Crossroads of the West

Ron Rood and Linda Thatcher

Utah’s thousands of years of prehistory and its centuries of known recorded history are so distinctive and complex that a summary can only hint at the state’s rich heritage. The synopsis offered here follows major themes in Utah history and includes some of the significant dates, events, and individuals.

John Wesley Powell

Mountain Men and settlers had explored much of the West, but the systematic, scientific investigation of this immense land really began when Congress authorized exploration for railroad and wagon routes. Captain Howard Stansbury explored and mapped Great Salt Lake Valley in 1849–50; Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives studied part of the Colorado River in 1857–58; Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith completed the railroad survey begun by Gunnison; Joseph Dixon, James Harvey Simpson, Ferdinand V. Hayden, Clarence King, Clarence Edward Dutton, and George M. Wheeler led productive surveys; and Major John Wesley Powell came in 1869 and 1871 to explore the “last frontier” the Green and Colorado rivers by boat. Powell’s contributions to our understanding of the arid Colorado Plateau, water resources, and the life-ways of the area’s Indians were monumental.

Communication between East and West became increasingly important between 1850 and 1870. The overland freight brought needed goods to Utah settlers; the faster stagecoach brought passengers and mail; and the Pony Express brought both mail and news in its brief nineteen months of operation.

Installing telegraph along railroad line

On October 24, 1861, the overland telegraph connecting Omaha, Nebraska, and San Francisco was completed in Salt Lake City. Brigham Young had helped with this venture, and he planned the Deseret Telegraph to connect Salt Lake City with the outlying Mormon settlements.

Next came the railroad. In 1868 Brigham Young contracted with Union Pacific to build part of the transcontinental railroad through Echo and Weber canyons. Mormons earned more than two million dollars working on this project. Meanwhile, hundreds of Chinese worked on the Central Pacific line east from Sacramento. Finally, on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were joined at Promontory Summit, Utah. Mormon isolation was permanently ended.

Joining of the rails at Promontory Summit, 1869

In the 1870s railroad lines were built to connect many Utah settlements, including mining towns, with the capital. The transcontinental railroad and the branch lines spurred commerce and led to the opening of the mines.