Grand Junction

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If you were asked to name pivotal meetings in American history, the linking of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads might not immediately come to mind. But it was perhaps the most important. Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, it took months to get from coast to coast, and more than $1,000. After these two lines met at Promontory Summit in northern Utah, a New Yorker could travel to California in a week for as little as $70.

The joyous 1869 ceremony.
 
bettmann/corbis2006_3_25a

If you were asked to name pivotal meetings in American history, the linking of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads might not immediately come to mind. But it was perhaps the most important. Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, it took months to get from coast to coast, and more than $1,000. After these two lines met at Promontory Summit in northern Utah, a New Yorker could travel to California in a week for as little as $70. Freight and mail costs also plummeted, and deliveries became quick and predictable. Earlier in the decade transcontinental telegraph lines had made possible instantaneous communication across incredible distances, and now, with a railroad traversing the continent as well, the movement of people, money, and goods was similarly unhindered by space and time. A proto-Internet was born, and modern America rapidly took shape.

Less than a year after the tracks were linked, the terminus was moved from Promontory Summit (a slapdash cluster of tents and shacks) 60 miles southwest to Ogden, a small but established town at the foot of Utah’s Wasatch mountains in what is now Weber County. This would remain the nerve center of Western migration until the Great Depression.

But as air travel outpaced rail travel, Ogden was increasingly overlooked in the shadow of nearby Salt Lake City. Curious to learn the fate of the erstwhile boomtown and the landmarks of its epoch defining railroad, I thought I’d take some time to explore this quiet corner of northern Utah. As I walked down Ogden’s Historic 25th Street on my first evening in town, the scene felt almost fictionally Western in the crepuscular silence. I had never ventured west of Chicago, and my impression of this humble main street, with the surrounding vastness of Utah seeping between buildings dating from the railroad’s halcyon days, felt at once completely alien and cinematically familiar. In 1977 someone realized that 25th Street had the most “complete, continuous selection of turn-of-the-century architecture in Utah,” according to a historical marker on the sidewalk. Consequently, this selection was restored and the word historic was appended to the street’s name. Many of the storefronts display plaques explaining their history, my favorite of which summarizes the story of the early 1880s Greek Revival London Ice Cream Parlor building: “What probably started out as a legitimate boarding house in the upper story apparently degenerated into a common bordello not unlike the 50 or so others in the neighborhood.” From the railroad’s beginning through the Second World War, 25th Street (once Fifth Street) was notoriously louche. The “common bordello” in the London Ice Cream Parlor building, reportedly run by Dora Belle Topham, was evidently not her only operation on the strip. Topham’s name appears on a couple of other plaques as well.

At the west end of Historic 25th stands Union Station, the old terminus of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific (later the Southern Pacific). It was erected in 1924 on the foundation of the town’s previous depot, which had been destroyed by fire the year before. Until the decline of rail travel, this building bustled with the movement of an entire country, and it is now home to the Utah State Railroad Museum, dedicated to the history of the station and the transcontinental railroad.

The joyous 1869 ceremony and tourists reenacting it today.
 
wolfgang kaehler/corbis2006_3_25b

The most impressive feature of the collection is an extensive series of photographs that chronicle the construction of both the Union and the Central Pacific lines. Each company hired a photographer to document its progress, and these men captured a vivid and intensely human record of the accomplishment. The museum also holds a 407-foot-long model of the Central Pacific’s route from Sacramento to Ogden. I was particularly charmed by the details: At Dale Creek Bridge, in Wyoming, you can see tiny people descending a steep incline alongside a giant trestle. Apparently the wind was so powerful at this point on the route that as a safety precaution passengers had to get off the train before it crossed the trestle, climb in and out of the creek bed on foot, and board again on the other side.