A railroad! A railroad!
For the past 100 years or so, folks in Emery County have dreamed of the economic windfall that would surely come their way if anyone would just build a railroad to their communities.In fact, many locals say the fact Emery County has no railroad today is a major contributor to the economically depressed conditions there.
Few realize, however, that if it hadn't been for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, towns like Orangeville and Castle Dale might have disappeared more than a century ago.
"The railroad saved them," said Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Blaine Miller. "Just when they (early settlers) were ready to quit, along comes the railroad with good paying jobs."
But there remains an irony to the story: The Mormon pioneers were hired to build the railroad grade, thereby earning hard cash that enabled them to survive in an agriculture-poor region.
But after the railroad grade was built, railroad officials changed their minds about the route to Emery County, choosing instead a different route that bypassed the Emery County communities altogether as it made a beeline for Price.
But Emery County held out hope. Someday, maybe . . .
As late as 1980, there were still environmental studies being conducted concerning the possibility of a railroad linking Emery County with Price, ostensibly to reduce the cost of transporting Emery County coal. A downturn in the coal market killed that proposal.
It's easy to see why people in Emery County find it hard to let go of their railroad dream. The unused railroad grade, begun in 1882, still cuts through the San Rafael Swell, a visible testament to the hundreds of thousands of dollars and man-hours spent to build a railroad that would never be.
There were no dreams of railroads when Brigham Young first called Mormon pioneers to settle the area in 1877. Nor were there when the first faithful arrived in 1878, plowing the land and grazing cattle along Huntington Creek.
The settlement of Orangeville was started in preparation for the main body of pioneers who arrived in 1879.
"But the settlement wasn't working," Miller said. "The folks who had settled the Manti side were already grazing cattle on the mountain, and had even tried grazing on the east side (where the new settlers were trying to get started). And they had found it not nearly as productive as the west side." In fact, the land was so poor that mountain man Kit Carson remarked, "not even a wolf could make a living."
The Emery County pioneers were ready to call it quits when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad came along with a proposal: Would the Mormon settlers build a railroad grade from Green River across the San Rafael Swell to Orangeville and then up to Price?
It seemed a remedy for all the pioneers' economic woes. The Deseret News in 1882 loudly proclaimed the virtues of the railroad, noting it would be built by white men (as opposed to Chinese migrant workers) and it would mean an economic boon to the settlers, as well as an eventual link between Denver and Salt Lake City.
Still, there were not enough Mormons to go around, so the Mormons were hired at the rate of $2 a day, while some Chinese workers were brought in and paid $1.10 a day. Rock shelters built by the Chinese can still be seen in the swell.
The Denver & Rio Grande plan was nothing short of grandiose. It called for a main line from Colorado through Utah near Thompson Springs and Green River. As it reached the San Rafael Swell, the line was to split, one line cutting through the swell and Salina Canyon, eventually linking Denver to Southern California. The other line was to veer north to Cleveland, Emery County, and then on to Price, linking Denver to the Price coal fields.
The project was begun in ernest with crews working in the San Rafael Swell and in Salina Canyon (the tunnels made by construction crews can still be seen alongside I-70). Crews continued working on the railroad grades for two years before they got word the project had been changed. Not only was the line to Southern California canceled, but the line to Emery County was rerouted directly to Price, bypassing Emery County altogether.
Because no one told the project engineer the plans had been changed, there was a time when construction on the new route to Price was under way at the same time work was being done of the never-to-be used grade to Orangeville.
"Nobody told the engineer he was supposed to move it," Miller said.
By the time construction crews got word to cancel the project, almost the entire railroad grade from Green River to Emery County had been completed, and much of the grade through Salina Canyon had been finished.
In the politics that resulted from the situation, Emery County was the proverbial bride left standing at the alter. They are still waiting for a railroad and all the promises of economic bliss.
Today, the still-visible railroad grade is popular among bicyclists and history buffs for the many rock buildings and inscriptions left behind by the workers.
Most of the grade today is owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and one site related to the grade is included in the National Register of Historic Sites.
Meanwhile, the towns in Emery County continue to survive, not because of a railroad, but because of their own coal mines. "People still farm here, but they do so out of tradition, not for economic reasons," Miller said.