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BLM helps Utahns step into the world of the Transcontinental Railroad

From the All the stories, photos from Utah's 150th anniversary celebration of the transcontinental railroad series
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From one side of the Peplin Cut — a canyon-like pass that railroad workers carved through a raised area west of the northern tip of the Great Salt Lake — you can see the valley below, made up of a former lake bed that reaches out to meet the lake’s current edge.

A multi-colored layering of mountain ranges is also visible to the southeast, across the Great Salt Lake — the Promontory Mountains are the first layer, looking smooth and purple in early May. The jagged, snow-covered Wasatch Mountains tower beyond them.

On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, said Chris Merritt, Utah’s deputy state historic preservation officer.

Merritt co-led a guided tour of a portion of the remote Transcontinental Railroad Backcountry Byway on Saturday. The Bureau of Land Management’s Salt Lake Field Office hosted the tour to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869.

“No railroads in the world came anywhere close to this undertaking. ... No one had ever contemplated crossing a continent,” said Ray Kesley, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM, who led the tour with Merritt.

The byway is a dirt road that follows the Transcontinental Railroad grade built by the Central Pacific across the desert of Northern Utah. Parts of the byway are on the actual grade; others are near it.

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Participants walk across what used to be a railroad bridge Saturday, May 4, 2019, on the Transcontinental Railroad route in Terrace.

The BLM ran two tours this spring and opened them to anyone interested. The tour on Saturday attracted Utahns from cities around the state, from Roosevelt to Sandy to Clinton. The tour group was made up of a caravan of about 20 vehicles — about as long as a train in the late 19th century, Kelsey said.

Peplin Cut looked like a small man-made canyon. Railroad workers dug through a portion of the dirt and rock in 1869, creating a passage for the railroad to travel through.

Rather than digging from the west end toward the east to create the cut, the Central Pacific workers worked from top to bottom, excavating layer by layer “like a layer cake,” Merritt said.

Peplin Cut was “the last big hurdle to get to Promontory” from the west, Merritt said.

It was also the second-to-last stop on the tour, which stretched from Terrace to Kelton on the byway.

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Participants look at the view of the Great Salt Lake on Saturday, May 4, 2019, on the Transcontinental Railroad route near the Peplin Cut.

By the time the group got to the Peplin Cut, it was mid-afternoon, and tour participants appeared to be growing tired. After walking through the cut — which was home to a bald eagles’ nest — people quietly gathered on the other side, many taking a seat in the tall grass to survey the view and others taking photos.

The tour had covered a lot of ground, both geographically and historically.

Tour participants got a taste of actual railroad features from the late 19th century, such as trestles, culverts, fills and cuts, like Peplin.

Trestles are wooden structures resembling bridges that allow water to flow under the railroad tracks. Culverts are smaller structures made of stone — sometimes covered in colorful orange lichen — that serve the same purpose for smaller streams.

Fills are open areas that workers raised with dirt, which was often cut out of the sides of the hills they were connecting. The group visited one big fill over a wash, likely created by erosion from water that had been there thousands of years ago.

Kelsey estimated the fill was about 300 feet across and 80 feet tall.

Very little is left of the towns that dotted the route of the Transcontinental Railroad. The artifacts that are left might not be what most visitors would expect.

Among the remnants are those left by Chinese laborers, who made up a large part of the labor force for the Central Pacific.

Terrace, the group’s first stop, was the resting place of many of these artifacts.

Merritt passed around pieces of bowls, spoons and even a soy sauce container dating to the late 19th century. Due to robust trade with China, many of the materials that Chinese laborers brought with them were made by hand in China.

Merritt pointed out the grooves in the pottery, made by the finger of a Chinese potter.

In many ways, Chinese laborers were model employees, Kelsey said.

They supplied themselves, worked together more cohesively as a group than caucasian laborers and didn’t drink too much, Merritt said.

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An image of what used to be the town that inhabited the area on Saturday, May 4, 2019, on the Transcontinental Railroad route in Terrace.

Because they drank boiled tea, rather than contaminated water or beer, they were healthier than their caucasian counterparts, Kelsey said. They were also much less likely to walk off the job.

The final stop on the tour was a cemetery. Few headstones remained, but one with bits of text still visible clearly said “children.”

Kelsey said children in communities surrounding the railroad died at particularly high rates, especially of diphtheria. Some families that descended from those living in railroad communities still reside in the area. Kelsey said sometimes you’ll find flowers near the graves, left by descendants.

Sherry Christensen, from Sandy, came along for the tour with her husband for his birthday.

She said her favorite part was getting to “step into other people’s lives and see what they went through.”

She appreciated their suffering, she said, because she and her husband had four children with muscular dystrophy, two of whom have passed away.

Her husband, Bill, has loved the railroad almost all his life and has attended the annual Golden Spike reenactment at least five times.

One of Bill Christensen’s grandfathers was a pipe fitter on the Santa Fe railroad. His other grandfather rode from Salt Lake to Chicago on the train selling newspapers with his brother starting when he was 8 years old, after their father died.

When Christensen was a little boy growing up in Denver, the grandfather who was a railroad worker would ride the train to visit him. Christensen would meet him at the depot as he climbed down from the steam engine.

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Chris Merritt, deputy state historic preservation officer in the Utah Division of State History, speaks to the group on Saturday, May 4, 2019, on the Transcontinental Railroad route near Romola.

Christensen found out later that his grandfather would actually ride in the passenger car and arrange to move up to the steam engine right before the train arrived.

This was “the magical part of my grandfather to me,” he said.

Christensen’s favorite part of the tour was “sitting at the cut and experiencing the peace and the quiet,” he said.

Transcontinental trains went about 15 miles per hour, Christensen said.

“We move so fast today,” he said. “Maybe we go too fast.”

Christensen has also passed along his love of the railroad to his 18-month-old grandson. The Christensens gave him a ridable train as a gift — it’s electric, and moves around the tracks at the push of a button.

“His first words were ‘choo choo,’” Christensen said.

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