Necessity is not only the mother of invention, it is also the begetter of railroads, including the snorting, twisting, puffing little Uintah Railway, the "Crookedest Railway in the West". Just 63 miles long, it lived only 35 years hauling Gilsonite.
On the Ute reservation in Eastern Utah in 1885, a resourceful man named Samuel Gilson was shown samples of a mineral, later named Gilsonite, a brittle, black, asphaltic mineral resembling solid petroleum. It was in vertical veins, and vertical is exact, up to 10 feet thick, which crossed the desert as far as the eye could reach. Gilson knew it was worth something, but at the moment he didn't know what. Remembering the Utes were still touchy about their forced exodus from Colorado after the Meeker massacre in '79, Gilson high-tailed out of the country. With his ore sack full of the strange substance, he headed home.
Someone had guessed that Gilsonite could be used for chewing gum, but Gilson felt that it had more potential than that. Gilson learned that scientists could not agree if it was a mineral or organic in origin and they still argue the matter today. What did matter to Gilson was that his mystery ore was not only chewable but was actually more important as an additive to paint and insulating compounds. Gilson was told that there was plenty of demand for the black stuff. He also learned that there were problems getting it to market, not least of which was that the veins were only on the Ute reservation.
If and when mined, the nearest vein of Gilsonite in Utah's Uintah Basin was nearly 100 rough and crooked miles from a going railroad, the Rio Grande Western at Price, Utah. Here was a fortune sitting in his lap if he could only get the stuff to market. Gilson's associate, Bert Seaboldt, went to Washington, D.C., in 1887 and again in 1888 to petition Congress to remove the land from the Ute Reservation. In the meantime, what amounts they did pack out were small, and by 1902 the demand was so great that the Gilson Asphaltum Co. was unable to supply the demand.
In 1904, the Uintah Railway was being built over the 8,473-foot divide between the Green and Colorado river drainages, and an indirect rail link was coming between the veins and Gilsonite users. In 1905, the first 53 miles of track from Mack, Colorado, on the main line of the Rio Grande Western Railway, touched base at Dragon, Utah.
One railroad gandy dancer claimed the Uintah's only straightaway had three curves in it. The Uintah featured some of the sharpest curves known; the snorting little engine seemed so close, the engineer could almost shake hands with the conductor in the caboose. On some of the steepest grades in railroading history, the brakeman could walk faster than the train moved.
The junction with the Rio Grande Western Railway (later the Denver & Rio Grande Western) was 22 miles west of Grand Junction, and was called Mack for John M Mack, president of the Barber Asphalt Paving Co. and the Uintah Railway. The railroad following snake tracks with rails only three feet apart headed in a general northerly direction. The first stretch of only 28.3 miles crossed 36 bridges between Mack and Atchee. The latter, named for a peaceful Ute chief in the area, was where the shops were erected and maintenance men lived.
Out of Atchee and over Baxter Pass the little engines climbed more than 2,000 feet in six miles and then dropped down the other side 1,500 feet in seven miles. From there, for 12 miles to the end of the line at Dragon, the string of cars crossed 37 bridges. In 1911 the railroad, with a few more bridges, was extended nine and one-half miles to Watson and four miles more from Watson to the Gilsonite mines at Rainbow.
The Uintah Railway was all grade. The only level spot was at and near Mack and it had a couple of deep arroyos occasionally running flash floods. Its highest point was 8,437 feet on Baxter Pass, where the wind sometimes piled snow up as high as the windows of the passenger cars. The snorting, puffing little engines bucked snow and jerked up grades upward from one percent to an incredible five miles of constant 7-1/2 percent rise. That means it climbed up 7 1/2 feet in every 100. This grade was achieved over a series of curves and hairpin turns, the sharpest of which was 66 degrees.
Its combination mail, baggage, and coach took passengers on a 63-mile scenic thrill never to be forgotten. It also served as a dining car when the customers brought their own lunch. Coal was hauled from a company-owned mine at Carbonera where tenders were spotted at the mine tipple and filled with coal. Water for all purposes was carried in tank cars from Atchee to points along the three-foot iron trail all the way from Watson to Mack.
Gilsonite is flammable and the Uintah carried it stacked in hundred-plus pound sacks on open flat cars. Occasionally a blazing cinder would drop amongst the burlap sacks half a dozen cars back. On a comparatively level stretch the train could be braked to an immediate halt, and the trainmen could usually confine the flames. It was a nuisance when the sparks flew on a grade where braking was difficult.
At the peak of operations the railroad owned eleven engines, two of them Mallets with side tanks. It boasted two combination baggage-passenger coaches, three former Pullman sleepers, 12 livestock cars, 24 gondolas, 18 boxcars, and 71 flat cars.
In 1939 the Uintah joined the once numerous Colorado narrow gauge carriers in the limbo of railroad history. Gone, save for a few miles of grade, is the Uintah from the face of the land. In the neighboring communities near Mack, Uintah narrow-gauge box and stock cars still serve as tool sheds and chicken coops. Some have been rescued and restored by the Rio Grande Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and are on display at the Cross Orchards Living History Farm at Grand Junction, Colorado. Several others have been rescued by private individuals and hopefully will be restored in the near future.
When it was determined that the railroad was no longer profitable, the Interstate Commerce Commission was petitioned for abandonment. The Commission permitted "the abandonment by the Uintah Railway Company of its entire line of railroad." Their permission was, however, subject to one condition: that within forty days of their certificate, "the applicant shall sell all or any part of its line of railroad to any person, firm, or corporation offering to purchase same for continued operation and offering to pay therefor not less than the fair salvage value therefor." The Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce had requested this last provision, in order that they might have ample time to search for a buyer for the property. But one wonders if they really had any hopes that such a search might be successful.
The ICC announced its decision to authorize abandonment of the Uintah Railway on April 14, and, out in western Colorado, plans were made to end the already-abbreviated service on the line. Notices and embargoes were issued to all agents of the connecting D&RGW advising that the last train would leave Mack the morning of May 16th, and that, therefore, any shipments en route to the Uintah be moved promptly so they could be delivered before the last train operated. People who had never before witnessed the glories of Baxter Pass purchased tickets for the final trip.
Mallet No. 50 pulled that last train leaving Mack on schedule at 8:10 a.m. Tuesday, May 16, 1939, with a consist of one box car, two flats, and the usual combination car. Some twenty persons were aboard, mainly those interested in railroading or in making the last trip over the scenic line. At Wendella, on the western side of Baxter Pass, water cars were filled and taken to Dragon and Watson to furnish the last water supply for those two dying towns. At Watson, the end of the line, there was a carload of furniture consigned to Grand Junction. The few remaining residents of Watson planned to be gone within a few days, The telegraph operator stepped onto the rear platform as the train pulled out, his telegraph key in hand and his office closed. Baggage was taken aboard at stations along the line, and passengers climbed on, leaving behind tem towns boarded up and empty. Aboard the train there was a funeral-like atmosphere.
Crew members for the last run, all veterans on the Uintah, were Roy Eno, engineer; George Lohman, fireman; and John Beaslin, conductor. Superintendent E. V. Earp, who had first hired on in the shops in Atchee nearly 27 years earlier, also made the last trip. A reported noted that Vic Earp did much toward making the run "an interesting and delightful one" so far as the passengers were concerned. Thus the Uintah Railway made its exit from the ranks of companies in the business of providing transportation for the world's people and commodities.