BRIGHAM CITY — Earlier this week, Utah marked the anniversary of driving the Golden Spike in Promontory that joined the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. The first Transcontinental Railroad was completed May 10, 1869.
Railroad historian Thornton Waite was a guest on KVNU’s For The People Show. He said many communities in northern Utah and southeast Idaho were “accidentally” developed by the rail companies.
“The railroads were built through Utah and Idaho to get to the west coast,” said Waite. “The railroads noticed the lines were being built through good farmland if it could be irrigated, so they built branch lines in southern Idaho. Irrigation came and the railroads developed all those communities that you see now.”
The companies also developed travel to Yellowstone National Park. They promoted the park because they wanted the passenger business, and they built the line up to West Yellowstone specifically for the tourist trade. That brought dozens of passenger trains through the area, en route to the park.
Waite explained how the first railroad tracks to Logan were a narrow gauge line from Brigham City. The line wasn’t built very well because of a lack of money.
“The railroads were building lines from Ogden up to the Butte, Montana mines, where there was gold and silver; nobody cared about copper at the time. It was built up to Franklin and they ran out of money in 1873. About 1878, the Pacific Railroad took it over and extended the line up to Butte by 1881.”
The line originally ran from Brigham City, through Logan and Pocatello, up to the Butte mines. It was later widened and rerouted, running through Cache Junction and bypassing Logan.
Waite said much of the technology at that time was constantly changing. Some of the early rail lines were built by trial and error, and were not always successful.
“They would design a bridge and see if it worked, and I hate to say it but sometimes it didn’t work. They developed new materials. They went from iron rails to steel rails. The trains got faster, they developed more powerful locomotives. Railroad cars used to be all wood and they found out that wood didn’t last that long, so they built steel cars.”
Most railroad traffic is now primarily transferring raw materials across the country.