Written by Tony Castro, Reference Archivist at the Utah State Archives and Records Service Research Center.
These days, historic railroad stations across the country seem to be for everything except purchasing tickets and boarding trains. What’s more popular these days are a variety of services such as chambers of commerce, history museums, and antique shops. In some cases, the stations may be abandoned altogether. Salt Lake City is no exception to this pattern.
Up until the earthquake in March of 2020, the historic Denver & Rio Grande Western Station was the home of the Research Center of the Utah State Archives and Utah State History. From time to time when visitors would appear at the Research Center reception area, they asked where to board the train. Staff would then explain that state offices are now located in the Rio Grande, and direct them to the modular Amtrak Station located one block to the west.
Happy Birthday, Amtrak!
May marks the fiftieth anniversary of Amtrak, which began operating in 1971 after being established in 1970 by Congress under its official name, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Before then, American passenger trains had been operating at a loss for years and railroad companies were anxious to rid themselves of the liability. Amtrak has since maintained railroad travel throughout the United States. It runs over 21,000 route miles in 46 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces. In spite of the vast Amtrak network, Utahns currently do not have the option of taking the train to destinations to the north and south of their state.
Utah has long had a demand for travel to Las Vegas and Southern California for both business and pleasure. Throughout most of the twentieth century, rail transportation to these regions was accessible and readily available. The twentieth century is comprised of three distinct periods of passenger rail service from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas and Southern California. The first began with what was known as the “Salt Lake Route,” the nickname of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad during the steam locomotive era. The Union Pacific Railroad eventually absorbed the Salt Lake Route and was characterized during the mid century by diesel-powered streamlined trains. Upon taking over operations, Amtrak eliminated the route. Although they later revived it, they ultimately canceled it for good in 1997.
The Salt Lake Route Era
In 1905, the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, or SPLA&SL, (later shortened to the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, or LA&SL) drove its last spike, allowing through travel from the Wasatch Front to Southern California. Known by its nickname, the “Salt Lake Route,” it promoted itself in Salt Lake City as the “only direct line to Nevada mining camps and California.” A line across Nevada to northern California already existed for nearly four decades on the transcontinental route, but had to be accessed from Salt Lake City via Ogden. By the end of the year, travellers could board the Los Angeles Limited or the Los Angeles Express and ride to Las Vegas and on to destinations along the southern California coast.
The popularity of travel by train between the two regions was immediate.
“…Hotel keepers say that never in the history of California have so many Utahns visited that state as during the past few months or since the completion of the Salt Lake Route.”Salt Lake Tribune, August 1, 1905
“…Las Vegas! Well, it is worth a journey across the continent just to see that town. It is one of the finest sites for a plains city that I ever saw. It has everything in location to make it an important little city, and it has advantages which will make it a pleasant place to live. I estimate that the place now contains about 1,000 men and women, mostly men. Its population is increasing at the rate of about 100 a day. I have traveled all the transcontinental lines and I found things of interest in landscape and people and industries and commercial possibilities which I have not seen on the other lines. In landscape effects there is nothing else on the continent of America just like it…”Wilbur Fisk Brock of the Los Angeles Times, one of the first passengers to detrain in Salt Lake City, as quoted in the Salt Lake Telegram, May 3, 1905
The Union Pacific Railroad Era
Until 1936, the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad was operating as a subsidiary of the Union Pacific System but then came under its parent company’s name. Later that year, the Union Pacific inaugurated The City of Los Angeles serving Chicago and the Pacific Coast via Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. The train used diesel-powered streamliners capable of reaching speeds of over 100 miles per hour.
During World War II, ridership on passenger trains in the United States reached its peak due to rationing of fuel and supplies necessary for highway travel in private vehicles, along with massive troop movement. Railroads expected continued heavy postwar travel on their lines and took action to modernize their passenger equipment to maintain popularity. The postwar return of automobile manufacturers to civilian production and later the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 both encouraged motorists to take further advantage of the convenience of automobiles for business and vacation travel. Airlines were experiencing rapid technical development and expansion that offered passengers increased access to speedy travel. Railroads attempted to maintain their share of the travel market through innovations such as dome cars, which opened up panoramic views of the American West’s impressive natural beauty.
In spite of the attempts to lure passengers back to their seats on trains, near the end of the 1950s the number of airline passengers surpassed those using railroads. A further blow to operations was the cancellation of U.S. Post Office mail transport contracts in the late 1960s, which were a major contributor to railroad passenger revenue. Service levels declined throughout the decade.
The Amtrak Era
At the beginning of the 1970s Congress established Amtrak. The quasi-public corporation assumed the passenger operations of the Union Pacific and most of the railroads in the country whose trains had been long operating at a deficit. Service on many lines was discontinued, including connections between Utah and southern California, leaving a number of Utah communities without access to passenger trains.
