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
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