Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Narrow Gauge Railway Tracks Reach Eagle Rock (Idaho Falls) [otd 4/11]

In 1879, the Engineering and Mining Journal contained the following brief item: "Ogden, Utah, April 11 – The Utah & Northern Railway has been completed to Eagle Rock Bridge, Snake River, Idaho, 210 miles north of this point. Regular trains will begin running there April 15th."
Western steam train. Library of Congress.
A decade earlier, the eastern and western legs of the transcontinental railroad had worked their way toward each other. Even then, settlers in Montana began agitating for their own rail service. Years would pass, however, before the region had a direct line to the east.

Still, a couple years after the Golden Spike Ceremony in 1869 [blog, May 10], developers laid plans to extend a branch line north to Montana. To complete such a spur, they incorporated the Utah Northern Railroad Company. Construction began at Brigham City, Utah, in August 1871. Tight finances meant that track-laying progressed slowly. Thus, Utah Northern rails did not cross the Idaho border until May, 1874. To save money, the company laid narrow gauge track (a 36-inch span versus standard gauge at 56-1⁄2 inch). The narrower road bed and bridges substantially reduces construction costs, especially in mountainous terrain.

Unfortunately, by then, the affects of the Panic of 1873 had pushed the poorly-capitalized company to the brink of extinction. They managed only brief spurts of construction over the next four years – laying 10-12 miles of track north from Franklin.

Meanwhile, a change took place at a key location along the railroad’s expected route. At that time, Taylor’s Bridge at Eagle Rock (today’s Idaho Falls) was the only span across the Snake River. Surveys showed that the same location provided the best place for a railroad bridge. “Matt” Taylor and two partners had built the existing toll bridge, suitable for wagon traffic, in 1865 [blog, Dec 10 ].

The railroad would, of course, supplant heavy freight wagon traffic through the area. Taylor decided to get out of the toll business while he could still get a good price. In 1872, he sold his share to the Anderson Brothers – Robert (one of the original bridge partners) and John (generally known as “Jack” or “J.C.”).

The financial woes experienced by the Utah Northern made Taylor’s action somewhat premature. Not until late 1877 did a solution to those problems appear. Promoter Jay Gould, major partner in the Union Pacific Railroad, then took an interest in the project. He and several other UP partners bought control of the venture, and provided a major infusion of new financing. The reorganized company – now called the Utah & Northern Railway – resumed track laying in March 1878.
Eagle Rock Bridges, ca. 1880. Utah State Historical Society.

The rails made it through the Southeast Idaho mountains and out onto the Snake River plain in late 1878. They crossed the Blackfoot River around Christmas and, as noted above, reached Eagle Rock in April 1879. Construction of a railroad bridge began immediately; the first train crossed the span on July 1

The railroad had an immediate impact on settlement in the area. Less than three weeks after that first train crossed, new arrivals settled on land about thirty-three miles north of Eagle Rock. In fact, the Owyhee Avalanche, in Silver City, Idaho, reported (May 10, 1879), “A correspondent of the Salt Lake Tribune says that Blackfoot is deserted and a stampede has taken place in the direction of Eagle Rock … ”

Just over eight years after the rails reached Eagle Rock, the company converted the entire line to standard gauge trackage [blog, July 24].
References: [B&W], [French]
Barzilla W. Clark, Bonneville County in the Making, Self-published, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1941).
Mary Jane Fritzen, Eagle Rock, City of Destiny, Bonneville County Historical Society, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1991).
"Railway Extension in Idaho," Engineering and Mining Journal, Vol. XXVII, Scientific Publishing Company, New York (April 19, 1879).

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