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Living History: Emigration railway an escape to vistas and fresh air

Published May 12, 2013 4:22 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last week, driving up Emigration Canyon's mountainous defile to catch a breath of fresh air, I thought about turn-of-the-century canyon railways and rusticators.

You know, the era when Emigration Canyon was rife with migratory birds, blooms, tall grasses, scrub oak, fir trees, and rich, black soil. Its creeks ran clean. Fish and wildlife were plentiful. And boundless landscapes — rising in elevations from 4,870 feet at the canyon bed to 8,954 feet at Lookout Peak on the north ridge crest — were accessible and stunning to behold.

From 1880 through the early 1900s, Salt Lake City experienced a building boom. The city's population had doubled. Contractors eagerly sought foundation stones. Investing in rock quarries and freighting looked promising.

In Emigration Canyon's upper regions, Burr Fork (in Pinecrest) and Brigham Fork quarried red- and white-colored Nugget sandstone. Loaded into mule wagons, the heavy rocks were hauled down the ravine's narrow and steep dirt road into the city. The wagons, supported on wheels approaching 10 feet in diameter, were custom-built to handle such weight but proved cumbersome and slow.

In 1907, Utah pioneer jurist and entrepreneur LeGrand Young envisioned a transportation alternative that would keep up with the city's growing demands and increase his profits. Gathering other like-minded businessmen, Young organized the Emigration Canyon Railroad Company. The company's goal was to construct a 14-mile, narrow gauge electric railway up the canyon with spurs to the sandstone quarries. Setting tracks 31 inches apart, switchbacks were sliced into the steep terrain to help level the run. Overhead power lines connected to utility poles stretched along the railway. Former trolley cars were reconfigured into four-wheeled flatbed freight cars capable of carrying heavy payloads. Two electric-box cab locomotives were assembled to pull the cars in the canyon and to the rail yard near 500 South and University Street for unloading.

Successfully delivering on their promise, the business of transporting lime, cut stone and rock was a seasonal one. The railroad could never pay for itself and was costly to maintain. The electricity bill alone ran into thousands. Despite Young's ambition, he was in debt, his railroad racing toward financial ruin — unless he diversified.

When the emptied freight cars wended back up the canyon, Young discovered they often carried hitchhikers, city folk yearning to trade the local clime's sweltering heat for cool mountain breezes. In 1909, four handsome passenger cars took to the rail.

The motorized Red Butte and Wanship cars were fashion statements. Painted Pullman green with elegant gold trim and triple-arched windows, they offered plush interiors. The nonmotorized open-air trailers, Wasatch and Oquirrh, were guaranteed to thrill the young.

Tickets ranged from two bits to 50 cents. Excursions began early in the morning with as many as 10 crowded runs each day. Stopping at numerous spots for sightseeing, the last trip often ended before midnight.

Some passengers rode the 1-hour, 11-mile train trip up Burr Fork to enjoy picnics by a running stream. Others who were more daring boarded trains bound for switchbacks, steep heights and dizzying sights.

Promoting such high-ridge destinations, an early advertising campaign puffed, "Up, up, up it goes in zigzag fashion, following the foaming brook of crystal waters; through open glades, carpeted with beautiful wild flowers of every tint and hue; along the edge of the craggy precipice; up above the timber belt, 3,000 feet higher than the city — finally reaching the summit of Point Lookout, unfolding to view a panorama worthy of the artist's pencil or the painter's brush."

Sensing a future in tourism, and a possible reprieve for his trains, Young added five more deluxe passenger cars to the line. His thoughts then turned to other venues for dining, dancing, outdoor activities, maybe even an inn. Such investments looked promising — providing tourists, hikers, families, sweethearts and rusticators myriad reasons to ride his train to Emigration Canyon for a breath of fresh air and more.

Eileen Hallet Stone may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com. Special thanks to Stan Fischler. Additional Sources: The History of Emigration Canyon by Jeffrey Carlstrom and Cynthia Furse; Nat'l Real Estate and Inv. Co.'s 1913 booklet, Summer at Pinecrest and Emigration Canyon.