Local Lore

Steel Wheels

Rails—for better and worse—were essential in building Park City, and may be once again.

By Larry Warren January 1, 2015 Published in the Winter/Spring 2015 issue of Park City Magazine

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Park City runs on steel wheels. Don’t think so? Glance up the next time you ride a chairlift, and you’ll see how. As the steel cable travels atop each lift tower, it rolls along multiple steel wheels called the sheave train. The bull wheels at the top and bottom of every chairlift and gondola move the cable that moves the chairs that move the skiers.  

This country’s original steel wheels—trains—have always been part and parcel of the Park City story. They moved silver ore, lead, and zinc—the three metals that made Park City in the first place. They also moved immigrant miners, swindlers, and even a lynch mob. And as futurists ponder the Park City of tomorrow, trains will likely enter the fray once again.

In 1868, the story goes, a weary prospector stopped for a rest and kicked loose, or stumbled over, a rock, finding it uncommonly heavy. It was galena, a weighty combination of silver, lead, and zinc. A mining town was born.

But as rich as Park City’s minerals would prove to be, large-scale mining required large-scale industrial equipment and high-capacity freight cars to move tons of ore. At first, isolated Park City had the riches but not the means to capitalize on them.

By 1880, investors were confident Park City’s boom had legs. Utah Eastern Railroad formed, and 200 men went to work building a spur line from Echo—a major stop on the 11-year-old Transcontinental Railroad just 35 miles north. A year later engineer Billy Chatterton powered the first steel wheels into Park City. Now small mines could import heavy machinery to move mountains. Men poured in by rail, too, finding work in the growing mines—immigrant laborers from China to Wales to Croatia. Steam power required coal—found in Coalville, near Utah Eastern’s narrow-gauge line from Echo. With lucrative contracts to haul coal into Park City and ore back out, Union Pacific joined the competition, bringing a standard-gauge line into town, landing at the foot of Main Street. (The depot still stands today as Zoom Restaurant.) The bigger Union Pacific eventually gobbled up smaller Utah Eastern, but its monopoly was short-lived. Two investor groups in Salt Lake wanted to build a line up Parley’s Canyon from the Salt Lake Valley, despite an almost impossible grade for a steam locomotive. 

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John W. Young (son of the Brigham Young) headed up the venture—dubbed Utah Central—but soon found the canyon a money pit. On one steep section, a switch had to be pulled so the train could back up a hill. The switch then had to be thrown again for the train to roar down the slope and up the next one—barely making Parley’s Summit. Facing bankruptcy, Young recruited a Spanish nobleman, Rodriquez Velasquez de la Gorgozada, to invest in the line, promising it would serve a thriving new American city that would be renamed Gorgoza in his honor. Young produced maps of the fictional Gorgoza, complete with street names, and the nobleman decided to come visit his namesake, only to find bare dirt where the town was supposed to be. He lost a million dollars, which Young never paid back, and soon Young, too, was out of business, selling his dubious railroad to the Rio Grande Western, which upgraded it and finally realized the Park City/Salt Lake City connection.

An even more unfortunate chapter in Park City’s steel wheels history is how the railway figured prominently in the town’s only lynching. In August 1889, miner Matt Brennan was shot clean off his horse near his claim in Iron Canyon. As he lay dying, he said it was Black Jack Murphy who “done him in.” Murphy turned himself in to the sheriff, who took him to the county jail in Coalville for safekeeping. Within days, anger in Park City reached the boiling point, and during the night, Park City vigilantes captured the Utah Eastern engineer, fireman, and train-master, forcing them to take the lynch mob to Coalville. The jailer gave up Murphy without a fight. The train returned by early morning to Park City, where a quick trackside trial found him guilty. Parkites that morning awoke to the sight of the lifeless Black Jack Murphy, hung on a pole near the train yard.

As the mines played out in the 1950s, Park City’s rich train history ground to a halt. By the 1980s, the Union Pacific tracks became the Rail Trail, where bicycle wheels now turn in the summer, and Nordic skis glide during the winter. 

But what’s old may yet be new again. A new transportation planning process, called the Mountain Accord, is weighing all options for the future of transportation between the Wasatch Front and the ski resorts, including Park City’s three, as well as Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, and Solitude. One option for taking cars off the road is to install steel rails to speed airport-arriving skiers by light rail to their resort of choice.

Fantasy? Only time will tell. Just don’t trust rail promoters who promise to name a town after you. 

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