RAILS OVER BAXTER PASS
The railroad that did the impossible
The following is a brief account of a narrow gauge railroad, her rare cargo, the courageous people who ran her and their persistent struggle against the elements of Mother Nature and a mountain.
In the northeastern portion of Utah and extending briefly into Colorado lies a great basin, walled in on the north by the high Uinta Mountains and on the south by the vast Bookcliff range. This large area is called the Uintah Basin, very rich and abundant in natural resources. One of which is found only within its confines, the rare mineral Gilsonite.
Gilsonite is a black, glossy, and quite brittle material. It is almost one hundred percent pure hydrocarbon and is found in vertical veins, varying from less than one inch to upwards of twenty foot in width. The depth varies considerably, some exceeding one thousand feet. These veins run for miles in an east-west direction through Duchesne and Uintah counties, usually ending near the Utah-Colorado line.
Near the end of the nineteenth century, this newly found product, named after Samuel Gilson; one of its early promoters, was fast finding a notch among the industries of our country. Its many uses were multiplying and the demand becoming greater each year. Expansion was a must. With this in mind, the Gilsonite company was faced with its number one problem, that of transportation from the remote Uintah Basin to the railroad. During these early years most of the mining had taken place near present-day Gusher Utah, then known as "The Strip". The ore was hauled by freight wagons through the rough Nine Mile Canyon to the railroad at Price Utah, nearly one hundred miles away. Other problems had occurred too, which were to plague and worry the Gilsonite mining industry down through the years, cave-ins and explosions. The St. Louis Mine near Gusher had caught fire and exploded twice by the year 1902. Also its walls in places were in danger of caving, due to the poor texture of the rock formation. Men had lost their lives because of the hazards involved.
With transportation being such a problem, the Gilsonite company contacted the Denver and Rio Grand railroad people to see if they would be interested in building a line into the basin, but they declined as did other rail carriers at that time. So by 1903 the company decided to build its own railroad. They chose Mack, Colorado as this was the nearest point from a standard rail line to any of their major holdings. The line would have to be narrow gauge due to the steep and rough terrain involved. It would run from the new town of Mack, named after the president of Mack Motor Company who was one of the largest stock holders of the Gilsonite Company, to their large Black Dragon vein some 55 miles to the northwest, just over the Bookcliff Mountains. This ore body located as it was in a very remote area of Uintah County would mean many years of non interrupted mining.
There was though only one "hitch," and that was the mountain itself. The only feasible place to cross this obstruction was at 8,500 foot Baxter Pass, This pass was named after Frank and Charles Baxter who were promoters of the Gilsonite business.
There was no other alternative place to cross this barrier in order to reach their holdings at Dragon. This would mean grades of 7.5 percent and even 65 degree curves in places, a situation practically unheard of in the history of railroading. There was mile after mile of these sharp curves and steep grades. There weren't many level stretches on the entire track. Nonetheless, it was surveyed and construction soon started.
Taking into consideration the rugged terrain and the means of building such a project in those early years, the job was finished in almost record time. By the fall of 1904 the rails had reached their destination to the Black Dragon mine where work had been going on and ore stockpiled, and the shipping of the rare product began. What a feeling it must have been to those men as they made their first trip over this new and historic line. Geared type Shay locomotives were used for the steep grades and sharp curves over Baxter Pass as the Rod type engines could not function under such circumstances. The Rod type were used on either side of the pass where the curves weren't so sharp and the grades not near so steep. The line was named Uintah Railway, after the Uintah Basin and county
The towns of Atchee, Dragon, Mack, and the coal mining camp Carbonera were built to sustain the railroad and its workers. Mack was the jumping off point from the Denver and Rio Grand standard gauge line a few miles west of Grand Junction Colorado. Atchee, named after a Ute Indian chief was built at the foot of Baxter Pass on its south side. It was here that the excellent mechanics and repair shops maintained the rolling stock throughout the lifetime of the railroad, and always had standby equipment ready to help the trains over the big hill. They constructed much of the rolling stock, even one of the Shay type locomotives was assembled here. Hardly a task arose that they couldn't handle. Much of the credit belongs to master mechanic Scott Shafer who always seemed to have that special touch needed for this line of work.
