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Transcontinental Railroad
Chugging Along Utah's Promontory Branch

By Tony Huegel

Note: Be sure to visit Backcountry Byways Journal!

Potholes and gullies were beating us up. Luggage avalanched from the cargo area. The kids were getting clobbered. My daughter denounced me.

"He's cruel!" Hannah wailed.

Yet I would not veer from what is arguably America's most historic road, the earthen vein of the first transcontinental railroad. If 19th century travelers could cross northern Utah's Great Basin on a railroad bed built by Chinese laborers wielding picks, shovels and black powder, then a family cocooned in a loaded '96 Toyota 4Runner Limited could, too.

Every few seconds my wife, Lynn, sounded a siren — "BIG ONE!" She gestured incredulously toward the nicely graded road that parallels segments of this legendary trail. "Good Lord!" she cried out. "It was built for a reason!"

For cowards, I thought.

Railroads to Rockets

This rough stretch ended in a couple of miles, where the old grade that once carried steam locomotives across alkali flats and rolling sagebrush desert melded with the graded road. Now Hannah, 14, bantered with her brother, Land, who was 6. Lynn studied the map. I drove on, following largely maintained dirt roads that required -- when conditions are good -- a vehiicle equipped with no more than two-wheel drive, all-terrain tires and high clearance rather than four-wheel drive, locking differentials and such.

Earlier that bright October morning we'd driven down from Idaho, where we live. Eight miles east of Promontory Summit we stopped at the outdoor rocket display at Thiokol's sprawling aerospace facility.

The Thiokol display was a space-age touchstone in a day that would take us around the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake. We would wind past archaeological sites left by Western Shoshone Indians, and through abandoned town sites. We would roll across a panorama tracked by pioneer wagon trains, stagecoaches, thundering locomotives and rocket cars amid a desert that used to be the floor of an inland sea.

Finally, we would sleep on the Utah-Nevada border, in the neon night of Wendover, a town along the Transcontinental Railroad's concrete progeny, Interstate 80.

Golden Spike

Our journey through railroading history began at Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory, where colorful re-enactments of the "golden spike" ceremony are held.

The re-enactments commemorate the historic meeting on May 10, 1869, of the eastbound Central Pacific and the westbound Union Pacific railroads.

That event capped the greatest engineering and construction feat in the adolescent country's history. It closed the rail gap between Sacramento, California, and Omaha, Nebraska, with a single continuous line, known then as the Pacific Railroad.

The railroad's completion may have been the most important milestone in the nation's westward expansion. It now took six or seven days instead of weeks or months to reach either coast.

With its accompanying telegraph line, it stitched the West into the fabric of the nation. Vast expanses were opened to settlement. Transport between producers and markets became relatively easy.

The tragic fate of Native Americans who had occupied the West for thousands of years, however, was sealed.

Before setting out on our journey, we watched replicas of the long-scrapped locomotives present at the driving of the real last spike — CPRR's Jupiter and UPRR's No. 119 — rumble down the tracks to the spot where the annual re-enactments take place.

The festivities put us in the mindset for the seven hours and almost 140 miles of two-track railbed and graded county roads that lay ahead.

National Back Country Byway

From the visitor center we followed a gravel road west across grassy Promontory Summit. Soon we reached the eastern portal of the well-marked route.

In 1994, the 125th anniversary of the railroad's completion, this final leg of the CPRR's journey from Sacramento to Promontory was added to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's roster of unpaved backways that are notable for exceptional scenic, cultural and historic value.

Today, the Transcontinental Railroad National Back Country Byway is the longest continuous segment of the old rail line that remains surrounded by a remote and little-changed western landscape.

For 90 lonely miles, travelers taking advantage of their SUV's comfort and capabilities can drive on the actual bed of the Promontory Branch, or Old Line, following the historic artery around the largely unpopulated northern reaches of the Great Salt Lake Desert.

Tires turn where rails once lay. Old ties lie scattered about. BLM signs interpret points along the way, among them town sites, cemeteries, sidings and section stations. The rest — 10,000 Chinese workers laying down track and hammering down spikes, portable "hell on wheels" towns rising here and being dismantled there — is left to the imagination.

Beyond Promontory Summit we entered a vast, pale region formed by geologic and climatic events too ancient to fathom. It was the same forbidding scene that taunted engineers and emigrants who squinted to see what lay beyond the smoke belching from a locomotive's tall stack.

The waves of basin and range country rolled beneath a meridian sun. Taupe-colored mountains vaulted from the shimmering salt flats like islands, which they were at one time. Tawny, treeless hills remained etched by the long-gone shores of Lake Bonneville, a freshwater ice age sea far larger than today's remnant salt lake, which glistened just to the south.

The railroad ended the punishing era of covered wagons and stagecoaches. Still, I thought, how threatening this raw desolation must have seemed to travelers gazing out from sooty cars.

Ten-Mile Day

Before embarking on the byway we angled right, and pulled onto the old railbed, called a roadbed in railroad parlance. We drove part of an easy nine-mile auto tour route. The "Promontory Trail," as it's called, provides travelers without high-clearance vehicles or the time to explore the full byway the chance to experience the old Promontory Branch.

The segment we drove became famous on April 28, 1869, the "Ten Mile Day." That was when CPRR's Chinese workers, who'd chiseled and blasted their way across California's daunting Sierra Nevada Mountains only to confront the deserts beyond, joined a handful of Irish workers to accomplish the unprecedented: construction of ten miles of railroad in a single day.

