Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Rio Grande Across Soldier Summit (and Beyond)

Rio Grande at Soldier Summit

Today (May 2020), Union Pacific’s line across the Wasatch Mountains in Utah is little more than a branch, hosting two Amtrak trains per day and an occasional freight or coal train.  Such was not always the case.  This was once a major road, and major fortunes were both made and lost because of it.

This article and attendant photographs cover the operations of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway across Soldier Summit from the early 1980's to the Union Pacific takeover in the mid-1990's.  In the 80's, the line was crawling with coal trains and other traffic -- arguably the zenith of the Rio Grande's operations in Utah.  In those days, before the Union Pacific began  swallowing other railroads like a dog swallowing worms, one could simply show up at the tracks in morning or afternoon and expect to see a coal train or two, a couple of manifests, perhaps an intermodal load and the California Zephyr -- a far cry from May 2020 when the mine at Scofield,  accessed on the mainline plus UP's Pleasant Valley Subdivision, sees 2-3 trains per week. 

If you stand today in Salt Lake City and look east, the Wasatch Mountains rise like an unimaginable tidal wave, a view significantly more spectacular, in your author's opinion, that the Front Range above Denver.  Crossing this barrier was no mean feat. 

The route across that ultimately became part of the Denver and Rio Grande Western was constructed as a narrow gauge line by the Utah & Pleasant Valley Railway in 1878 to access coal deposits near Scofield, proceeding south from Provo through Spanish Fork Canyon, then up a four percent grade to Soldier Summit, then down to Tucker, then up a side canyon and two switchbacks to cross another summit to reach the mines.  Construction standards were minimal, with 20 pounds-per-yard rail laid directly on untreated ties not supported by ballast.

In 1882, the Denver and Rio Grande purchased the U&PV, intending to build east across Utah to connect with the route to Grand Junction, Colorado, then across Tennessee Pass, through the Royal Gorge to Pueblo on the edge of the High Plains.  A project of that magnitude in the late nineteenth century was about the equivalent of an early twenty-first century project to construct a bridge from New York to Chicago.

A Rio Grande local at Soldier Summit.

Amtrak at Soldier Summit

The switchback route to the coal mines was misaligned for a road to Colorado, so the Denver and Rio Grande constructed a new narrow-gauge line southwest from Colton down the Price River Canyon to the base of the mountains at Helper.  

A Union Pacific coal train at Solider Summit, headed to the mine near Scofield.  The mine is accessed on the Pleasant Valley branch, the original line constructed by the Utah and Pleasant Valley Railway.  When this image was taken (1989), I believe UP trains ran on trackage rights.

An eastbound manifest has crossed the Wasatch, headed toward the open desert and Colorado.

The portion of the company operating in Utah was reorganized in 1889 as the Rio Grande Western Railway to allow enough relief from creditors to finance the conversion of its Wasatch Mountain line from narrow to standard gauge.  In other words, one set of creditors was forced to take pennies on the dollar in a bankruptcy proceeding, allowing the company to find new creditors to supply funds for more construction, new creditors who would eventually receive the same treatment as the old ones.  Thus is the majesty of the law.  The trick is to never be caught when the creditors get squeezed.  This is how finance works generally.  Amazingly, there always seem to be creditors willing to take a chance (often significant) of getting squeezed.  Often, the lust for wealth among men is stronger than the lust for sex, though the two are often intertwined.

In 1890, the reorganized Rio Grande Western converted the line to standard gauge.  

Rio Grande manifest climbing the grade to Soldier Summit.

Another manifest.


Until 1901, the Denver and Rio Grande and the Rio Grande Western operated as separate railroads, constructing branch lines through Colorado and Utah.  That year they merged, creating the Denver and Rio Grande Western.

In 1913 the Rio Grande replaced the four percent grade to Soldier Summit with the current alignment, including the loops at Gilluly.  Today, U.S. Highway 6 follows the original grade to the top.

An eastbound manifest in the loops at Gilluly.

Westbound at Gilluly.

In 1912, a group of coal shippers decided to build their own line across the Wasatch to bypass the rates charged by the Rio Grande.  About ten miles of dirt work were completed before the D&RGW reached a compromise with the shippers, providing that the Utah Railway would construct and own one main from Provo to Thistle, and the Rio Grande would double-track the segment from Thistle to Utah Railway Junction.  This arrangement continues into the twenty-first century, with the Utah Railway and Union Pacific sharing the track.

Today (May 2020) the Utah Railway is owned by Genesee & Wyoming and operates between Grand Junction, Colorado and Provo, Utah.  It stopped hauling coal in 2017.