Carbonera was a coal mining camp located between Atchee and Mack. From its mine the fuel for the trains was obtained and they required lots of it. Dragon was the end of the line for a number of years From here the stage and freight lines made their way into the basin towns of Vernal, Fort Duchesne and Roosevelt. Dragon was located one mile east from the Black Dragon mine and camp, at the confluence of Dragon canyon and Evacuation wash and creek. One of the finest hotels in all of eastern Utah was erected, although a much smaller hotel had been built earlier along the northern approach to Dragon. Freight and mine offices were built as was a depot, stores, barber shop, warehouses, saloons, and schools. In time even a library was put into service. It wasn't long until business was booming. Stage coaches operated on regularly scheduled runs and freight outfits were leaving almost daily. Before long the mail started coming into the Basin over this route and a telephone system installed. As far as the Uintah Basin and the Gilsonite industry were concerned, history was being made. For nearly 35 years this activity carried on before man, in his steadily progressing way, spelled the death knell of the little railroad through the use of more modem means of travel, something Mother Nature and Baxter Pass together had been unable to do.
After the railroad was finished and in operation, many other things entered into the picture. Life on the railroad was always exciting and the people involved never lacked for work or things to do. Mother Nature with her storms, and floods, of which there were many as well as Baxter Pass with its steep grades and sharp curves and slides was a constant threat to the line. Accidents happened at times, even at the cost of lives, but with the determined courage of the people who operated it, the line proved to be a success.
This part of the country is well known for sudden storms and raging floods down the canyons. Much of the land is imbedded with oil shale a rock like substance of which water will run off like it was a ducks back. There are many steep canyons throughout the area and numerous washes. Evacuation Wash, which the line followed and crossed several times drains the entire area on the north slope of the Pass. Many times bridges were washed out or weakened as a result of flooding. Salt Wash on the south side of the Pass was almost an equal threat as well. Baxter Pass can be credited for hard winters, driving wind, deep snow and slide danger.
Probably the biggest problem of them all, was the huge earth slide on the south slope of the Pass in 1929. For nearly a half mile the mountain was slowly moving, requiring the rails to be relined from time to time. Finally, it gave away completely and hundreds of tons of earth covered the tracks and the railroad was at a standstill. Large steam shovels were brought in to combat it and work went around the clock at this gigantic task. What was the longest shut down of the railroad during its operation was this giant landslide of 1929.
During the winter the wind storms would cover the road full of snow over the Pass with huge drifts. Equipment as we now have was not available in those days to move the snow and due to the very sharp curves on Baxter Pass rotary snow plows could not be used on the Uintah. As many as three engines at times would be coupled together, plowing out the drifts and trying to get the cars through using the old standard type wedge snow plow. In some cases the drifts were higher than the cars. The story is told of an engine being left for the night after it had stalled, and was completely buried by snow the next morning, yes lost in a snowdrift on Baxter Pass. Mr. W. A. Banks of Vernal who spent many years working for the Uintah Railway told of times when the deep snow and large drifts could not be pushed aside especially where cuts were involved. In these cases the snow had to be pushed directly ahead, sometimes being more then the engines could do, even hooked together as many as three units. When this happened, the men from Atchee, Carbonera and Dragon would be called on to help shovel the snow out by hand. Everyone pitched in to get the train through, as they were all very much dependent on this little railroad as well as each other.
As mentioned earlier accidents happened, some more serious then others all of which is very sad indeed, but considering the circumstances involved it's a wonder there wasn't more. Here were grades of up to 7.5 percent of which there was five continuous miles on the south side of the Pass, and on the north there was a like distance of five miles of 5 percent grade, plus several more miles of grades over 3 percent. In later years when the line was extended to Watson and Rainbow there was nearly four miles of grade between these two places of 5 percent. Along with these steep grades were dozens of sharp curves to where most narrow gauge engines could not traverse. There were also many trestles and bridges on the line of which floods were a constant threat. Most railroads and even the narrow gauge considers anything over a 4 percent grade taboo or just to much to contend with and especially so when over just a short distance, but here the Uintah had miles upon miles of such grades. No other railroad in the country compared with the Uintah under these circumstances, not even the once famous Virginia and Truckee railroad of Nevada's historic Comstock mining days.
