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Front Page » September 2, 2004 » Castle Country Day Tripping » Rock Work: Retracing historic railroad grade on horseback
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Rock Work: Retracing historic railroad grade on horseback

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Evidence of a large amount of rock work back in the 1880's as the railroad grade was being constructed is still available for much of the grade. The photos above and below show a multitude of structures used by the Chinese workers as homes, a kiln, fireplace and culverts all constructed from the desert sandstone. Many of these rock structures are found just below Cedar Mountain.

Kilns and culverts, houses and fireplaces, all created from desert sandstone. All evidence of a time long ago, all part of a project that never became reality, still baking in the summer sun in Emery county. It's 50 miles of incredible rock work.

It's one thing to read about history but its a lot more exciting to trace history from the back of a horse. On one of the hottest days this summer a group of people decided to ride the grade under Cedar Mountain and trace the old railroad line that was proposed back in the 1880s. Organized by the Pressett family, Sandy Sowell of New Smyrna Beach, Fla. and Denise Humes of Sacramento, Ca., and their children, Joni Bayles of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Jason Porter and his friend Samantha Sacco, the group was provided horses and guiding services by Tate Weber and Brooks Behling, with the Castle Valley Ranch from Moore.

Sandy, Denise and Jason read up on the history of the railroad grade and Tate, who has worked as an outfitter and guide for several years in Emery county, spent the day pointing out signs and landmarks and providing information. The ride covered about 25 miles, basically trailing the foot of Cedar Mountain just north of Buckhorn Draw.

Much has been written about the Rio Grande narrow gage railroad and its trek across Eastern Emery county. It's always a good thing to remember that at that time Emery county also included what is now Carbon county. In the earlier accounts of the railroad construction many of the reference landmarks that are familiar to Carbon county were in Emery county.

The tree-foot gage railroad was incorporated in Colorado in 1870 and intended to come from Texas and New Mexico through the Rocky Mountains. About 10 years later William Jackson Palmer, president of the line considered extending it into Utah. In July of 1881 he organized the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad to extend the narrow gage into Utah. One of the considerations was running the railroad through central Utah through Salina Canyon and then on towards California. Another consideration was to run it up Price Canyon and into Salt Lake City.

The line was built from Soldier Summit into the state capital but wasn't connected to the Denver line until 1883 in a desolate spot west of Green River. But in 1880 one of Palmer's associates, William Bell, organized the Sevier Valley Railroad Company and planned to build a narrow gage line south from Ogden to the Utah-Arizona border.

Sitting back on a horse hearing how the decisions were made over 120 years ago added flavor to the history lesson. They explained that a branch of this line would be built east over Salina Pass, across Castle Valley to the Green River and on to Colorado.

Basically survey crews from each railroad company were looking at Emery county and when they met, somewhere on the train, the Denver and Rio Grande Railway company dropped their survey equipment and picked up digging tools and began scraping together a makeshift grade.

In the process of survey work, an engineering party camped on the south of Cedar Mountain June 7, 1881 and inscribed their names and dates in the nearby sandstone. Over 120 years later these names were still readable.

Tate Weber, local outfitter with Castle Valley Ranch from Moore, leads the group through the railroad grade.

Thus began a period of railroad activity on the west slope of Salina Pass whose primary purpose was to prevent Union Pacific incursion into Rio Grande territory.

The grading for the railroad commenced in 1881 on the line from Green River, through Cottonwood Wash and on to Buckhorn Flat. It was almost 50 miles long and was an investment of $214,470 for the Buckhorn route. However, the track was never laid on this grade. The Denver and Rio Grande management changed their mind and decided on an alternative route by connecting to Los Angeles after going through Price Canyon and on to Provo instead of going through Salina and one to Los Angeles.

The Pressett girls said that they may have figured out that it was less expensive to go around by Provo and pick up goods for trade than a separate line up to Salt Lake City. Another reason may have been the need for water, coal and wood to operate the steam engine of the trains. These products for fuel were often scarce out on the Buckhorn Flat. The railroad grade was intended to go from Green River to Cleveland, where there was going to be a big roundhouse, and then one spur to Price and the other one south through Salina Canyon.

In Salina Canyon there are two tunnels that were built in preparation for the railroad. They are still visible and in use on the frontage road that runs alone I-70 between Fremont Junction and Salina.

According to the guides, the old railroad grade was a blessing for the county at this time as the farmers that worked on the grade could take their teams of horses and work on the grade doing dirt or rock work or hauling water. A man with a good team of horses could earn $3 a day, while a man without a team earned $2 a day.

As we followed the grade we ran across an interesting old kiln, which appeared never to have been used. After the kiln, the grade followed the mountain line with fills and cuts, still in existence that follow the grade. Rock culverts were built in many of the fills for drainage. Towards the mid-way point of the grade, along the hills and in the wash, the remnants of rock shelters are visible that were inhabited by the Chinese that came to work on the railroad grade. One site has just a chimney standing where a house had been. It is believed that the roofs of the shelters were fashioned out of timber but have since disappeared leaving only portions of the walls standing. Off to the side is an old watering trough for the livestock fashioned from a large pine tree that had been hollowed out.

The horses trotted and walked along the grade, overlooking areas that had been dammed up or washes diverted to keep the grade running as straight as possible.

Wildlife was plentiful that hot Wednesday as rattlesnakes sunned themselves on the rocks, coyotes, antelope and rabbits ran across the grade in front of the people on horses. A side trip to the head of one of the Buckhorn draws gave the group a view of the canyon from the Cedar Mountain side.

The desert area in Eastern Emery county still lacks water and shelter, and riding on a horse some 120 years later, one gets a whole new perspective of work and labor that went into preparing the line or grade for a railroad, something that never occurred.

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