UTA will open another 2.4 miles of TRAX next Saturday, giving Salt Lake City almost 18 miles of light rail, a fraction the 146 miles of track in the glory days of the Utah Light and Traction Company. At its peak, ULTC convenient mass transit reached from Holladay to Centerville.
With the encouragement of Brigham Young, the Salt Lake City Railroad brought the first mule-powered streetcars to town in 1872, though old timers complained that "it's still quicker to walk."
After Salt Lake City became one of the first five American cities to generate electric power in 1881, electricity replaced horsepower to drive the trolleys, considerably reducing downtown road-apple pollution. By the turn of the century, Salt Lake was a checkerboard of tracks that reached into every neighborhood.
In 1907 the Emigration Canyon Railroad extended the lines far up into the mountains, while interurban railroads served the Wasatch Front from Cache Valley to Payson. You could take a train to Park City, a fact folks enjoying the Parleys Canyon parking lot can ponder next February.
One of the most intriguing tycoons of the Gilded Age, railroad magnate Edward Henry Harriman, deserves much of the credit for the cheap and efficient streetcar system that made Utah a model for mass transit a century ago.
Born on Long Island in 1848, Harriman made his first fortune on Wall Street and used it to build a vast railroad empire in the West that was founded on his control of the Union Pacific.
Salt Lake City's competing trolley lines merged to form Utah Light and Railway in 1901. Harriman bought the company in 1906 and transformed it into the finest electric utility and streetcar operation in America. He replaced the power lines that had made downtown a rat's nest of wire with underground conduits. (The wires are making a comeback.)
Harriman added steel streetcars and 80 miles of new track. He spent $3.5 million in 1908 to build a mission-style trolley barn that filled an entire block in the old Tenth Ward.
"Overcoming so-called insurmountable obstacles, doing things judged impossible, were the tasks he liked best," naturalist John Muir of Sierra Club fame wrote of Harriman. The mogul's engineers built a tunnel through the Sierra Nevada and laid the Lucin Cutoff, the causeway that crossed the Great Salt Lake north of Ogden. When he died in 1909, Harriman controlled 60,000 miles of track.
Buses began to replace trolleys in the 1920s, and Salt Lake's streetcars made their last run in 1946.
Edward Harriman left several legacies to Utah and America, including his son Averell, who founded Sun Valley ski resort. Utah Light and Traction became today's Utah Power and Light. Harriman's trolley barn is now Trolley Square, whose design incorporates fragments of landmarks such as Tooele's Anaconda Mine and the Culmer and Dinwoody mansions.
Historian Will Bagley is still waiting to take commuter rail to Provo.