An empty and short Utah Railway coal train.

A meet of Utah Railway trains.

Loaded coal train from image above is on the move again.

Utah Railway empties pulled by recently acquired UP power.

Loaded coal on Utah Railway.

The mainline to Soldier Summit was again realigned in 1983 after a huge landslide at Thistle – a classic example of how mountains erode back toward ground level even as they are rising (as the Wasatch are, one earthquake at a time).  The creation and destruction of mountains are like the creation and destruction of sand ripples along a beach, except over a fantastically longer time (hundreds of millions of years).  The earth that broke from the mountain at Thistle blocked the mainline, creating an “instant” lake, forcing the Rio Grande to construct six new miles of track and two 3,000 feet tunnels. 

Amtrak's California Zephyr is exiting one of the new Thistle tunnels.

California Zephyr on relocated mainline.  Old mainline is visible in the upper left.

Mixed freight on relocated mainline.

The railroad hired Morrison-Knudsen of Boise, Idaho, an almost mythic name in American engineering, to construct the tunnels.  Morrison-Knudsen had reconstructed a portion of Southern Pacific’s Tehachapi Pass line after the devastating earthquake of 1952.  The company first drilled a drainage portal 90 feet above the valley floor to prevent water in the new lake from rising higher.  Then, starting at milepost 677.5, the tracks were diverted up the south side of Billies Mountain -- east of the slide – to navigate two 3000 feet curved tunnels directly behind the slide. Each tunnel would be 5210 feet above sea level, 30 feet higher than the diversion tunnel. The line would then drop down a two percent grade on the north side of the mountain and rejoin the original route at milepost 684.2.

Morrison-Knudsen completed the drainage tunnel in eight days, including 175 feet of metal pipe to drop the water down the mountainside to the original stream bed.  Two days after the tunnel was completed, water reached the diversion and began flowing.

Overhead view of Thistle Realignment.

Mixed freight on new alignment.

On April 27, 1983, work then commenced on the twin railroad tunnels, which because of increased size, took much longer to complete – the first in a little over two months.  Trackwork was finished in a day, and the first train through (an eastbound) hit the new tunnel on Independence Day, July 4, 1983.  The second tunnel was completed in late August.

Shortly thereafter, the newly created lake was drained (due to stability concerns).  Morrison-Knudsen drilled a pipe horizontally from the base of the dam to a point beneath water.  Then a second pipe was constructed from below the water down to intersect the first.  Water began flowing through this drain and continues to this day, though the mudslide dam remains.

Eastbound manifest on new alignment.  Original mainline is visible in lower right.

Same train on realignment crossing U.S. 89.

Eastbound at Gilluly.

Fighting the sunrise.

Manifest along the Price River.

And the Rio Grande mainline also continues, though now owned and operated by Union Pacific, a dim echo of a once majestic chord, with just a handful of trains every day, barely enough to make the route viable.  The transition from independent railroad to branch line was facilitated, in no small measure, by a gentleman named Philip Anschutz.    

Born in Russel, Kansas, Anschutz started his career in the family’s independent oil business.  He later formed his own privately-held company, which in 1979 discovered a major oilfield near Evanston, Wyoming. A few years later, he sold half the field to Mobil for $500 million.  In 1984, his company bought the Rio Grande for $90 million and four years later paid $1.8 billion for the Southern Pacific.  The Rio Grande then operated under the SP name until 1995, when Anschutz sold both railroads to the Union Pacific in a deal that allowed his company to keep right-of-way along the tracks to lay fiber-optic cable.  This transaction caused some to speculate that UP’s new slogan would become "We Will Assimilate You" painted on one side of the Armour Yellow locomotives, with "Resistance is Futile" on the other.

Beginning of the end.  Decrepit SP tunnel motors struggling upgrade to Soldier Summit.

Harbinger of things to come.  Cotton Belt power leading trailers.

More Cotton Belt.

Then Anschutz purchased Qwest Corporation, the successor of U.S. West Company, one of the original Baby Bells.  His fiber optic cable network proved of immense value, and in 2010 he sold Qwest to CenturyLink for $4 billion.  He has gone on to major real estate holdings in southern California and today is referred to by some as “the man who owns L.A.”  One of only two people who have made the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans every year since the first version was published in 1982, his estimated net worth as of May 2020 is $11.7 billion.

Climbing to Soldier Summit in the loops at Gilluly.  The cut of the mainline coming out of the upper loop is visible above the lead unit.

More Cotton Belt.

Amtrak climbing the grade.

