THE DENVER AND RIO GRANDE WESTERN RAILWAY COMPANY


Denver and Rio Grande Salt Lake yards, 1946

The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway Company entered Utah by second choice. Its president, William Jackson Palmer, had originally organized the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in Colorado, intending to head south to the Mexican silver mines (as the name of the company attested) but was beat out for the southern route through Raton Pass, Colorado, by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1878. In the accompanying flurry of litigation and capitalist maneuvering, railroad magnate George Gould, son and heir of the railroad king, Jay Gould, gained ownership of the line. He retained Palmer as President and urged rapid expansion of the system.

Turning westward, Palmer incorporated the Denver & Rio Grande Western in Utah under on 21 July 1881. That same day it was consolidated with the Salt Lake and Park City Railway Company and the Sevier Valley Railway Company. Meanwhile, survey crews raced to connect the established mines and smelters of western Colorado with these newly-acquired Utah lines.

Rio Grande tracks spread throughout Utah. The first fifty miles, from Salt Lake City to Springville, was completed in 1881. A year later, the road extended southward to the junction of the Utah and Pleasant Valley Railway, built by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to haul coal from its local mines. Railroad crews working south joined others coming west from Colorado to unite the system in 1883, at Desert, near Green River. The first train run over the rails arrived in Salt Lake City on Sunday, exacerbating the gradually deteriorating relations between Utah's pious Mormon residents and the railroad's directors.

Railroad insensitivity to local concerns was bred largely by economic necessity. Formed too late to take advantage of federal land grants, (such as those given its main Utah rival, the Union Pacific), the D&RGW earnestly sought other sources of wealth. A company geologist in 1881 noted two accessible coal mines needed for locomotive fuel, stimulating what would later be a near monopoly of Utah coking coal. The railroad began by acquiring the Mormon-owned Pleasant Valley Coal Company and Railroad in a foreclosure sale in 1882. The Utah Fuel Company was incorporated in 1899 as a second coal subsidiary, particularly to exploit the rich Sunnyside deposit. The D&RGW also incorporated the Magnolia Trading Company and the Wasatch Store Company to manage its saloon and mercantile trade, respectively, in its coal company towns. Additional lines were built or acquired to link the entire system and its commercial enterprises, including the Carbon County Railway Company to the Sunnyside property, acquired by the Rio Grande in 1900.

As the business enterprise grew, the railroad also needed to establish division points. Concurrent with a system-wide change to standard gauge (fifty-six-and-a-half inches) from narrow gauge track (thirty-six inches), the Rio Grande established Helper, in Carbon County, in 1890. This town alternated with Soldier Summit, in Summit County, as the chief railroad division point between Grand Junction, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah - a stop necessitated by federal laws mandating the length of time a train crew could legally work. The railroad's policy of hiring a series of immigrant laborers gave Helper much of its distinctive ethnic quality.

Railroad policy which continually stressed growth over maintenance dangerously overextended the D&RGW. Some efficiency resulted from the 1908 administrative consolidation of Utah's Rio Grande Western Railway Company and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Company (of Colorado) under a second Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Company. However, Gould's feud with the Union Pacific in the early 1900s had left the newly-reorganized company liable for bonds of a sister line, the Western Pacific. When the Western Pacific defaulted in 1915, the D&RGW went into receivership. Final settlements were stalled by World War I, as all American railroads were administered by the national Railroad Administration during the conflict.

In 1920, when the nation's railroads were finally returned to private ownership, the tangled financial status of the Rio Grande was finally unraveled. A succession of four receiverships from 1915 to 1924 marked its economic instability, largely a legacy of Gould's mismanagement. A third Denver & Rio Grande Western, chartered in Delaware, emerged from the financial chaos and in 1927 acquired Utah's Goshen Valley Railroad Company, which had been serving the Tintic District in Utah County since 1918. That same year the system added the Rio Grande Motor Way, which spread into bus transportation two decades later. This latter function was sold to Continental Bus Lines in 1948.

Railroad directors then looked eastward once more, determined to link Salt Lake City and Denver directly through the Moffat Tunnel. The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed these expansion plans, but finally, in June 1934, the route was completed with funds from the federal government's Reconstruction Finance Corporation. A similar government loan allowed the D&RGW to buy the Denver and Salt Lake Railway the same year. However, in 1935 the line once again faced financial insolvency and was run by a Board of Trustees until 1947. As part of a new program it added the California Zephyr to its fleet, a luxury passenger train that stood as the last privately-owned carrier of its kind when its shrunken route was finally abandoned in 1983.

During the 1950s, renewed competition with the Union Pacific cut into Rio Grande profits. Consequently, it abandoned many of its shorter spur routes, but improved its financial position. Through continued consolidation, the D&RG has maintained its financial health and its freight operations to the present time.

See: Robert G. Athearn, Rebel of the Rockies, published in 1962 by Yale University Press and reissued as The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad: Rebel of the Rockies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press Bison Books, 1977); and R. A. Lemassena, Colorado Mountain Railroads, 5 vols. (Golden, Colorado: Smoking Stack Press, 1965).

Nancy J. Taniguchi