Utah Desert Main Facts
Utah Desert Main History
The line across the Utah desert - from Grand Junction, CO, to Helper, UT - was originally constructed in 1882 as narrow gauge by the original Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway. General Palmer, having been removed from the presidency of his Denver & Rio Grande Railway, chartered the D&RGW Rwy on 21-Jul-1881 to connect the narrow gauge Colorado system with Salt Lake City.
The line between Salt Lake City and Grassy was completed by 1882, and extended further east to Desert in early 1883. Meanwhile, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway crews had been building west from Grand Junction under contract to the D&RGW Rwy, and met the D&RGW Rwy crews at Desert. The entire system was subsequently leased upon completion to the Denver & Rio Grande Railway.
With the Denver & Rio Grande Railway unable to satisfy its creditors in 1884, the D&RGW Rwy also was placed into receivership as a protective measure. As a result of the creation of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad created when the railroad came out of bankruptcy in 1886, the lease of the D&RGW Rwy was cancelled, and the roads went back to operating as separate entities.
Two factors combined in the late 1880s to start major changes in the Utah desert main. The new Denver & Rio Grande Railroad started aggressively pursuing a standard gauge mainline westward in the late 1880s, in an effort to compete with the Colorado Midland, the D&RGW Rwy realized that it might suddenly have two standard gauge connections east out of Grand Junction. The narrow gauge mainline had been hastily constructed across the desert, and often had excess curvature and grades that would not be acceptable for a direct conversion to 4' 8-1/2". Consequently, the Rio Grande Western was founded in 1889 to acquire sufficient capital needed to construct some 100 miles of new standard gauge railway, as well as acquire the assets of the original D&RGW Rwy.
Two major line changes occurred in the desert during the conversion to standard gauge. The first was the rerouting of the line between Mack, CO, and Whitehouse, UT. The original route had followed various drainages across the high desert, whereas the new route would run down through the Colorado River Canyon between the two points. The second major realignment was from Woodside to near the current siding of Cedar. The original route followed the Price River, twisting and following every small bend. The new route was constructed as a high speed main across the high desert, with broad, sweeping curves and reasonable grades. The standard-gauging was completed in 1890, and the RGW continued to operate this new mainline until 1908, when it was merged into the consolidated Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.
The Utah desert mainline had five branches stretching out from it at various points in its history. The first was the Ballard & Thompson, running 5.25 miles north from Thompson, UT, through Thompson and Sego Canyon to a coal mine. It was constructed in 1911 to a coal mine at Sego. After financial troubles and the tipple burning town, the mine finally closed and the branch was abandoned in 1950.
The second spur off the main line was the 35 mile Cane Creek Branch, constructed in 1963 to serve a potash mine just west of Moab, UT. This spur is still in service today.
Working westward, the third spur leaves the mainline at Mounds, heading east and forming the 18-mile Sunnyside Branch. The Sunnyside Branch was built in 1899 by the Rio Grande Western to serve coal mines at the base of the Book Cliffs. This branch, too, survives, though today the only traffic on the branch is inbound trash for the ECDC East Carbon landfill.
The fourth branch was a combination of the Castle Valley and Southern Utah Railroads, which had built a line west from the D&RG mainline at Price. The standard gauge route was constructed in 1908 to reach coal mines at Mohrland and East Hiawatha. In 1913, the Rio Grande assumed operation of both roads. The section from Hiawatha to Mohrland was sold to the Utah Railway in 1914, and the rest abandoned by the Grande in 1921.
The last branch was built in 1911 by the the Kenilworth & Helper as a 3.75 mile standard gauge branch east of the mainline to Kenilworth, UT. The spur connected to the mainline at Independent Junction (near Spring Glen, UT), and proceeded up a 6% grade to the mines. Due to the steep conditions on the line, the route required Shay type locomotives. The D&RG leased the line in 1914, and after operating it for twelve years, built a new Kenilworth Branch on a different alignment that dealt with the steep grades. The old Kenilworth & Helper was subsequently abandoned.
Narrow Gauge Utah Desert Main Timetable