Salt Lake City, UT
The Great Salt Lake, from which Salt Lake City derives its name, is the last remnant of Lake Bonneville, an inland sea which once covered most of Utah and Nevada. As the climate changed, the waters of this closed basin dried up and today what is left is the concentrated lake with a salt content seven times that of normal ocean water. The lake lies at the bottom of an extremely flat basin with an average water depth about twelve feet and its deepest point around 65 feet. Water levels of the lake fluctuate as much as twenty feet between intermittent drought and rainy years. Surface area changes from 900 to 2500 square miles as the water level rises and falls over periods of many years. At its peak level the lake is the second largest in the US.
Today Salt Lake City and the surrounding region is one of the great metropolitan complexes of the west. The formal city boundaries are small, encompassing an area of just 40 or so square blocks and a population of about 180,000. However, the surrounding valley is immense with a population well over a million and the development continues beyond the Salt Lake valley, extending between the cities of Ogden and Provo, a distance of over 100 miles. The area is populated by a continuous and thriving urban corridor.
Along with vast industrial and service related businesses, Salt Lake City enjoys some of the worlds greatest skiing, all within a 30 minute drive. The Wasatch mountains east of Salt Lake experience unique weather patterns as storms move east across the Great Basin deserts of Nevada and Utah. When clouds reach the Wasatch range, the first barrier after traveling the desert, they rise up to the cold, 11,000 feet mountain tops, and release their moisture by suddenly freezing and dumping the greatest dry powder snowfall in the world. Areas like Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude are pure ski resorts with little in the way of shops, hotels or restaurants. It is the great skiing that brings folks here. Little else exists besides the vast ski areas and you will be hard pressed to find a drink or even buy lunch at these resorts. On the other side of the mountains, at Park City, you will find the great après ski resort where one can spend weeks in the shops, eateries, and hotels. Park City is the home of the US ski team and contained much of the snow related portions of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Fur trappers were the first white men to come upon the Great Salt Lake in 1820. Due to the high salt content of the water, it was never much use, and the surrounding valley was deemed as the land nobody wanted. The area saw little development until 1847 when Brigham Young and his pioneers of the Latter Day Saints (LDS, Mormons) church traveled west over the mountains and into the Salt Lake valley. Upon seeing the great lake and the surrounding mountain valley Brigham exclaimed "this is the place" and the church finally had a new home.
The Mormons went to work planning and building their utopia. They constructed farms and irrigation canals, laid out a city plan, and erected their homes and churches. The remoteness of the valley and the mistaken view that the land was worthless gave the settlers the chance to live their own lifestyle away from the influence of the "gentiles" that had tormented them all the way from Pennsylvania.
In 1848, as the Mormons reveled in the growth of their community and its first crops, a massive hoard of cricket like grasshoppers crawled down from the mountains, covered the fields, and began to devour the newly grown vegetation. It appeared the Mormons would be devastated in their first year! But, thousands of seagulls from the Great Salt Lake came flying to the rescue. As the astonished settlers watched, the gulls began to eat the crickets. Enough of the crop was saved for the Mormons to survive until the next year. The people took this as a sure sign from God himself that they were meant to live in this valley.
The settlers went on to form a great city. They planned streets aligned in a regular north and south grid. The streets were wide enough that "a wagon could be turned within." The Mormon pioneers prospered and began to spread out, forming many outlying villages in and along the Wasatch mountains. Here, at last, they were safe to practice their religious lifestyle free of outside influence.
Things would start to change around 1870. Even though the church did its best to keep news of mineral wealth in the surrounding mountains quiet from the outside world, eventually soldiers stationed at Fort Douglas, a facility created to keep the rebel Mormons in line after the so called Mormon War, began to explore the region and then discovered rich strikes of silver and gold.
Once gold fever was let loose upon the valley it began to fill with thousands of miners and all that went with a mining boom. Quickly mines opened in the mountain canyons at Alta, Brighton, and Bingham. Extracting the silver and gold was the first order of business. But, eventually, especially at Bingham, the miners began to realize that other metals such as copper, lead and zinc held the greatest potential wealth. Vast mining operations began to sprout up in all directions around Salt Lake City as more and more ore bearing sites were uncovered. Giant smelters and crushing machines were constructed across the Salt Lake valley to process the ores. Monstrous smoke stacks poked into the skyline from the fiery furnaces. So much ore came out of the surrounding mountains that at one time, Salt Lake City was the largest non-ferrous metals processing center in the world.
