Utah’s Interurbans: Predecessors to Light Rail

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, December 1995

Light Rail is not new to Utah. During the heyday of America’s interurbans, Utahns enjoyed the best in U.S. rail commuter technology. In 1891 Simon Bamberger bought several small steam engines and established his Great Salt Lake & Hot Springs Railroad from downtown Salt Lake City to Warm Springs four miles north. If it was a modest beginning, he had big plans: not just a commuter line between Salt Lake and Ogden but also a freight line to compete against Union Pacific’s Ogden-to-Coalville coal hauler. The undertaking proved more difficult than he had envisioned. The Bamberger line (as it was popularly known) reached Bountiful in 1891 and Farmington in 1895 (where Bamberger drained a marsh and built the Lagoon resort).

Not until 1908 did his new, more powerful trains begin carrying passengers to Ogden. In 1910 Bamberger’s son electrified the line to lower costs. GSL&HS’s own substations ran trains at 750 volts, more powerfully than any other U.S. interurban of the time. The line’s terminals (one stood where Symphony Hall now stands) had no turning facilities, so cowcatchers were installed on both ends of the trains. After his father was elected governor, Julian Bamberger constructed and shared a new Salt Lake terminal with the Salt Lake & Utah Company. Electric mass transit had become a Utah fixture. A few Utahns still remember the quiet, smooth ride from Layton to Salt Lake to shop or to Saltair Resort to dance to the big bands.

Nine years after the Bamberger line began, David Eccles started his Ogden Rapid Transit Company. Within a decade 24 miles of streetcar track combed Ogden City, with a branch to the mouth of Ogden Canyon and another to hot springs seven miles north of town. ORT eventually expanded west to Plain City and north to Brigham City. While students and adults steadily patronized it, the line earned three times as much by freighting sugar beets and other farm products.

In 1909 Eccles raced Bamberger in laying rails up Ogden Canyon to Bamberger’s Heritage Resort. Eccles won, his grade never exceeding 4 percent. In 1915 he extended it 10 miles farther to Huntsville, where he himself lived. In 1914 engineers recycled the old Utah Northern railbed from Brigham City around the north end of the Wellsville Mountains to Logan. Eventually this line even served Preston and other southern Idaho towns geographically and economically tied to Cache County. Eccles combined his lines in 1918 into the Utah-Idaho Central Railroad. One could now travel by rail from Salt Lake to Montana. While UIC’s route paralleled Union Pacific’s, both remained profitable because the bigger line disdained small-town stops.

A decade after Eccles founded his venture, a group of Utah Valley promoters recruited W. C. Orem to build a line from Provo to Salt Lake. Orem, a rail construction veteran, was able to obtain $2 million from Boston and Portland backers, matched by local funds. In less than a year Orem had selected a route, bought and surveyed the rights-of-way, prepared the grade, and strung an overhead catenary to carry 1500 volts. In another year he had built the roadbed, installed track, and erected costly overpasses. Four UP&L substations powered the interurban plus streetcars that connected Provo and the Brigham Young University campus. The plan was to extend the line to Nephi, meaning that the entire Wasatch Front would be spanned by electric mass transit. By 1913 four gas-and-electric trains per day were running from Salt Lake to American Fork. By the next year 800 passengers rode daily between Salt Lake and Provo. Each subsequent year brought expansion: 1915 to Springville, 1916 to Payson, 1917 a branch line to Magna. Eventually 26 trains ran daily.

What happened to Utah’s interurbans? At first they were able to compete with automobiles–despite low petroleum prices and government highway subsidies–through superior service. But eventually equipment and railbeds needed costly maintenance. As early as 1925 the Orem line had cut back scheduling by one-third.

The Great Depression sent the Bamberger and Orem lines into receivership. Their demise was helped by an active campaign by oil and auto conglomerates to buy up interurbans only to shut them down. World War II brought a temporary boom to the Bamberger line, which owned the only spurs to Hill Field and the Ogden Arsenal. But after the war Utah railroads lost money, while their petitions to the Public Service Commission to shrink services and thus costs were rejected. In 1947 the last line ceased operation.

If only they had been able to hold on for a few more decades!

See Stephen L. Carr and Robert W. Edwards, Utah Ghost Rails (Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1989). Information on mass transit history was also provided by the Utah Transit Authority