Historians revise book on transcontinental railroad in Utah for 1st time in 27 years. Here's what they added

Historians revise book on transcontinental railroad in Utah for 1st time in 27 years. Here's what they added

(Photo courtesy Union Pacific Railroad Museum)

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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — Western Box Elder County may seem like a vacant, open space to some, but it remains a treasure trove for historians and archeologists seeking all the information they can get about one of the most significant moments in U.S. history.

The bits and pieces of materials left behind by the transcontinental railroad workers in the late 1860s and the first generation of railroad communities that were established shortly after the railroad was completed, which happened 152 years ago Monday, tell more about the story of the railroad than most documentation of the time.

"There's a very rich and long history out in western Box Elder County that really did not only shape the West and Utah's history, but fundamentally changed the future of Box Elder County and Weber County," said Chris Merritt, the preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History.

Travel through the region by Merritt and other historians, as well as other research efforts, have led to new documentation of its history.

To mark another anniversary of the completion of the railroad in 1869, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Monday published "Rails East to Ogden: Utah's Transcontinental Railroad Story." The 321-page book, authored by Merritt and historian Michael Polk, with contributions by three other historians, aims to fill in knowledge gaps with new information about the transcontinental railroad leading up to and then after May 10, 1869. The information was put together largely from what was left behind in western Box Elder County.

It's an update to "Rails East to Promontory," which was a documentation of the transcontinental railroad in Utah through archeological studies on BLM-managed land first published 40 years ago and last updated in 1994. The project received enough funding from the BLM, Spike 150 Foundation, Aspen Ridge Consultants and Cannon Heritage Consultants for some printed copies but will be released soon for free online as an e-book document on the BLM's website.

"Since '94, we've learned so much more about the archaeology on the transcontinental railroad but also more in-depth history we've been able to piece together," Merritt explained about the need for an update to the book. "This new volume is really going much more in-depth than that (original) volume ever attempted to be. … We feel the original volume was a great appetizer, but this new volume is the full-course meal."

Noticeable updates include more information about Chinese workers who helped complete the line. In fact, the book was dedicated to Michael Kwan, a Utah judge who also championed the creation of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, and who died last year.

The role of the Chinese workers was mostly relegated as a backstory up until the 1990s, but that's changed over the past 25 years, Merritt said. Through various archeological and more detailed research, historians have been able to piece together more about the role Chinese workers had in the important project.

Even after all of the investigations, thousands of workers who helped complete the project remain nameless because they were never officially documented on workbooks. Many Chinese workers also remained in Utah after 1869 and worked to maintain the railroad line.


"It's a major fixture because you couldn't have had the Central Pacific built in time or the quality without the 13,000 Chinese workers. And part of our point was to move from May 10 forward, is that this was an operating railroad line through northern Box Elder County for another 70 years after it was finished, and the Chinese workers contributed about 30 more years as the main workforce for the section crews and laborers," Merritt said. "So we wanted to make sure that we gave the Chinese workers much more place in the story, as they deserved."

In addition to acknowledging the role Chinese workers had, the pieces and fragments of buildings and items found on the land more than a century after most of the communities disappeared revealed more about life at the time.

For instance, many of the artifacts found where buildings once stood in the railroad communities indicated they were likely racially segregated. Merritt said that's because many Chinese and European American culture clusters don't include mixtures of the two archeological histories.

"We can see the artifacts on the ground telling us the 19th-century story about ethnicity and segregation and just space," he said.

In exploring more about the transcontinental railroad post-wedding of the rails, the new volume also explores Ogden's role as a railroad hub on the line, which is the reason behind the book's new title.

That's because Ogden became the main Utah hub for both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines within a year of the line merger, while Promontory actually faded out of relevance pretty quickly — only to reemerge as a historic spot where the transcontinental railroad was completed.

The reason for this change was simple: Ogden was more established in 1870 than other options in the region.

"Ogden was chosen because of the amount of people living there, the access to labor, the facilities, but also it was truly — and it still calls itself today — the crossroads of the West with major shipping lines, freight lines, big population center, manufacturing (and) farms," Merritt said. "It was going to be much more profitable for the railroad operations there."

The new version also delves into the "fascinating" economic history that exists between Promontory and Ogden, which Merritt said led to the rise of the region's sugar beet industry.

Ogden wasn't affected by the Lucin Cutoff, which was completed in 1904 and made many of the railroad communities in western Box Elder County irrelevant to the railroad companies. It's partially why there's little left of those communities today.

In addition to providing new history about the transcontinental railroad in Utah, the third version attempts to close the gap between archeologists and those fascinated about history.

For instance, there's a chapter about how research is conducted and how historians came to some of the conclusions in the book. The section explains that the land is very much still active for historians trying to piece together all they can about a project that meant so much to Utah and the U.S. but wasn't documented as well as some may have thought.

The book's authors, contributors and other backers hope this section of the book will help visitors realize the land's value and discourage looting and other forms of land vandalism, which they say only helps to further erase the exact history of the transcontinental railroad in the state.

To that end, Merritt said just last month he found a previously unknown railroad construction archeological site that was never marked on historical records; the find came after the book's completion. That's why Merritt said he doesn't expect this newest history to be the final telling of the transcontinental railroad in Utah.

"We hope that maybe in a couple of years when we've completed more of our excavations and done more in-depth research that we can expand certain segments," he said. "That's this landscape; when you're talking about 87 miles, you have a lot on public land yet to discover."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.


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