The Era of Railroad Construction in Utah

Utah Southern Railroad engine
Utah Southern Railroad in Nephi, 1870s. From the collections of the Utah State Historical Society.
Utah Southern Railroad train
Utah Southern Railroad roundhouse in Salt Lake City, circa 1880. From the collections of the Utah State Historical Society.

After the Golden Spike Ceremony on May 10, 1869, Brigham Young contacted James Henry Martineau and asked him to survey a line for the Utah Central Railroad connecting Ogden to Salt Lake City. The line was completed in January 1870. In addition to the Utah Central, Brigham Young and Mormon leaders began construction on three more Utah railroads in the early 1870s: the Northern (from Ogden to Cache Valley), the Southern (from Salt Lake City to Provo), and the Eastern (from Echo to Park City).

The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints insisted that these railroads not be controlled by outside interests. Financing was difficult because of a lack of cash in Utah, and they were constructed through a combination of individual LDS Church callings, newly immigrated converts, and donated labor. These railroads faced difficulties, as did most in the West, because profits did not keep up with the high costs of running and maintaining a railroad. Despite these obstacles, 151 miles of track had been built by 1873. The economic depression of 1873 to 1877 strained these enterprises, and regardless of the desire for local control, all were eventually purchased by the Union Pacific.

The Northern Utah Railroad and Corinne, Utah

Logan, Utah train depot<br />
Logan Depot for the Utah Northern Railroad, circa 1880. From the collections of USU Special Collections & Archives, Merrill-Cazier Library, A-board Historical Photo collection, A-0003.

James Henry Martineau began surveying the Utah Northern Railroad in August 1871, and grading work began simultaneously at Willard (where the narrow-gauge line connected with the CPRR), Brigham City, and over the summit to Cache Valley. Work proceeded slowly, but the Utah Northern reached Logan on January 31, 1873. The line then traveled north to Franklin, Idaho, in early 1874. The original intent was to travel even further north to Soda Springs, then continue through Idaho all the way to Montana. During the economic depression of 1873 to 1877, the Utah Northern could not secure bank loans to continue construction. Jay Gould and the UPRR acquired the railroad in 1877, and he changed the name to the Utah & Northern Railway. It resumed building north in 1877, eventually reaching Butte, Montana, in 1881. In 1887 the track was switched out from narrow to standard gauge.

Utahns built this railroad to service the northern Utah towns as well as compete with Corinne, which was strategically located between Brigham City and Promontory, as an alternate point for freight wagons bringing and receiving materials on route to the Montana mines. Corinne, which styled itself as the “Gentile Capital of Utah,” thrived for a time, but eventually went bust in the late 1870s due to competition from the Utah Northern.