“ You Can’t Get Anywhere Without Coming to Ogden:
Railroading in the American West”
a commemorative panel discussion presented at the
2004 Utah Construction/ Utah International Symposium
Dr. Richard Sadler
Thursday, October 7, 2004
I grew up on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley and often was involved with, including a couple of summers, working on the railroad that went from Bingham to Magna that carried copper ore from the 1920s, and continues today to carry a concentrated copper that is milled at Copperton to the smelter and refinery on the north end of the Oquirrh mountains.
In 1960 I traveled on a one way ticket from Salt Lake on the Western Pacific Railroad on the Feather River route. And as we talked about the Western Pacific I was telling my friend John Sillito I traveled that route, I can tell you what it was like.
For many of us railroads are nostalgic. As I thought about us coming together today I thought some of you may have heard Peter, Paul, and Mary saying, “ If you miss the train I am on, you will know that I am gone. You can hear the whistle blow…” How far? “… a hundred miles.” Some of you will have heard Arlo Guthrie singing, “ Riding on the city of New Orleans” traveling from Chicago through Tennessee to New Orleans. Some of you may have seen Gene Wilder in the film Silver Streak.
We have railroads in both history and folklore. One hundred and fifty years ago people were talking all about John Henry, that steel driving man, who put himself up against a machine to see who could lay track the quickest. How about Casey Jones the engineer. And how about songs like, “ I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live- long day. I’ve been working on the railroad to pass the time of day.” Of course the live- long day may have meant a twelve hour working 3
day. “ Don’t you hear the whistle blowing; rise up so early in the morn. Don’t you hear the captain shouting, Dina blow your horn.”
In 1765, the same year that the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which would lead, in part, to independence in America, James Watt, a Scotsman, invented an efficient steam engine. Seventeen years later in 1782 he patented it a steam engine that had pistons that would both push and pull and allow energy to be transmitted both ways when it pushed and pulled.
The first important railroad in the United States was the Baltimore and Ohio which was begun in 1827 and then, in 1829, Peter Cooper, a New York manufacturer, built a steam engine he called the Tom Thumb. The Tom Thumb was an embarrassment to him because it lost a race against a horse because a belt slipped! It was still not powered in a way that locomotives would soon be powered. In 1833 when the Baltimore and Ohio had 133 miles of track, that was the longest stretch of track in the world.
One American who dreamed of a transcontinental railroad and pushed for it in the decade of the 1840s was a man by the name of Asa Whitney. And, of course, two decades later Ogden would become the junction center for the first transcontinental railroad in the world. Railroads in the 19th and early 20th centuries were, to those folks, what today automobiles, rockets, and airplanes are all in one for us. So when we consider how important railroads were for those people, there is some nostalgia attached to it. For example, Carl Sandburg in his poem about Chicago said, “ Hot butcher for the world, toolmaker, stacker of 4
wheat, player with railroads, and the nations freight handler, stormy, husky, brawling, a city of big shoulders.”
Not everyone loved railroads. Henry David Thoreau writing at Walden in 1846 said, “ We do not ride upon the railroad, it rides upon us.” So there were alternative points of view. I also liked him writing in Walden, “ Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” Another author, Philip Guedalla said, “ The true history of the United States is the history of transportation. In which the names or railroad presidents are more significant than those of Presidents of the United States.” Bret Hart writing about the May 10, 1869 joining of the rail said, “ What was it that the engines said there, and for us we would say at Promontory, touching head to head, facing on a single track, with half a world behind each back?” Here we are in the area of the first transcontinental railroad of the world. Edna St. Vincent Malay and her poem entitled “ Travel” said, “ My heart is warm with the friends I make and better friends I’ll not be knowing. Yet, there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it’s going.” And finally Langston Hughes, black poet with great feeling, wrote in his poem “ Homesick Blues,” “ De railroad bridge’s a sad song in the air. Ever time the trains pass I wants to go somewhere.” So that whistle that still blows in Ogden, and Sacramento, and Omaha, and that even sometimes wakes us up at night, my friend Leisel Large up in Oregon, I am sure it blows a whistle up there too.
We are going to be introduced today by my colleagues. I am delighted to introduce Dr. Kathryn MacKay, a member of our history faculty here at Weber, who is going to bring us to Ogden from the East and the Union Pacific Railroad. 5
She will be followed by Dr. Stan Layton, also a member of our history faculty but formerly the editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly for three decades. Stan does not look that old but he started young. He is going to bring us to Ogden from the West and talk about the Central and Southern and Western Pacific. And then our colleague Dr. Richard Roberts, emeritus professor of history, is going to talk about the Utah Central railroad and Ogden as a railroad center so we’ll turn the time to these folks. Then we’ll ask you for some questions and end up the discussion in that fashion. Does that sound alright? Thank you, Dr. MacKay.
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