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Lee Benson
A new coat of red paint is applied to the original railroad station ticket office in historic Corinne, Utah.

CORINNE, Box Elder County — You gotta hand it to the town of Corinne.

Just because that one thing didn’t work out doesn’t mean they’re sulking about it and not joining the rest of the state in the Golden Spike 150 celebrations going on this weekend.

But then they have had almost 150 years to get over it.

Why Corrine was created — and what made it different from other Utah towns

The idea looked great on paper and in theory. The railroad was coming to Utah. In early 1869 it became apparent that the great race between the westbound Union Pacific Railroad and the eastbound Central Pacific Railroad was going to wind up at a desolate place called Promontory, some 90 miles northeast of the territorial capital in Salt Lake City.

A collection of merchants and developers from the East put their heads together and decided it would make sense to establish a crossroads city just down the tracks from Promontory and right next to the route used by freight wagons hauling supplies to miners in Montana and settlers in Idaho.

Lee Benson
The former railroad mecca of Corinne, Utah, is now mostly a farming town.

The developers also determined their new city would provide steamboat service on the Great Salt Lake via the Bear River, allowing railroad supplies to be shipped to and from Salt Lake City, which had been bypassed entirely by the transcontinental railroad route.

The brainstorm’s biggest proponent was a Civil War union general named J.A. Williamson, who, as its first mayor, named the new city Corinne, after his 14-year-old daughter.

Corinne was founded on March 25, 1869, barely six weeks before the driving of the golden spike at Promontory.

Within no time, Corinne had 1,000 residents, and according to the town’s newspaper, The Reporter, and in sharp contrast to the rest of Utah, not one of them a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. An opera house was built, a gold smelter, Utah’s first Masonic lodge, Utah’s first Methodist church, alongside banks, warehouses, whorehouses, 15 saloons and 16 liquor stores.

The Corinne town charter banned polygamy, which was very much in practice everywhere else in Utah, and allowed gambling. It also legalized a kind of no-fault divorce. For $2.50 a marriage could be dissolved in Corinne and neither party had to show up.

Corinne became known variously as “The Gentile Capital of Utah,” “Hell on Wheels” and “Utah’s Dodge City,” in comparison to the frontier boomtown that sprang up overnight where the cattle drives met the railroad in Kansas.

A drive was mounted to name Williamson, a bona fide Civil War hero who won the Medal of Honor for his valor at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, territorial governor of Utah and for Corinne to replace Salt Lake City as the territorial capital.

For awhile, it looked like it might have a chance.

But Corinne’s heyday was short-lived, lasting barely a decade. Its demise came at the hands of the same thing that brought its rise: the railroad.

By 1877, Brigham Young had trumped the gentiles by building a railroad line that connected Salt Lake City and Ogden with Franklin, Idaho, bypassing Corinne entirely. Union Pacific extended the tracks beyond Franklin, connecting the railroad with the Montana Trail at a point much farther north.

The 257 businesses that at one time or another had operated in Corinne shut their doors. The trains still rambled through, on their way to San Francisco, but they no longer stopped. The Gentile Capital was doomed. Mormon farmers moved in to grow sugar beets. By the turn of the 20th century the population had fallen to 50 people.

What Corinne is like today

Today Corinne is a widening in the road on state Route 13, 29 miles as the asphalt flies from Promontory. There are four operating businesses, the Golden Spike cafe (home of the Golden Spike burger), Mim’s Bar & Grill, Rasmussen Custom Cabinetry and the Short Stop convenience store and gas station.

Lee Benson
Utah's first Methodist church in Corinne. It's now a museum.

The Masonic lodge is still in operation, the Methodist church is still standing (although now it’s a museum), but there’s no sign of the steamboat.

A plaque next to the railroad tracks that explains the town’s history is situated where the train station used to be. Across a grassy field is the station’s original ticket office, painted bright red.

Among the 700 or so people who make up the population of Corinne in 2019 are members of the Corinne Historical Society. For the past 10 years they have presented a musical comedy called “Corinne, the Gentile City.”

With the red ticket office as backdrop, the pageant is usually held in June, but this year the performances are scheduled for the evenings of May 9, 10, 11 to coincide with the 150-year party at Promontory.

“They asked us to be a part of what was going on and we were happy to change and do that,” said Marjorie Mills, the woman who does publicity for the Corinne Historical Society.

“The events out there (at Promontory) will be over by 5. People will be looking for somewhere to go and something to do.”

The pageant, Marjorie explained, “has fun with history.”

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It tells the story of a place “like no other town ever was or will be.” For more information on the pageant, see historiccorinne.org.

Meanwhile at the Short Stop, owner Jeff Manning, conjuring up the same kind of dreams as his predecessor merchants 150 years ago, said he is hopeful the people traveling to and from Promontory this week will “stop and buy a corn dog.”

“They say Brigham Young put a curse on the town,” mused Manning. “But I don’t believe that. The town and the people here aren’t cursed … although that capital city thing never did materialize.”