|Pusher on Westbound in Echo Canyon -- September 2016
Located in northeastern Utah, just a stone’s throw from the Wyoming border, Echo Canyon unfolds in the transition zone between the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. Maximum relief from the Wyoming border to the Henefer Valley is almost 4,000 feet, the difference in elevation of the Weber River, at 5,350 feet near Henefer, and the summit of Porcupine Mountain (slightly west of the southwest corner of Wyoming) at 9,200 feet. Sandstone cliffs in the canyon rise hundreds of feet. The color of the sandstone at dawn is burgundy, as though the landscape were drenched in Merlot. As the sun rises, the deep red lightens to almost tan, then darkens again as the sun disappears behind the western hills.
|Echo Canyon at Dawn
Approximately 100 million years ago, western North America experienced a mountain-building period called by geologists the “Sevier Orogeny.” Pacific Ocean crust collided with, moved under and lifted the lighter continental crust of North America, sliding the North American Plate east, pushing rocks up and over adjacent layers, forming the Sevier Mountain Belt.
As the mountains climbed skyward, the land to their east subsided, creating a huge basin stretching east to the western edge of what we now call the High Plains, running south to north from present day southern Nevada to Canada. Later, as the mountains eroded, sedimentary detritus flowed eastward and filled the valley.
Echo Canyon was formed by the erosion of this detritus – the “Echo Canyon Conglomerate,” composed of sandstone and quartzite pebbles, cobbles, and boulders come down off the mountains. Wind and water have created the fantastic shapes we see today: Witches’ Bluffs, Pulpit Rock, Castle Rock, Devils War Club, Sphinx, and Sentinel Rock.
What became of the Sevier Mountain Belt? It has eroded away to nothing, deposited as the sediment through which Echo Canyon navigates.
|Pusher in Echo Canyon
|Westbound Potash Train
Millions of years later, the mountain range that we call Wasatch began to form along the fault in the crust separating the North American interior from the extending, collapsing crust of the Basin and Range to the west. Across this boundary, Salt Lake Valley is dropping away to the west, sliding off of the Wasatch Mountains one earthquake at a time.
These mountains stretch north-south across Utah from the Bear River in the north to Mount Nebo near Nephi in central part of the state. Most elevations along the range are generally between 9,000 and 10,000 feet; Mount Nebo is the highest peak at 11,877 feet.
|Westbound Trailers Running Through Echo, Utah
|UP 6840 East Climbing Grade in Echo Canyon
|Freights Passing in Upper Echo Canyon, With Original, Single-Track Line in Foreground
The Wasatch approach Echo Canyon from the west. To the south stand the Uinta Mountains. Echo Canyon is a passageway through these two mountain ranges into the Salt Lake Valley – the only passage traversable by wagon. The trail through Echo Canyon thus was important in westward travel. Buffalo and men, both native Americans and Europeans, used this natural gateway to the valley of the Salt Lake. Wagon trains, Mormons, the Overland Stage, the Pony Express, gold prospectors and silver miners, the Union Pacific, the first transcontinental telegraph line, the Lincoln Highway and Interstate 80 all followed the same route.
|Westbound Potash in Echo Canyon
|UP 7928 West, With Disconnected ABS in Background
You cannot discuss Echo Canyon without reference to the Latter Day Saints, who began migrating West in 1847, following the same route as the Pony Express across Aspen Mountain, down through Echo Canyon to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. The Mormon Trail was used for more than 20 years, until the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Among the emigrants were the Mormon handcart pioneers of 1856–60. Two of the handcart companies, led by James G. Willie and Edward Martin, met disaster on the trail when they departed late and were caught by heavy snowstorms in Wyoming.
In 1858, the U.S. Army was sent to Utah to quell the Mormon Rebellion and enforce laws prohibiting polygamy. A Mormon militia dammed Echo Creek with a rock wall and built fortifications, which as it turned out were never employed, but the stone relics can still be seen – if you know where to look.
|Westbound Merchandise Freight Passing Newly Operational CTC Signals -- September 2016
A little known fact is that much of the Union Pacific through eastern Utah was built with Mormon labor. In 1856, Congress appropriated funds for improvement of the Oxbow, Santa Fe and Mormon trails, and civil engineer Frederick Lander was appointed chief engineer and field superintendent for improvement of the Mormon Trail, which later served at the route of the Union Pacific.
|Pusher on Westbound Potash Train
|Eastbound Stacks Climbing Grade in Echo Canyon
In 1858, Lander wrote a report to Washington, stating:
"I was assured by ex-Governor [Brigham] Young, whom I visited while in Salt Lake City, that ... he would be very glad to have his people employed by me, not only because the work was one of public utility, but because it aided the people in getting a little money for the purchase of groceries and what they termed 'settlement supplies.' … The existence of this Mormon population, and the supplies they are enabled to furnish, is a most important matter in making estimates for any public work to be carried on in that section of the country. They are very excellent laborers, many of them Cornish miners who understand all sorts of ledge work, masonry, etc. They will prove of remarkable service should the proposed line of the Pacific railroad pass anywhere in the vicinity of their settlements.”
