By Michelle James | Illustrations by Kerry Shaw
Visiting the Golden Spike National Historic Park is a great way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the meeting of the Union and Central Pacific railroads. It’s also a great launch pad for an exploration of Utah’s dynamic railroad history, which can include historic depots, exhibits of old streetcars, firsthand looks at the massive locomotives of yesteryear, and even a ride on a steam-powered train.
The Golden Spike National Historic Park at Promontory Summit is a 90-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City. The site offers special demonstrations and re-enactments during the summer months. The re-enactment of the driving of the last spike features replicas of the original Union Pacific No. 119 and Jupiter engines, and visitors are often recruited to take part. The park also offers tours of its engine house.
FUN FACT >> It’s often said the Transcontinental Railroad was completed at Promontory Point, a geographic error made by some reporters in 1869 and perpetuated since. In fact, Promontory Point is 35 miles south, at the end of the large peninsula in the Great Salt Lake. The correct name for the location where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads connected is Promontory Summit.
Utah’s capital city is full of places to explore the history of railroads and transportation. East of downtown, visitors can stop at the Trolley Museum in the renovated barns of Trolley Square. An interactive exhibit highlights the first streetcars in Utah, which were owned by the Salt Lake Rail Company and pulled by horses and, eventually, powered by electricity. The centrally located museum includes a gift store and kids’ play area and is close to multiple restaurants.
UNION PACIFIC & RIO GRANDE DEPOTS
West of downtown, you’ll find two historical train depots noted for their distinctive architecture. The Salt Lake City Union Pacific Depot, built in 1909, features murals and stained-glass windows telling the history of the site’s pioneers and the Transcontinental Railroad. Down the street is the Rio Grande Depot, built in 1910. The building now houses a Mexican restaurant, an art gallery and the offices of the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts.
FUN FACT >> Thanks to a bet, a record 10 miles of railroad track was built across the Utah desert in one day. Union Pacific bosses didn’t think it was possible, but Central Pacific crews took the challenge on April 29, 1869. By 7 p.m., 10 miles and 56 feet of track was laid by a crew of 4,000 Chinese laborers, led by Irish bosses. The record — which required 25,800 ties, 3,530 rails and 55,000 spikes — has never been broken.
HEBER VALLEY RAILROAD
Looking for a train-riding experience? Southeast of Salt Lake City you’ll find the Heber Valley Railroad, known as the Heber Creeper, a nickname likely originating from the train’s slow journey through the winding canyons in the 1900s. The railroad offers themed rides along its 16-mile line, such as the Wizard’s Train or Cowboy Train or the Northpole Express, as well as peaceful rides along Deer Creek Reservoir and through scenic Provo Canyon.
WESTERN MINING & RAILROAD MUSEUM
Helper’s Western Mining and Railroad Museum is about a two-hour drive south of Salt Lake City. The town was established so that “helper” locomotive trains could assist the heavier trains coming up Price Canyon. The museum recounts the history of Helper’s coal mines from the industry’s heyday in the 1800s to the mid-1900s, and includes stories of immigrants who were drawn to this small mining town. The museum is open year-round and features model trains, artifacts and a gift shop.
FUN FACT >> Helper locomotives were steam engines that helped push trains up a steep mountain grade. Their presence also kept the rear cars from breaking away and sliding back downhill. Helpers could only push long enough to get the train to the summit. Once finished, they were able to disengage easily and coast back down to help the next train.