If you think 2020 is a train wreck, the nascent railroad industry was deluged with train wrecks across the nation in its first 50 years. Park City was no exception. According to Park City historians Steve Leatham and David Nicholas, railroading can be a rather dangerous business.
The discovery of ore in Park City came within months of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 about forty miles north of town. Railroad transportation promised to replace the cumbersome and expensive horse and wagon transport of coal to the mines and ore to the smelters in the Salt Lake Valley, though rail travel didn’t reach Park City for another 11 years. By 1890, however, Park City was a two-railroad town.
The first train wreck was reported by the Park Record on January 18, 1890 for a coal train about two miles north of Wanship headed for Park City. The deep snow required a “flanger” car to clear the snow from the rails and between the tracks. Possibly, the flanger spread the rails, causing the last two cars to jump track. Alderman Kimball was roughed up in the caboose as it tumbled off the rails. He had bruises, broken ribs and a singed overcoat. That same snowstorm stopped the regular passenger train later in the day and sleighs had to come out and bring the passengers to town.
In December 1890, even the little Crescent Tramway train coming back to the mill in Park City from the Crescent Mine narrowly missed hitting a teamster who was trying to make it across the track before the train grazed his rear wheels. There are quite a few of these railroad crossing accidents reported in Summit County.
The news in January 1904 talked of a Union Pacific train pulling a load of empty cars overturning near where Home Depot is today. Evidently the track was not very stable in the flat spot. The crew escaped without injuries. The Park Record called for repairing the track and building a railbed capable of holding the heavier standard gauge engines newly in use.
Just a few months later and farther down the track about a mile above Wanship in Silver Creek Canyon, a Union Pacific train loaded with 200 Ogden Grand Army of the Republic excursionists derailed. There were no serious injuries, but the Park Record continued to chastise the Union Pacific for the dreadful conditions on the heavily used Park City spur line. Apparently, the grading and ballast of a narrow-gauge railroad was not sufficiently stable for heavier standard gauge stock with increased travel.
The pictured train wreck was not the first train wreck, but imagine the shock of looking out your front door in Park City and seeing such a disaster. The wreck occurred not far north of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad station because you can see the towers of the Silver King Tram on the right in the background.
The D&RG train was headed down Parley’s Canyon with 3 passenger cars. When Engineer Joe Bywater saw the faulty switch, he threw the engines into reverse, causing the engine to rear up in the front. He hollered to the Firemen George Edger: “jump”. When the first two cars left the track, the Engineer was thrown free of the train, breaking his leg, but the Fireman was killed instantly when the train jumped the track, landing on him. Fortunately, the passenger cars stayed on the rails – sparing many lives.
Learn more about Park City’s rails by visiting the Park City Museum, its Hal Compton Research Library, and other history articles on the Way We Were.