Emigration Canyon Railroad Served SLC Builders’ Needs

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, January 1996

In the late 1800s a building boom occurred in Salt Lake City. Concrete had not yet been developed that was strong enough to be used for building foundations, so granite and sandstone blocks were used instead. Quarries in Little Cottonwood Canyon furnished the granite. Red and white sandstone came from quarries in Emigration Canyon. Initially, heavy wagons were used for hauling sandstone out of Emigration Canyon into the city. As the demand for stone escalated, this proved a cumbersome mode of freighting.

A steam railroad up the canyon would have been expensive and created a fire hazard as well. But electric freighting was proving feasible in other parts of Utah and the country. A group of promoters led by Brigham Young’s grandson, LeGrand Young, hit upon the latter. The Emigration Canyon Railroad was incorporated in 1907. Within a year the 14-mile line was in operation. Its city terminus and yards were located near the western end of the present University of Utah stadium parking lot. Its route passed by Mount Olivet Cemetery, Sunnyside Avenue, the Wagner Brewery near the mouth of the canyon, and up what is now Highway U-65 to the Killyon’s Canyon turnoff, with a spur to the quarries. Where the upper canyon was too steep, switchbacks were cut so that the grade seldom exceeded 6 percent, except the final mile to Pinecrest.

The line’s flatbed freight cars were probably made-over trolley cars. Fifty of these miniature, four-wheeled cars hauled sandstone from the quarries to the yards near Fifth South and University Street where they were unloaded and the stone taken by wagon to various building sites. Two box cab motors pulled the cars, powered by an electric transformer built far up the canyon.

Soon recreationers, who could reach the western Emigration terminus by city trolley, began asking for rides to Pinecrest Lodge in Killyon’s Canyon. So in 1909 two elegant, motored passenger cars with trailers were added to the system. Three years later several more such cars were added. All were open-air; the line could not run in winter anyway. According to Ira L. Swett, “summer cottages began springing up all through the canyon.” The route was surely scenic. The rails crossed and recrossed Emigration Creek some 16 times, and Point Lookout at about 7,000 feet gave passengers a view of the valley below.

The little Emigration Canyon excursion and freighting line was short-lived. Within a decade concrete had supplanted building stone as the preferred foundation material, and the line’s passenger revenues were not enough to justify continued operation. At the start of World War I the system was dismantled. The passenger cars were sent to Tacoma, where they transported workers to the shipyards. The rail, spikes, and steel from the freight cars were donated to war manufacturing. Company officials divided the remaining property–“four battered old shovels.”

Now all that can be seen of the line is an occasional stretch of railbed used by hikers and mountain bikers, and the upper station, now part of the new Pinecrest Bed & Breakfast Inn.

Sources: Ira L. Swett, Interurbans of Utah (Los Angeles, 1954); Stephen L. Carr and Robert W. Edwards, Utah Ghost Rails (Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1986).