THE SALT LAKE VALLEY RAILROADSAfter mining began in the 1870's, railroads were built throughout the Salt Lake valley that connected the mines to the smelters. In 1881, General Palmer established the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway (D&RGW) in Salt Lake City as part of his grand plan for a transcontinental narrow gauge railroad from Denver. He began to connect the main line to the short lines from the mines by acquiring existing companies and building new tracks.
One of the longer branch line railroads taken over by the Rio Grande railroad was the Salt Lake & Eastern (later Utah Central). It traveled from Roper, through Parley's Canyon, to Park City, UT. The Rio Grande Western took control of this track in 1908.
Another small line, the Wasatch & Jordan Valley, ran from Midvale, to Sandy and then up Little Cottonwood Canyon to a granite quarry near the mouth of the canyon. Eventually this line was extended to the mines at Alta. The Denver and Rio Grande Western took control in 1881.
By far the most active short line for the Rio Grande was originally named the Bingham Canyon & Camp Floyd and first built in 1872. Ore from the Bingham mine was hauled to the smelters at various locations on the west side of the valley. In 1881 the Denver and Rio Grande Western bought portions the system and operated the trains that hauled ore from the large open pit copper mine in Bingham canyon to the smelter at Garfield and also to Midvale and Sandy. However, in 1910, the Rio Grande lost their contract with the mine due to the poor service they were providing. It was in this time period that George Gould was ruining the Rio Grande while he took all its funds to build his Western Pacific railroad. Eventually the copper mine owners became disgusted with the Rio Grande and built their own railroad. In 1925 the Rio Grande track to the mine was no longer being used so they sold it to the mine.
THE RAIL YARD
At first the main yard in Salt Lake City was downtown, near 5th South and 5th West streets. This facility quickly grew as repair shops, depots, and freight operations were expanded. Several lines besides the Rio Grande operated in the area, the largest being the Union Pacific. Over time additional yard facilities were constructed at Roper, UT near 3300 South and 5th West. In the late 1900's the original downtown yard was removed to make way for the growth of sports facilities and the coming 2002 Olympics. Only the Union Depot was spared and still stands today.
When operations first began a standard D&RG wooden depot served the passengers at Salt Lake City. When the Rio Grande Western was formed in 1889, a large Victorian Depot was built along with new shop facilities. With the coming of the Western Pacific railroad in 1910, the new monumental Union Depot was constructed and shared by the two lines.
A small mining camp began in 1863 at the headwaters of Little Cottonwood Creek. The Emma mine extracted gold and Silver from the mountain. Soon other mines started and the area began to boom. By 1872, when the town hit its peak, there were over 5,000 residents, 25 saloons, and 6 breweries. If you wanted to go to church you'd best do it in Salt Lake, this was a wild mining town and the only legal liquor for hundreds of miles in any direction.
A small railroad was built up the canyon to Alta. First named the Wasatch & Jordan Valley, the tracks were extremely steep at over 5 percent grades. A Shay type geared locomotive was required to pull the loads up the canyon. Due to the severe snowfalls in the canyon, the entire line was enclosed in a continuous wooden snow shed. In 1881 the D&RGW took over operations of the track.
Silver prices fell in 1873 and severely and hurt the mines. In addition, a series of deadly avalanches plagued the area and the mining boom came to an end. It was more or less downhill from then on. By 1930 there was only one resident left in Alta. George Watson claimed the valley and elected himself mayor. He operated a type of day resort and sold tourist rides on a jitney car he ran on the old abandoned railroad tracks.
Watson dedicated many thousands of acres to the U.S. Forest Service and they started to promote skiing in the area. The Forest Service hired the famous skier Alf Engen to help plan the resort. In 1939 the Collins chair lift began operation hauling skiers up the slopes. This was the second lift of its type built in the U.S.
Today the ski resort is one of the best in the world for pure skiing. Snowfalls of several feet of dry powder are common throughout the season and the wide open basins allow plenty of access to the snow.
References: 22, 23, 24
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