Through the years, talk persisted of building the line to Vernal, Utah the county seat located 65 miles away. It never materialized. The rails were extended on down Evacuation wash and canyon in 1911 to the little town of Watson, which built to sustain the railroad, then south a few more miles to the Gilsonite mining camp of Rainbow, a total of about 15 miles. Later, between two and three miles of line was laid to the west along the Gilsonite vein known as the American extension and this was the extent of the rails.
Watson located about eleven miles from Dragon became the jumping off place for stage and freight operations going into the Basin. Although small in size this little town done a tremendous amount of business. It had a telephone office, a hotel, a store, a school, a depot and a huge warehouse. There were a few homes but not near so many as was in Dragon. At first it was wagons hauling freight, then later trucks moving in and out hauling Gilsonite, livestock, wool, mail and passengers. About 1916 the stagecoaches were retired and the company purchased two Buick automobiles for the passenger service.
Thousands of sheep were sheared each year at the big shearing plant at Watson as the area nearby was winter range for several herds from both northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado. The wool was shipped over the Pass by rail to markets for and wide. Its been said that more wool for several years back then was shipped out of the little town of Watson Utah then any other place in the U.S. The late L.O. Jacobsen and W.A. Banks operated a fleet of trucks, hauling large amounts of wool and Gilsonite from outlaying areas into Watson to be shipped out on the railroad.
Dick Jacobsen grew up at Watson, and went to school at Rainbow as by his time the school at Watson had closed. He spent his early years working with his father and older brothers in their trucking business. Dick said at one time the permanent population numbered only twenty four of which over half were members of the Jacobsen family. At that time the town could have well been called Jacobsenville. He also told how all the grades from the first to the eighth were held in one room, and taught by one teacher at the little school house at Rainbow. My wife Reva can well verify this as she spent her early childhood with her parents at the Rainbow camp and attended this same school. They are happy and memorable years to all who knew them.
The Rainbow district became the main source of Gilsonite mining for the Barber Asphalt Company for approximately the next twenty five years. There were also mining operations of Gilsonite going on at the Country Boy, the Rector and Three Mile all which were located a few miles west of Dragon along the same vein. There was some limited Gilsonite mining going on from time to time north across White river which was freighted to Watson and the railroad. The ore from all these mines was shipped out by means of the Uintah Railway. The Railway Company along with its stage and freighting operations employed a lot of people and contributed much to Vernal and other Basin communities. Besides the many jobs involved they purchased hundreds of tons of hay and thousands of pounds of grain from local farmers during those early years when horses and mules were used. Also many local men went into freighting on their own and most done a lucrative business at it. For those involved it was a period of good times.
As the rails approached closer to Vernal, rumors began to fly with more intensity than ever. One rumor was that the rails would soon made standard gauge and that Baxter Pass would be tunneled to allow this. The entire area for miles around was heavily embedded with oil shale, and several small plants were being set up to process the product. There was great enthusiasm throughout the Basin over this. But not much came of it at that time and nothing took place until many years later.
There was also talk that the standard gauge Colorado Midland was going to purchase the Uintah and tunnel Baxter Pass, then come through Vernal on its way to Salt Lake City. This may well have occurred except for World War I and the taking over of the Midland by the government after which it left this historic carrier in such serious difficulties that it soon was faced with bankruptcy and shortly thereafter abandoned, a sad end to a once famous railroad.
Amid all this talk the little Uintah trudged along year after year fighting the elements as they were and making a good profit for its owners as well as fine jobs for the workers. The residents of the little communities along the line being isolated as they were from the larger towns, had to make up much of their own amusement. This they did by having parties, dances, socials, hiking, horseback riding, ball games and other activities. Mr. Banks said, that because of the narrowness of the canyon, the ball diamond had the wagon road going through the center of it. He said you would have to be very careful not to step in a rut and twist your ankle, and at times they would have to hold up the game while a wagon went through.
During the hot summer months, many people would catch the train and ride to the cool and scenic spots of Lake McAndrews or Columbine near Baxter Pass and enjoy the day. They would catch an incoming train for the trip back, as this was a common thing. Sometimes especially on holidays the company would set up a special train just for recreation and head for the mountain areas. Occasionally some of the residents would hitch a ride behind the train by means of a hand car or go-devil as some called them. Then after disconnecting at their chosen destination, they could coast all the way back from the pass area to Dragon using the brakes as needed. Mr. Banks told of how he and members of his family along with their friends done this on several occasions. He also mentioned what an enjoyment it was to go to the pass area in the summer just to get away from the gnats which inhabited Dragon so profusely at that time of year.
