History of Transportation

Ox-drawn wagons were the most reliable freight transportation for carrying goods to Utah before the coming of the railroad. Many people moving to the West Coast chose to go by way of Panama rather than suffer the hardship of wagon travel. When stagecoach lines and freight companies set up way stations, horse and mule power was more practical to haul people.

As people came West for the gold rush and settlement, demand for better transportation grew. Government contracts to carry mail across the country were let as early as 1847. George Chorpenning was the contract holder to carry mail by pack horse between Salt Lake City and California; he was still operating in 1858 when Colonel James H. Simpson, on a wagon road survey, encountered him in the desert west of Johnson’s Pass. Other carriers included numerous express companies that brought mail and packages to Utah. Adams Express Company, American Express Company, and Wells, Fargo and Company were important names in the business.

Mormon leaders moved most of their followers by wagon. There were some hardy pioneers who came by handcart. Two unlucky handcart companies were caught by early snowstorms in Wyoming and suffered hardship and some loss of life. The Brigham Young Express Company bid for government contracts and succeeded for a while until competition organized against the Mormon company. Russell, Majors and Waddell was the largest freight hauler before 1870. That company contracted to haul the U.S. Army supplies for the Utah War in 1857; the task involved 3,500 wagons, 40,000 oxen, 1,000 mules, and 4,000 men.

The Pony Express, organized in 1860 to deliver mail from St. Louis to California and back, was another government project to bridge the enormous distance between the widely scattered American people. It lasted only twenty months. Such enterprises soon gave way to technological progress. The transcontinental telegraph was completed in October 1861 when the wires were connected in Salt Lake City. Eventually, the railroad replaced the wagon freight haulers between major centers of population. Local branches of both the telegraph and railroad later were built and often financed locally to serve more rural traffic and connect with national lines. Utah lay in the path of many transcontinental transportation and communications links.

By the 10 May 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, the Utah Central Railroad line was nearly complete from Ogden to Salt Lake City. Then the Utah Northern connected with Butte, Montana; and many other railroads were built to transport ore and mining products. In 1872, when the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad was building west from Grand Junction, Colorado, coal was discovered in what is now Carbon County. The D&RGW was changed to continue north toward Price Canyon. By 1882 the D&RGW had bought a small narrow-gauge line called the Scofield and Pleasant Valley Railroad, built by Milan O. Packard to bring coal from Scofield to Utah Valley. It was called the “Calico Railroad” by some of the grade builders because Packard, as a Springville merchant, had paid workers in dry goods rather than cash. After building their road up Price Canyon, and changing to standard gauge, the D&RGW was connected to Salt Lake City.

Railroads changed the economy of Utah. The ability to ship goods both within the state and to and from other states was greatly improved. Metal mining in many cases now became profitable. Consumer goods were cheaper but required that more business be transacted in cash, resulting in the establishment of more banks. Community economics changed from their rural antecedents. Railroads created a commercial zone by their demand for services and by providing a shipment area. Stockyards, lumberyards, and breweries were built. Distribution firms set up shop to receive goods for retailers. Workers lived near the places of their employment.

Railroad tracks also divided communities. People living on the “wrong side” of the tracks often were held to be inferior. In the less desirable parts of town, less fashionable businesses such as slaughterhouses were established, cheaper housing was available, and the population tended to be more transient. Community services were not as well provided. From the railroad depots in Salt Lake and Ogden, streetcar lines were built to serve local passenger business.

Interurban railroads began in Utah when Simon Bamberger started building the Salt Lake and Ogden Railroad in 1891 to provide service to local businesses along its thirty-six-mile line, which was electrified in 1910. In September 1952 the line ceased operation; its closure was attributed to bus transportation replacing its business.

The Salt Lake and Utah Railroad, better known as the “Orem,” began construction in Provo and Salt Lake in October 1912. The finances were provided by W.C. Orem of Portland, Maine, and by Salt Lake businessmen. The sixty-seven-mile line ran from Salt Lake City to Payson and was completely electrified when the line reached Payson in 1916. The road had opened to Provo in 1913. Its closure in June 1946 was blamed on “subsidized highway building.”

Highway construction in Utah was and continues to be a subsidized effort. Awakening along with the rest of America to the need for better roads, the Utah legislature formed the first State Road Commission in 1909. The commission was besieged by various groups–part of the “good roads” movement–who believed that good roads would create a demand for motor vehicles. By 1920 the commission had inventoried 1,200 miles of roads; and during the next twenty years that list included over 5,000 miles of roads. Half the cost was paid by federal dollars. Almost all roads were constructed or maintained by federal money. When the Interstate freeway system was authorized in 1956, the federal share rose to ninety-five percent for those expensive stretches of double- and triple-lane road in public-land areas. Roads did create a demand for motor vehicles.

Trucks were introduced to Utah in 1905 and quickly became part of the transportation picture; but World War I was the test that truly proved the utility of motor trucks and airplanes. Following that war, both means of transportation supplemented rail transport before they began to compete with the railroad for business. Motor trucks depended on roads for access to their customers. The war had demonstrated the value of trucks; roads were just beginning to be built. The government passed the Federal Highway Act of 1921 which provided money to improve seven percent of states’ road systems. Utah participated with enthusiasm, and the heavy construction industry blossomed for the next decade. The trucking industry developed two categories of truckers: “for hire,” meaning those who were available to haul freight by contract; and “private,” meaning those who hauled for their own company.

Airplanes had the advantage of speed. In May 1920 air mail service reached Utah. Airplane passenger service began in 1926 to Los Angeles. The combination of mail contracts and passenger service made business profitable from the beginning. After World War II, air travel virtually drove rail passenger service out of business.

Broadening the definition of transportation a little, the use of pipelines to transport goods in the twentieth century is significant. Wooden-stave pipe was installed in Salt Lake City to carry water to the Avenues district in 1875. Prompted by conservation and public health concerns, citizens soon demanded that enclosed water systems be installed as a common practice. The next fifty years saw the development of enclosed culinary and irrigation systems throughout the state.

Natural gas is also delivered from gas fields to the consumer in pipe. Installed in 1929, the line from Wyoming to Utah brings energy for commercial and residential heating. Petroleum products often are also shipped in pipes to refineries in Salt Lake City and some pipelines are laid across the state, because Utah remains in the path of transcontinental transportation. The pipeline traffic is a significant part of the state’s economy.

Jay M. Haymond