Record ridership and revenues prompted by the second oil crisis of the decade caused Amtrak to resume service via Salt Lake City and Las Vegas with its Chicago to Los Angeles Desert Wind in 1979. Service on the Desert Wind ended in 1997, a victim of the corporation’s periodic budget cuts. No scheduled intercity passenger trains have run south across Utah since then.
The Modern Era
In the 21st century, many people are becoming aware of the benefits of rail travel, which reduces the expenses of fueling and maintaining a personal vehicle. Train travel allows riders time for work or entertainment, or just relaxation enjoying passing scenery while knowing at the same time that they avoided the stress of driving in traffic and contributing to poor air quality. Public officials recognize the economic benefits that rail passengers can bring to communities through increased tourist spending as well as decreased accidents and wear on the highway infrastructure.
During the 2021 Utah legislative session, Senator Luz Escamilla and Representative Sandra Hollins cosponsored S.C.R. 3, Concurrent Resolution Encouraging the Evaluation of Interstate Passenger Rail Opportunities. Though the bill did not pass, its purpose was to recognize the many benefits of an expanded intercity passenger railroad network and to encourage development by identifying funding opportunities, and to conduct research on a partnership basis between agencies involved in regional transportation.
The Utah State Archives and its sister agency, the Utah Division of History, offer a variety of sources to further explore the rails. Record series held by the State Archives reflect the interaction between state government and railroad companies for planning, regulatory, and taxation purposes. They include:
- Series 28224 -Department of Transportation Division of Right of Way Railroad Maps. This is a popular source of information for researchers of railroad lines running through the state during the early and mid twentieth century.
- Series 25229 – Department of Transportation. Office of Community Relations Official photographs: Thistle disaster documentation. This series consists of photographic documentation of the Thistle mudslide disaster that destroyed the small railroad town in the spring of 1983.
- Series 335 – Secretary of State Railroad contract sales record books. These record books contain copies of contract sales between railroad companies and a variety of equipment vendors recorded in the office of the secretary of state. Articles of agreement give the specifications on the equipment to be delivered, sometimes in great detail as to workmanship, dimensions, brake type, cab equipment, whistles, etc. Most of the vendors, trustees, and railroad companies involved were not headquartered in Utah, but railroad companies filed a record of sale in any state where they did business or were likely to use the equipment.
The Division of History, specializing in nongovernmental materials, has an extensive collection of books, pamphlets and manuscripts on the railroads of Utah and the West that can be found in its catalog. A terrific collection of historic photographs, including railroads and their facilities, are searchable and ready to view online in the Digital Collections. Additionally, the Research Center of the Utah State Archives and Utah State History is a fine point of departure for a journey through railroad history. You can reach the Reference Archivists directly by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robertson, Donald B. Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History: The Desert States, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah. Caldwell, Idaho : Caxton Printers, 1986.
Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History: Volume IV California. Caldwell, Idaho : Caxton Printers, 1998.
San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake RR, P.11, Photo No. 25049, Shipler Commercial Photographers Collection, 1903-1980, MSS C 275, Utah State Historical Society.
San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake RR, P. 2, Photo No. 750, Utah State Historical Society Classified Photograph Collection, 1858-2006, MSS C 1, Utah State Historical Society.
Union Pacific Railroad City of Los Angeles, P. 4, Photo No. 804, Utah State Historical Society Classified Photograph Collection, 1858-2006, MSS C 1, Utah State Historical Society.
Denver & Rio Grande Western RR Station, SLC, Photo, P. 25, No. 22096, Utah State Historical Society Classified Photograph Collection, 1858-2006, MSS C 1, Utah State Historical Society.
“Beaver County News | 1974-01-24 | Amtrac Service for Milford?” Accessed March 17, 2021. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6bz8n96/22224071
“Milford News | 1935-12-26 | Roads of System to Lose Identity.” Accessed March 17, 2021. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s61n90kd/5298981
“Provo Daily Herald | 1960-09-05 | Airlines Face Economic Puzzle.” Accessed March 17, 2021. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s61307mt/23784158
“Provo Daily Herald | 1997-05-12 | Train Makes Last Pass in Ogden.” Accessed March 17, 2021. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6j7216r/24240930
“Salt Lake Telegram | 1905-05-03 | New Line’s First Eastbound Trip Was One Long Ovation; Every Car Was Crowded With Enthusiasts.” Accessed March 17, 2021. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s63c01z6/18220155
“Salt Lake Tribune | 1905-01-31 | Last Rail Laid on San Pedro.” Accessed March 17, 2021. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6kh1z8h/13722197
“Salt Lake Tribune | 1905-08-01 | Salt Lakers in City Los Angeles.” Accessed March 17, 2021. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s69g6xtb/13752830
“Amtrak Facts.” https://www.amtrak.com/amtrak-facts Accessed March 17, 2021.