Returning to the byway, which rises to varying heights above the desert floor, we saw a similar parallel roadbed. It was evidence of the corruption of railroad barons who had workers construct more than 200 miles of redundant roadbed to increase their federal subsidies.

The interpretive signs helped us imagine this austere and silent region bustling with the commotion of steam-powered railroading. Some signs recall how the eastbound railroad builders ticked off the mileage.

At mile 765.0 from San Francisco, for example, we passed the spot where workmen rested for lunch during the back-breaking Ten Mile Day. They christened it Victory, though it was later renamed Rozel, after nearby hills.

Kelton Ghost Town

We continued toward the large rock pinnacle that marks Monument Point, lapped by the Great Salt Lake. Here began the jostling stretch that evoked the jeers of my clan. They eventually got their way when the Old Line merged with the graded single-lane dirt and gravel road. It took us to the town site of Kelton.

Originally called Indian Creek, Kelton was renamed in honor of an area stockman. As the closest rail head to the territory to the north, it grew quickly into a town of about 700 souls. It was the major shipping and travel connection to the mineral rich mountains and rangelands of the Northwest.

From Kelton it was two days by stagecoach to Boise, Idaho; four to Walla Walla, Washington; and five and a half to Portland, Oregon. The Wells Fargo stage from here to the rich northern mines was said to be the most often-robbed stage line in the West. It was usually held up every week, occasionally daily.

Today, Kelton's most notable remaining feature is its cemetery.

In 1904, after the Central Pacific had merged with the Southern Pacific Railroad, the new Lucin Cutoff diverted rail traffic from the Promontory Branch. Instead of winding from Lucin, near the Nevada border, through the mountains, the cutoff angled slightly south to stretch directly across the lake on a trestle.

Still operating today, it cut 40 miles from the journey and avoided the difficult grades of the Promontory Branch.

With the opening of the Lucin Cutoff and competition from the Utah Northern Railroad, train traffic on the Promontory Branch fell off sharply. The towns and section stations faded into history. In 1938, the Old Line was abandoned.

In 1942 the rails were pulled up to serve in another great cause, World War II. Buildings were torn down; some were moved. Today, the histories carved on the BLM's signs read like epitaphs.

Deep in the Wild

West of Kelton the route angles south, passing along the edge of mud flats toward the Hogup Mountains. Distracted by the austere scenery, we almost missed the obscure two-track that angled west into the golden grassland almost six miles from Kelton.

We climbed into the Peplin Mountains toward a deep, narrow hillside gash through which everything from stately Pullman cars to crowded immigrant and freight cars had passed long before. The sense of remoteness deepened. No county road offered an alternative. Help was distant.

We'd not seen anyone else all day. I took comfort from being in a vehicle with a remarkable reliability record. The route never required engaging the Limited's four-wheel drive or traction-enhancing locking rear differential, operated by a dash-mounted button. But out here, it was reassuring to know we had both.

Great Basin scenery, so colossal in scale, doesn't change. It evolves, with all the slow subtlety that implies. The effect can be numbing.

So with the Limited's superb stereo turned down low, the roomy back seat fell silent. Lynn dozed. I was left to imagine myself in a great locomotive rumbling on rails aimed at the promise that lay beyond the western skyline.

Terrace Ghost Town

As we headed toward the town site of Terrace, I often had to detour off the roadbed briefly to get around eroded spots and wooden trestles or culverts that were no longer safe. In places, ties still lay in the roadbed.

Terrace, 702.1 miles from San Francisco and 1,153 from Omaha, the Union Pacific's starting point, existed from 1869 to 1910. It grew to about 1,000 residents. A half-mile away is the cemetery.

Terrace was an important population center in its day. It had a Wells Fargo office, library and public bath. Businesses lined a wide avenue. Though water had to be piped in, residents enjoyed a pleasant town square and tree-lined streets.

But now the cheatgrass and sagebrush revealed mere hints of all that: depressions where buildings once stood, the weathered frame of a chair, blobs of coagulated coal, bits of brick discarded when workmen rebuilt the locomotives' fireboxes, ties without rails.

Beyond Terrace, the roadbed was a rudimentary two-track again. The Pilot Range etched the horizon along the Nevada-Utah border. Above all the other peaks rose 10,716-foot Pilot Peak, a landmark for Indians, trappers, emigrants, and now us. Late-afternoon's coppery sunlight replaced the desert's midday pallor

Trail's End

A couple of miles beyond Terrace we saw a sign. Lucin, the end of the byway, lay 19 miles to the left on still more abandoned railbed. Highway 30 was three miles to the right, via a graded road. I went left.

"Why couldn't we take the three miles to the right to Highway 30?" asked Hannah, perhaps in the same pleading tenor of children who crossed this country in wagons, stagecoaches and rail cars a century before. One day, I thought, she'll understand.

More alkali flats. More grasslands. Mile 72. Mile 76. Mile 80. And then mile 89.5, the byway's end. We were at the current site of Lucin. We saw only a few railroad and ranch buildings not far from where a section station with the same name and a large Chinese population once stood.

It was almost 6 p.m. I turned south here on a graded road. It took us 48 miles, over a rise forested with pinyon pines and junipers. We crossed the emigrant trail followed by the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846-47, and continued past the Silver Island Mountains, which are looped by another BLM national back country byway.

Finally, we reached the paved road that leads to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Soon we were speeding west on Interstate 80 toward Wendover's glow. There, we crossed into the Pacific Time Zone, and returned to our own time.

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