There were few dull moments on the Uintah Railway to say the least, whether it was storms, washouts, slides, or just plain normal operations. Traversing this route required great skill and knowledge on the part of the engineers and brakemen. Not enough respect for the mountain, and lack of caution in regard to weather conditions, and to much haste at times along with poor judgment could very easily result in disaster.
In the early days of Dragons history it was frequented by some of the bad men of the area. Elza Lay, a very close associate of Butch Cassidy was known to have stayed there along with several other men who rode at one time or another with the famous "Wild Bunch." Henry Lee who operated a saloon in the early days of Dragon was well acquainted with Butch and most of those who rode the back trails so to speak, in fact he had even took part in some of their earlier escapades. Any of these men were always welcome in Hens place of business. He was always referred to as Hen by all who knew him. He along with his brothers were well known in northeastern Utah and they played an important part in the area down through the years.
During prohibition Dragon had its share of bootleggers, as it was so isolated. Most of them lived just out of town a mile or so which put them out of Dragon its self but still convenient enough to come into town and peddle their wares. A creek to the east and near the Utah Colorado line was named whiskey creek and is still known as such to this day. There was another place in which a man made those alcoholic beverages that were against the law and that was down below Ignacio on White River, but this fellow usually peddled his merchandise in areas closer to his home, but on occasion he would make his way into Dragon. But all in all Dragon wasn't a lawless town, however anyone getting too far out of line was dealt with accordingly. Mr. Banks served as a deputy sheriff for a time and he said that the people living there were honest, hard working citizens for the most part.
One of the most outstanding men ever to come to Dragon was the leader of the L.D.S. church, President Joseph F. Smith in 1907 when he made his way to Vernal to dedicate the new Uintah Stake Tabernacle. He had come to Mack Colorado by standard gauge rail, then to Dragon by narrow gauge and from there to Vernal by stage coach. This was a distance of over twice what it actually was from Salt Lake to Vernal, but it meant he would have the comfort of riding in a rail car instead of such a long journey by stage coach of which there was little comfort. There were other people of high importance who also made their way into Dragon from time to time. On two occasions the governor of Utah visited there while on their way to Vernal and other Basin towns. The people of Dragon and the area nearby took pride in their voting rights so those individuals running for office made several visits to try and gain their support.
For all practical purposes, the railroad was self-supporting. Having its own machine shops, along with its coal mine for fuel, and its own commodity, Gilsonite. It hauled other things such as wool, livestock, mail and numerous freight items along with passengers, but the Gilsonite was its main source of income and the thing that kept it going. As years went by and other more modem means of transportation came into being, the railroad's profits began to drop off. In order to continue profitably it was decided that a more efficient and powerful type locomotive was going to have to be put into service. So during the late twenties the company purchased two specially built mallet type engines. These locomotives were especially built to traverse the steep grades and sharp curves of Baxter Pass, and pulling many more cars while doing so. They were designed with an articulated pivoting action which allowed them to negotiate the sharp hairpin curves. They were known as the Articulates.
These engines were the largest and most powerful narrow gauge locomotives ever built. These two mallets, No. 50 which went into service in 1926, and No. 51 that went on line two years later in 1928, were indeed, the pride of the Uintah Railway. History was once again being made out here in one of the most remote areas in our great country. There was though one flaw that was soon found out when No. 50 went into service in making her maiden trip over Baxter Pass and back. These engine boilers were considerably longer then any other narrow gauge units in use, especially those of the little short coupled Shay locomotives that were used on the Pass prior to the coming of the Articulates. As No. 50 was returning and started downhill on the 7.5 percent grade, Sam High who was making the run, noticed that the engine water level glass in the cab was entirely empty. He was shocked as he knew that the crown sheet would most likely be left high and dry and as a result it would be a certain invitation to a boiler explosion. The crown sheets evidently were not completely exposed to the air and Engineer High by releasing excessive steam, carefully made it on down to Atchee, where he exclaimed, that he was quitting before he got killed.
