Uintah Rail, Utah 2018


     In August of 2018, coming back from Colorado, I had decided to drive the Uintah Railway Trail with a 2WD Truck. 

Map of the Uintah Railway Route in north-eastern Utah; USA; Image taken from a sign at Dragon

     The Uintah Railway was constructed to carry Gilsonite, which provided most of its operating revenues; but it operated as a common carrier from 1904 to 1939, also carrying passengers, mail, express, and other cargoes including sheep and wool.  The railway company was founded in 1903 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Gilson Asphaltum Company.  Construction began at a connection with the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad at what became known as Mack, Colorado. Twenty-eight miles of track was laid following West Salt Wash Creek upstream to the company town of Atchee, Colorado, named after a chief of the Ute people.  Atchee served as a division point with maintenance shops for railway equipment.

Atchee gost-town on the Uintah Railway Trail. (Only structure left)

     From Atchee, six miles of 7.5 percent grade were required to climb the Book Cliffs to Baxter Pass at an elevation of 8,437 feet (2,572 m).

Baxter Pass on the Uintah Railway Trail (Going West from Colorado)

     To say that the Uintah Railway trail was steep and curvy is a disservice to those who designed and built it. To say that it approaches the physical limits of adhesion (ie, non-cog) railways, and possibly the limits of sanity as well, would be significantly more accurate.

Along the 7.5% grade before Baxter Pass. 
Looking back towards the 7.5% grade from Baxter Pass. (Looking Northeast).

     The back side of the pass is somewhat better – six miles of 5% grade. Within this section, there were two curves exceeding 65 degrees of curvature, and several more exceeding 60 degrees curvature.  The west side of Baxter Pass has a great many more trees and a fair bit more water. There  is on of many S-curves found on the west side near milepost 36.8 – just above Columbine Tank.  Columbine (milepost 37) was once the site of balloon loop (favoring south/eastbound trains), as well as a tank and section facilities.  Also at Columbine are the remains of this log cabin, (pictured below), once used by section crews for the railroad.

Log Cabin at Columbine on the Uintah Railway Trail.

     McAndrews Lake was created by the railroad to provide a steady source of water for the Wendella engine facility. To drop down to lake level, the line makes a zig-zag using a pair of hairpin turns. Pictured below is looking north-west just above the first one at milepost 39.

McAndrews Lake on the Uintah Railway trail

     Dragon was the end of the line until 1911, when a wye was built here and track was extended further north. A branch went off to the left to reach the Black Dragon (uintaite) Mine.

Dragon Ghost Town.  Main sidewalk of the village to Uintah Hotel

     This location, (Ashley Valley), includes seams of asphaltum remaining where petroleum from the Green River Formation oil shales seeped into fissures in the overlying sandstone where smaller hydrocarbon molecules were slowly evaporated or digested by aerobic microbes.  The remaining large-molecular-weight hydrocarbons formed a lustrous black solid at ambient temperatures, resembling anthracite coal with a brownish dust. Following ignition, the heat generated by combustion causes the burning asphaltum to melt and flow.

Dragon map; image taken from a sign at the site (public domain).

      European Americans began mining this asphaltum in the 1860s, but attempts to burn it in conventional coal stoves were unsuccessful.

Historical photo of the  Uintah Hotel at Dragon. Image taken from a sign at the site (public domain).

     The asphaltum was named Gilsonite after Samuel Henry Gilson began using the material in 1886 as a varnish and as electrical insulation. Gilson built a manufacturing plant in Salt Lake City, and began mining operations in 1888.

Looking east from the Dragon Ghost town across the “Evacuation Creek/Wash” and from the “Company Corral”.
Historical photo taken from the same spot as above, but in the early 1900s. Image taken from a sign at the site (public domain).  .

     The plant was purchased by a group of Missouri businessmen who formed the Gilsonite Asphaltum Company. For more than a decade, Gilsonite was hauled from the mines in horse-drawn wagons to be loaded aboard railway cars at Price, Utah. The wagons took ten or eleven days to make a round trip and the hauling costs encouraged construction of a railroad.

Looking north across the Dragon Wash where the Store and Cottages were built.
Historical photo taken from the same spot as above, but in the early 1900s. Image taken from a sign at the site (public domain).

     The Black Dragon Vein of Gilsonite was exposed across the ground surface for a distance of 4 miles (6.4 km), and averaged 6 feet (1.8 m) wide for half of that distance. Trains began hauling Gilsonite from the Black Dragon Mine in October, 1904. Shay locomotives pulled freight trains over Baxter Pass between the Dragon Mine(west of Dragon) and Atchee, and 2-8-0 engines pulled the freight trains between Atchee and Mack.

The Uintah Depot.  Historical photo taken in the early 1900s. Image taken from a sign at the site (public domain). 

     Ten miles of additional track were laid further west in 1911 on a one percent grade up from Evacuation Creek from Dragon, Utah, to the Rainbow Mine near Watson, Utah.  A new 2-8-2 locomotive was built to pull freight trains between Watson and Wendella. The new locomotive was more efficient than Shay locomotives on that section of track, but it could not negotiate the steep grades and sharp curves over Baxter Pass between Wendella and Atchee. The railroad had operated passenger trains since 1905 consisting of a 0-6-2 tank locomotive pulling a single combine car between Mack and Dragon or Watson. This passenger train service was discontinued in 1921.

Service Station at Dragon. Historical photo taken west in the early 1900s. Image taken from a sign at the site (public domain).

     Gilsonite (also known as uintahite, asphaltum or asphaltite) is a naturally occurring soluble solid hydrocarbon, a form of asphalt (or bitumen) with a relatively high melting temperature.

Rainbow Mine near Watson. Old mining marks of Gilsonite

     Gilsonite is mined in underground shafts and resembles shiny black obsidian.   Mining it prior to World War II was manual, using a six-pound pick, then shoveling the ore into 200 pound sacks, which were sewn by hand.

Rainbow Mine near Watson. Old mining marks of Gilsonite

     Gilsonite is categorized as a soluble material in oil solutions such as CS2 or TCE (trichloroethylene). A major component of gilsonite is carbon; it also contains several other elements including nitrogen and sulfur and some volatile compounds.

A natural vein of Gilsonite (on the left) at the Rainbow Mine near Watson.

       The Uintah railway lasted until 1939 when trucks took over hauling the Gilsonite. At that time, the rails were pulled up and the towns abandoned. Most of the railway’s locomotives were scrapped immediately and sold.  Today all that remains of the Uintah are the cellar pits of some of the buildings in Dragon and Watson, the shell of the machine shop in Atchee, a few pieces of rolling stock and part of the company hotel in Mack, Colorado.  

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