development. While UP encountered fewer geographical obstacles than its counterpart, it faced several other problems, including financial scandal, clashes with American Indian nations (which viewed the “iron horse” as an invader of its long-held native territories), and logistical issues because of supply shortages. Despite these challenges, the railroad was able to complete the connection with Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

UP had first reached the small hamlet of Echo during January of that year while it built toward Ogden, passing through Echo Canyon and following Echo Creek southwesterly before turning back to the north/northwest along the Weber River. Today, this route remains the railroad’s main line to Ogden/Salt Lake City. It was coal that ultimately prompted construction of a rail line south of Echo, led by Brigham Young, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a., the Mormons). This valuable resource had first been discovered within nearby Chalk Creek Canyon in 1849, and small mines later opened. However, transportation was slow, using horses to move wagonloads to Salt Lake City. After UP reached the area, travel improved somewhat, but there was still no direct rail service in place to the mines.

On October 26, 1869, the newly organized Coalville & Echo Railroad (C&E) proposed remedying this problem by building south toward the small hamlet of Coalville, where the resource could be shipped cheaply to the city. Unfortunately, the C&E ran into its own troubles. The road, built to 3-foot, narrow-gauge standards, was able to complete grading work and lay ties but ran out of funds to purchase rails and finish construction. As a result, the company was acquired by outside investors, who formed the new Summit County Railroad on November 29, 1871. With new financial backing, rails were laid on the dormant grade from Echo to Coalville and completed on April 6, 1873. While this corridor was only 5 miles long, short spurs were soon snaking away from the main line to serve nearby mines. On February 24, 1877, Union Pacific took control of the Summit County property, providing it a virtual monopoly in the region until the Denver & Rio Grande (later Denver & Rio Grande Western) opened its own rail route across the Rockies, linking Salt Lake City to Denver during the early 1880s.

Regardless, local public opinion had turned against UP, so much so that a rival railroad connecting the city and mines near Coalville was chartered in December 1879 (known as the Utah Eastern Railroad). A year later, the new system had been completed between present-day Kimballs Junction and Park City. Unfortunately, despite its intentions, the Utah Eastern was never able to open service beyond Kimballs Junction, and UP acquired control of the company in the autumn of 1883 (much of the railroad was later dismantled during late 1887). By then, Union Pacific was operating its own rail line to Park City. During 1880, the Summit County Railroad had fallen into bankruptcy, but its assets were acquired by a new UP subsidiary known as the Echo & Park City Railway, organized on January 17, 1881. During this time, rails were already being laid south of Coalville; two days later, on January 19, the new E&PC reached Park City, giving it a main line of about 28 miles. Additionally, to improve efficiency, the Summit County property was converted from narrow to standard-gauge (4 feet, 8 ½ inches).

Despite its branch line status, the line to Park City provided UP with a considerable volume of freight for many years. Aside from coal traffic, the railroad moved outbound shipments of various ores and concentrates (particularly lead and silver), livestock, and agricultural products. Due to the rural nature of the region, it also handled inbound loads of everything local businesses and homeowners might need, from lumber to manufactured goods, at least until improved highways during the 20th century saw much of this traffic replaced by on-road trucks. Through the post-World War II years, the Park City line remained busy although slowly declined after the mid-1950s. The last regularly scheduled passenger service to Park City ended in 1950, but seasonal ski trains (known as the “Hootspa Special” and “Snowball Express”)ran until 1970.

Remaining concentrate and ore mining ended in 1982, leaving phosphate (the first mines were opened in 1966) as the line’s last profitable means of freight. For about 20 years, this traffic kept the branch in operation, but when the Chevron Chemical Corporation shifted phosphate processing operations to Wyoming in summer 1986, its future was in doubt. With no other stable sources of revenue, Union Pacific formally requested to abandon the Park City Branch in December 1988, soon granted by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Rail removal began in January 1989, and later that May, the right-of-way was transferred to Utah’s Division of Parks and Recreation.

Utah’s railroad attractions include Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory; Heber Valley Historic Railroad in Heber City; Ogden Union Station in Ogden; Tooele Railroad Museum in Tooele; and Western Mining & Railroad Museum in Helper.

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