Soldier Summit Facts
Soldier Summit History
The Soldier Summit line was originally started by the Utah & Pleasant Valley Railway, seeking to tap the newly-discovered coal deposits around Scofield. In mid-1877, the U&PV began construction on a narrow gauge line south from Springdale (near Provo), where it connected with the Utah Southern Extension Railway. While planning, surveying, and grading started in 1877, actual tracklaying didn't commence until 29-Aug-1878. The new U&PV line proceeded up through the Spanish Fork Canyon to a point today called Tucker (at the time, Clear Creek). From there, the line made its way through a side canyon and over a pair of switchbacks to cross the mountains and eventually reach the mines at Winter Quarters, near Scofield. The line was very lightly and poorly built - 20-25 lb/yard rail laid directly on untreated ties, without much regard for ballast.
In 1882, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway - the company that built most of the Utah half of the narrow gauge system - purchased the U&PV. Of course their ambitions were to push eastward to Grand Junction as part of a through route, not to tap coal mines. Thus, the switchback route that had served the U&PV would not do, nor would the light construction. The portion of the route from Provo to Tucker was to be kept as part of the mainline, and was upgraded with better ties and 30 lb/yard rail. A new narrow gauge route was built from Tucker / Clear Creek almost due south, climbing a 4% grade to the top of Soldier Summit. From there, the new narrow gauge worked down the Price River Canyon to the base of the Wasatch Mountains at Helper. From there, the line went on south and west as the Utah Desert mainline.
As part of constructing the new narrow gauge line over Soldier Summit in 1882, the switchback section of the U&PV was completely bypassed. A new narrow gauge line - the Pleasant Valley Branch - was constructed west from Pleasant Valley Junction (modern-day Colton) along the upper reaches of the Price River to a connection with the original U&PV line near Scofield (today under the south end of the Scofield Reservoir).
By 1890, the line was converted to standard gauge as part of the mass conversion of the Rio Grande Western, the D&RGW Railway's successor. However, the seven miles of 4% grade on the west side between Tucker and the Summit continued to be a significant bottleneck. In 1912, a second track was added from Thistle to Detour. A year later, fourteen miles of new line was built between Detour and Soldier Summit. This replaced the 4% grade with the modern-day alignment, including the Gilluly Loops. The old tracks were removed in 1916, and the grade went on to become today's US Highway 6 alignment from Detour to the Summit.
No discussion of Soldier Summit could omit the Utah Railway. The Utah Railway came on the scene in 1912 when a group of coal shippers, under the leadership of ex-D&RG superintendent A.B. Apperson, organized to build their own road over the mountains to alleviate the poor service and high rates provided by the Grande. About ten miles of alignment were graded before the D&RG worked out an agreement with the Utah Rwy. The agreement provided that the Utah Rwy would construct and own one main from Provo to Thistle, and the Grande would double-track the rest of the segment between Thistle and Utah Railway Junction (just outside Helper). This arrangement continues today, as Union Pacific and the Utah Railway continue to share the line.
The final line relocation was a result of the Thistle Mudslide of 1983. A large mudslide created a lake that would eventually reach some 200 feet deep, starting in mid-April. The slide blocked the Rio Grande mainline for nearly 2 1/2 months, and required some six miles of new track, as well as two new 3000 foot tunnels. For more information, see the page on the Thistle Mudslide.
The line passed to Southern Pacific in 1989, and then to Union Pacific in 1996. UP continues to share the route with Utah Railway trains. Manned helpers were commonly maintained at Helper, UT, until 2001. From 1998 to 2001, this tiny town on the southern side of the Wasatch was a refuge for Rio Grande SD40T-2s, often having upwards of a dozen at any given time, ready to push loaded coal trains over the 2%+ grades on the pass. That ended in late 2001, when Union Pacific rerouted some coal trains and put distributed power units (DPU) on the rest, relieving the need for helpers. Most of the Grandes were dispersed across the system shortly thereafter, but a handful remained to handle the local job out to the ECDC landfill on the Sunnyside Branch and to push the occasional train across the summit. Today, the only unpatched Rio Grande unit, DRGW 5371, continues to perform this duty.