SALT LAKE CITY — A large lightning-caused wildfire that burned west of the Great Salt Lake destroyed significant pieces of history along the historic transcontinental railroad line, including artifacts dating back nearly 150 years ago, state archeologists reported Friday.
Multiple wildfires were reported following a thunderstorm that passed through western Box Elder County on Tuesday. The largest was the Matlin Fire, which ended up scorching about 8,000 acres around the ghost town of Matlin, which was originally built for railroad workers who worked to complete the historic line.
When it grew from 1,200 to about 8,000 acres on Thursday, it completely destroyed two historic trestles that were built in the 1870s for the rebuild of the historic railroad alignment. A wooden box culvert believed to have been built between 1880 and 1900 was also damaged by the fire, according to Chris Merritt, historic preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History.
"It just looked like this giant shadow across the land, like driving into Mordor," Merritt said, describing the land burned by the wildfire.
"Probably one of the more shocking things to me is when the railroad abandoned (the line) in the 1940s, they pulled a lot of the railroad ties off the grade and onto the edge so it could be used as a county road. For 60-70 years now, you had all these ties on the side; and this burned so hot and so fast that it just ghosted the ties," he added. "You can see in the ground where a tie used to be with vegetation, that it’s now just completely ash so now you have all these ghost impressions of railroad ties."
While the fire didn’t damage what’s left of the Matlin wye — a triangular alignment created for trains to go onto another line — it did burn over the land where a section station, bunkhouses and possibly the original railroad worker dugouts made in 1869 leading up to the completion of the monumental transcontinental railroad.
A spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management said the agency has taken steps in the past to protect pieces of the rail line’s history and called any damage from the Matlin Fire "a great loss."
The fire has since been contained, which allowed officials to record the damage. Merritt informed state historians of the finding in an email Friday after he, Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Mike Sheehan and private archaeologist Ken Cannon toured the sites where the fire burned along the historic railroad grade.
It just looked like this giant shadow across the land, like driving into Mordor. ... This burned so hot and so fast that it just ghosted the (remaining railroad) ties.
–Chris Merritt, historic preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History
When the team arrived to inspect the historical damage, Weber County fire crews, which were dispatched to help, were hosing down the damaged wooden box culvert Friday in an effort to ensure it didn’t reignite.
"All their actions were to stop the fire but also to protect history. They were very cognizant," Merritt said. "The incident commander out there said he just loves history and it was kind of personal to him to make sure he can save as much as possible."
Utah celebrated the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad last year with a large ceremony at Promontory Summit, which is located northeast of the Matlin area. As a part of the celebrations, state historians did guided tours of the remaining railroad grade, which Matlin was a part of.
There are still some pieces dating back to 1869 and the 1870s that weren’t affected along the line. For example, a trestle near Watercress in that area was not affected by the fires. With it only being the start of what may be a long fire season, historians and land management officials are now looking for ways to protect the remaining historic structures from facing a similar fate. That includes the possibility of using herbicide treatments around those structures to create a defensible space.
State historians are also looking to find ways to better document the old Matlin townsite before more parts of its history are destroyed.