Thus, the purchase of the Rio Grande and later sale to the Union Pacific were merely rungs in a ladder climbing to vast personal fortune.  From the railroad’s perspective, that the rungs were Stations of the Cross seems almost irrelevant.  Yet the Rio Grande’s fate is more than simply symbolic of American business practice.  It parallels the demise of its erstwhile savior, Morrison-Knudsen.  Following is the lead paragraph from a 1995 Time article:

In its glory days, the Morrison-Knudsen company helped create the very fabric of America by building such megastructures as the Hoover Dam, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Trans-Alaska pipeline. By last week, however, the 83-year-old construction firm, based in Boise, Idaho, was struggling to survive a devastating corporate crackup. Just six weeks after directors ousted the charismatic William Agee as chairman and chief executive officer, the company was frantically seeking $125 million in new bank loans needed by the end of this week to avert a bankruptcy filing. And with losses mounting, shareholders suing and directors resigning, the stock of Morrison-Knudsen, which traded for about $30-a-share a year ago, closed at $5.75 on Friday.

Eastbound manifest climbing to Soldier Summit.

Westbound manifest climbing to Soldier Summit.

Eastbound has crossed Soldier Summit and is rolling downgrade to Helper.

Led by Agee, who became CEO in 1988, Morrison–Knudsen diversified outside its core construction business and suffered serious financial setbacks.  The company lost $310 million in 1994.  Agee was forced out in 1995, the same year Morrison-Knudsen filed for bankruptcy.  In 1996, the Washington Group purchased the carcass but retained the Morrison-Knudsen name.  In 2000, the company became the Washington Group International, which filed for bankruptcy a year later.  Washington Group was acquired by URS Corporation in 2007, which itself was subsequently acquired by AECOM in 2014.  The last employees in Boise were laid off in 2015. 

An eastbound manifest is in full dynamics as it rolls beside the Price River.

Westbound manifest.

Six units in Run 8.

Agee was 38 in 1976 when the Bendix Corporation, an auto parts maker, made him one of the youngest chief executives of a major American company.  Representing a new, less bureaucratic management style, he banished Bendix’s boardroom table and executive parking spaces, and often dressed in what is now called business casual – no coat or tie.  In 1976, this was unheard of.  In contrast, AT&T corporate lawyers were still wearing suits as the 20th century became the 21st.

In the spring of 1979, Agee hired as his Executive Assistant a recent female graduate of Harvard Business School, Mary Cunningham, who rose through company ranks like a pole vaulter, becoming Vice President for Strategic Planning in less than 15 months.  Soon thereafter, Mary Cunningham was forced to leave the company under allegations that she and Agee were having an affair.  Both denied this, but they subsequently divorced their spouses and were married in 1982. 

Helper, Utah.

Downgrade to Helper.

Downgrade in the loops at Gilluly.

Along the Price River.

Under Agee’s leadership, Bendix purchased five percent of RCA’s stock and attempted a takeover.  RCA rebuffed the move, stating in a press release:  “Mr. Agee has not demonstrated the ability to manage his own affairs, let alone someone else’s.”

Unbowed, Agee next attempted a takeover of Martin Marietta – the company that built, among many things, rockets for NASA.  In what the New York Times described as “one of the most bizarre takeover battles in American corporate history,” Martin Marietta responded by trying to take over Bendix.  The fight ended when Allied Corporation bought Bendix, forcing out Agee.

Amtrak along Price River.

Westbound Cotton Belt climbing Soldier Summit.

Same train.

Then it was on to Morrison-Knudsen and more disaster.  He died in December 2018, age 79, from complications of Alzheimer’s and an immune system disease, and left behind probate litigation between Mary Cunningham, who remained his wife to the end, (though he filed for divorce a month before he died) and the children of his previous marriage.  It appears that the matter was ultimately settled out of court.  At least, your humble author can find no record of a judgment.

And now the former Rio Grande mainline across Soldier Summit stares up into the approaching landslide that has already buried Bendix, Morrison-Knudsen and William Agee.  Your author was along the tracks for three days in 2017 in far eastern Utah and far western Colorado.  Other than the two Amtrak trains per day, he saw one manifest and one local – eight trains in three days, six of which were passenger.  Almost every passing siding was filled with empty black coal cars -- string after string after string, like worms dying in the desert sand.  The following images were taken when one of the few trains came by.  Even the author’s dog was bored.  The future, sad to say, does not look promising. 

Westbound manifest in the eastern Utah desert.

DPU on same train.

Eastbound Amtrak in eastern Utah desert.


Westbound in the valley of the Colorado River, near the Colorado/Utah border.

Same train.

Eastbound Moab potash local in same location.

Author's Jeep waiting for a train.

To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.

To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.

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