Master mechanic Scott Shafer after conferring with officials at the factory and with Al Green, a boiler inspector in Grand Junction, it was decided that a second steam dome was needed back closer to the fire box. The engine came equipped with a steam dome located midway in the boiler, which would be sufficient under normal conditions, but climbing Baxter Pass at five miles of continuous 7.5 percent grade was anything but normal. By installing one back near the fire box, it would sort of act like a baffle plate and insure that the crown sheet which was also lowered a little, would be covered with water at all times, thus preventing something like this from ever happening again. Later as No. 51 was built this safety measure was installed at the factory. Those personal there could not believe the Uintah was traversing such steep grades as to cause unheard problems like this. From this point on they had no more problems with this magnificent engine. Thank goodness disaster had been averted, but the Company hated to lose Engineer Sam High. He had been one of their best engineers and had worked 14 years and never had a serious accident.
Towards the end of 1938 it was definite that the little railroad had served her usefulness on the Uintah. Not even the now famous mallets with all their power could keep her operating profitably. The arrival of modem paved highways and large trucks soon spelled her doom. The following year the line was abandoned and the tracks taken up. Most of the equipment was either scrapped or else sold to the highest bidder, and the towns of Dragon, Watson and Atchee along with the mining camps of Rainbow, Rector and Carbonera soon ceased to exist.
The famous as well as historic locomotives made their last run on the Uintah in 1939. From here they went to Oregon where they were used in the timber business. The grades there were nothing compared to those on the Old Uintah, only reaching a little over 3 percent. Because of the lesser grades involved in Oregon they removed the side tanks as these were no longer needed. These tanks called saddle tanks by the engineers on the Uintah were filled with water and used as ballast to help hold the locomotive firmly in place while climbing the steep grades on Baxter Pass. Never again would they be needed on these wonderful machines.
After the lumber company closed down and these Mallets were no longer used there, they were sold to a railway company in Central America where they saw use forseveral more years. As parts were next to impossible to obtain especially in this far off country, No 51 was then used as spare parts to keep its older sister No. 50 operating. Shortly thereafter this rail line also shut down, at which time these two very historic locomotives were left to the elements where rust and decay will no doubt take over. About the last year of service was 1965 or 1966. Had they been kept here in the United States and given the care they so well deserved, they would have lasted indefinitely, and how great it would be to have one of them at least on display, say here in Vernal.
Today, (1972) all that remains is a couple of trestles, the railroad bed, (now used as a road), the walls of the large machine shop at Atchee, one badly dilapidated building at Dragon, the yawning mouth of its once famous Gilsonite mine, and the tiny cemetery located across the canyon from the mine which is almost overgrown with sage brush and grease woods. There are several cellars of which some are all but caved in, and the cement bunker used for the storing of blasting powder is still as firm as it was when last used. There are countless numbers of old rusty nails and pieces of tin and broken boards almost every where. There are chunks of brick, broken glass and occasionally you can fine a railroad spike or two, but these are fast being picked up as collectors items. These same mementos exist at Watson, Atchee, and Rainbow also, which lets you know of the once bustling communities that existed there. Baxter Pass in its formidable way remains much the same as it did so many years ago, when the first Shay engine chugged its way over her crest toward the new town of Dragon.
This story would not be complete without giving full credit due to the people who operated the Uintah Railway. Whether it be an engineer, a brakeman, someone working in the shop, or those who helped lay track and loading the cars. Theirs wasn't an easy job, but one they took great pride in doing. Railroaders working on a narrow gauge line deserve all the praise and valor possible in the annals of railroading. A narrow gauge line was certainly no toy, quite the contrary. True, they were smaller, but this is why they were narrow gauge, so they could places their big brothers, the standard gauge could never go. Without them and their brave people, the development of our great west would have been slowed considerably. They truly rate their place in our historical pioneering records, just as much as the steamboats, the covered wagon, the telegraph and the pony express to mention a few.
Its been said that the Uintah had the steepest grades and sharpest curves of any rail line in comparison in the world, just think of that, and she also rates high as to the number of trestles and bridges in a like distance, but there are two things for certain, and that is, she had the largest and most powerful locomotives ever built for a narrow gauge railroad and she hauled the most unique and rare cargo of all, Gilsonite.
Researched, compiled, and written by George E Long May, 1972