After the trail improvement work was completed and the Union Pacific had chosen the Mormon Trail as the route through eastern Utah, the railroad anxiously sought Mormon labor, horse teams, grading equipment, tents and other necessary equipment -- on a delayed payment basis. In other words, the Mormons did the work, and the UP, pleading poverty, agreed to pay at an unspecified date in the future. Really!
For reasons I do not understand, the Mormons agreed to this outlandish proposal and built most of the roadbed from the Wyoming border to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. The UP then defaulted, and the Mormons were forced to file claims in New York and Boston and were ultimately paid only partially in materials rather than cash.
Mormons also worked for the Central Pacific as it built east from Nevada. Each railroad was paid per mile, and for a time the CP and UP built past each other – because no agreement had been reached on where the two roads should meet.
|UP 7353 West Exiting Echo Canyon and Entering Henefer Valley
|Eastbound Intermodal Entering Echo Canyon
So in the final mad months of racing between Union Pacific and Central Pacific, Brigham Young and his associates held construction contracts with both companies. Mormons were grading two roads, closely paralleling each other, a distance of some two hundred miles across northern Utah, from Nevada to Wyoming, with non-Mormon crews to do the follow-up work of laying the ties and rails on each line. Neither company would agree to a meeting place, and each was anxious to gain as much mileage as possible.
When U.S. Grant was sworn in as President, he told the two railroads to select a location where their tracks would meet. If they failed, he said, he would choose one himself. At this time, the Union Pacific was in financial turmoil, one of the reasons why the Mormons were not paid. The Central Pacific had obtained payment from the U.S. Government, but the UP was still waiting. So the Central Pacific had the upper hand.
|The Same Cliffs that Richard James Burton Saw in 1860
Representatives of the two railroads met at the house of Massachusetts congressman Samuel Hooper. Negotiations – about which no one ever wrote – lasted through the night into the next day and produced the compromise “Treaty of Hooper’s House,” which selected the desolate Promontory Point, overlooking the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, as the junction of the two railroads.
|Westbound Trailers Approaching Echo Canyon
One June morning, I naively wandered into one, submerging myself above the ankles. Bear, who had refused to follow me, stood on dry ground and watched with the sort of look my wife gives me after I have spilled something on a dining room chair.
On another morning, Bear and I were waiting on a hillside slightly upgrade from the I-80 rest stop that provides some of the best photographic locations in Echo Canyon. You can park at the rest stop and climb a hill to a sitting area that overlooks the tracks – a nice place to take photographs if you don’t mind people walking up the path to the same hilltop and asking questions about your cameras and your dog.
|Location Where Intrepid Author Slogged Bravely Into the Water, While Dog Stands on Dry Ground and Smiles
|UP 8377 West Exiting Echo Canyon at Echo, Utah
Having tired of the questions, Bear and I had moved away from the tourists. It was a warm, sunny morning in late September. The small trees along Echo Creek were turning yellow and red. Bear and I were resting in the grass, waiting for a train.
Hearing a deep rumble to the west, I sprang to my feet and approached my tripod, expecting a train. Instead, to my immense surprise, a helicopter appeared above the hill upon which stood the rest stop. The bird was flying low, then swooping almost straight up, then plunging down again, then up again, trailing some sort of white mist. It suddenly dawned on me that the helicopter was spraying for bugs or weeds – something – and that Bear and I were directly in its path.
I packed my equipment, and Bear and I beat a hasty retreat back to the rest stop's parking lot. Sure enough, the helicopter soon appeared over the area where we had been resting, dropping its cargo in long, misty sheets of white. We had just missed being bombarded with something -- I don't know what. If I, however, grow a third arm or a second head, I will let you know.
If you have not investigated this portion of Wyoming and Utah, you should make the trip. The scenery is spectacular, as is the history of this passage into the Great Salt Lake Valley. When I wait beside the tracks here, I close my eyes and imagine all the travelers on foot and in wagons who made this journey in the 19th century. I wonder if I would have been hardy enough to do the same.
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