MARRIOTT-SLATERVILLE — If you passed by Venture Academy High School toward the end of March, you would have seen a group of about 40 teenagers in an empty lot in the front of the school digging in the dirt — some building tiny mountains covered with flour “snow,” others working on a large bridge.
At first glance, it might have looked like playing around in the mud, but in reality the project was a hands-on way to learn about the transcontinental railroad, in honor of the upcoming sesquicentennial of the meeting of the east and west rail lines at Promontory Summit, which will be celebrated May 10.
Secondary students at Venture Academy built a scale model of the transcontinental railroad — using model trains and tracks — as part of a two-week, all-day course called an “intensive.”
Twice a year, for eight days, the school cancels regular classes and holds a variety of these intensive courses.
Kyle Hunter, a social studies teacher at Venture Academy, led the railroad replica project.
“The intensive allows us to have the same kids all day, so we can go on trips, we can bring in guest speakers, it just makes it a lot easier to do things,” Hunter said. “This particular intensive was designed to help the kids get a better understanding of the transcontinental railroad ... but more importantly, to help the kids basically complete a large-scale, fairly sophisticated project, which is about 500 feet of model train.”
The students built the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges with winding railroad tracks through them, even building the Wasatch range to actually look like the mountains just east of the school.
They constructed towns, plains, and marked the territories of Native American tribes on whose land the railroad was constructed.
They accessed photos when they could to build the towns, and looked up symbols associated with each tribe to mark Native American territories.
Five teams of about eight students divvied up these duties.
In order to build the replica, students didn’t just need to know the route in order to scale down the model, they also had to understand the context in which the railroad was built and its social and environmental impacts.
“For example, mapping out the Native American lands — a lot of people don’t know that (railroad workers) disrupted the Native American lands, their hunting,” said Grant Christensen, an 11th grader, referring to the eradication of bison in the areas where the railroad was built.
“They don’t know that the railroad caused problems,” Christensen continued. “They don’t know about the intricacies — they just see the transcontinental railroad ... they don’t see that not everything was good.”
Though the students made the scale as close as possible, it wasn’t perfect.
“Because this is an actual ravine that gets filled with water when it rains ... we built one big bridge to symbolize all of the bridges,” said Tacy Peterson, a senior.
“Notice it’s bigger than the mountains,” Christensen said, as the group of bridge builders laughed.
“It’s as tall as we needed it to be to get across (the ravine),” Hunter said.
The group made the bridge with poplar wood, screws, airline cable and spray paint. Students designed it to be a Warren Truss, they said. This type of bridge was typical of the time period when the railroad was built.
“We got closer as a group than I think any of the other groups because we were sometimes on top of each other trying to drill the screws into places,” Peterson said.
As far as why she chose the project over other options like kayaking in Lake Powell and making muppets to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street, Peterson said she enjoys math and working with the school’s director, Mark Child, who helped the group build the bridge.
“I liked a lot of (the intensive course options) — it was really hard to choose this year,” Peterson said. “I picked the train one because I love the transcontinental railroad. And my mom’s been super excited about it — she’s taking all nine of my siblings and I out to the actual Promontory Point on May 10 to do the big 150th anniversary.”