Ghosts of the Uintah Railway

Uintaite, or more commonly known by its trademarked name, Gilsonite, is a natural asphalt that, for all intents and purposes, looks very much like coal in its natural form. Unlike coal, however, it is resinous substance with a low melting point. Some early reports of its discovery describe trying to use it as coal, only to find that it burned poorly and would melt, sending flaming streams of liquid hydrocarbons in all sorts of undesirable directions. It occurs in only one place in the world – the Uintah Basin of eastern Utah and western Colorado. While similar substances are found elsewhere, uintaite is unique, differentiated by its specific gravity and low melting point. Found in deep, vertical, nearly-pure veins, geologists believe that uintaite is the result of petroleum from the region’s underlying oil sands seeping up through cracks in the overlying sandstone. Over time, the more volatile elements would evaporate, leaving a solid asphaltic resin.

The story of the Uintah Railway really begins in 1885, eighteen years before the line was actually constructed. Samuel Gilson, having received samples of an unusual substance found within the Ute Indian Reservation of eastern Utah, quickly realized that this natural asphalt had commercial potential in a variety of applications. The only problem was that the reserves were inside the reservation. Through a good deal of lobbying, Gilson’s interests had the ore-rich lands removed from the reservation through an 1888 act of Congress. The Gilson Manufacturing Company began large scale commercial extraction in September of that year, with some 3000 tons shipped by wagon to Price, Utah, where it was hauled to market via the Rio Grande Western’s narrow gauge trains.

The substance proved so useful, and thus commercially valuable, that wagons were too slow and inefficient to meet demand the early 1900s. Gilson’s mining concerns needed a railroad. They initially approached the Denver & Rio Grande about building a branch, but were turned down, as the D&RGW deemed it too risky a venture to build such a long branch that would be completely dependent upon a single commodity. Having few other options, they decided to go ahead with their own line, and in 1903, the Uintah Railway Company was born.

The route would connect with the Rio Grande Western at a point near Crevasse, Colorado (the point would become Mack, CO), and proceed northwesterly over Baxter Pass to the Black Dragon uintaite vein, some 50 miles away. The Black Dragon vein was chosen due to its significant size and proximity to the railhead. In light of the grades and curvature of the proposed route, the Uintah was to be constructed as a narrow gauge (3 foot) railway, despite the fact that all of the connecting roads had been standard gauged thirteen years earlier. By October of 1904, all 53.3 miles of the originally planned railway were in place, and the Uintah commenced operation doing what it was intended to do – hauling out uintaite.

To say that the Uintah is 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. In the six miles from the railroad’s shops at Atchee to the summit of Baxter Pass, some 5 miles of that are unrelenting 7.5% grade. 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. (65 degrees of curvature is an effective radius of about 87 feet, for reference… Some sources say the Moro Castle curve may have been 75-80 degrees initially, and enlarged when the railroad realized that they simply could not operate on that.)

At least until 1926, the railroad operated as three parts, with normal rod-type steam locomotives operating from Dragon to Wendella (the northern end of the 5% climb). Power was then changed to one of the railroad’s two-truck Shay locomotives – a type reknown for their pulling power – for the trip over Baxter Pass to Atchee. South of Atchee to Mack, the grade and curvature moderated and rod type engines were again used. Even the mighty Shays were only rated for 60ish tons over the hill, and rod engines could barely make the trip at all.

The first major change to the Uintah came in 1911, when the route was extended further north to Watson, UT, and a branch run westward to new mines near Rainbow, UT. Over the next decade, these steel tendrils would be extended a few more miles as more mines came online, such as the Barlow, Colorow, and Thimble Rock mines in 1918, and later the China Wall Mine in 1927. This would be the final extent of the Uintah. While there were plans drawn up for extending the railroad towards new deposits at Bonanza and perpetual talk of reaching Vernal for general freight, these never panned out. A combination of better roads and trucks, as well as improved standard gauge service at Craig, CO, due to the completion of the Moffat Tunnel, unwittingly conspired to limit any further growth of the Uintah.

The road, facing financial problems in the 1920s due to higher labor costs and aging equipment, decided that new motive power was the answer. In 1926, the railroad asked Baldwin for a solution – an engine that could operate around the railroad’s tight curves, pull tonnage over the steep grades, and do it better than the aging Shays. What they got was #50, an articulated 2-6-6-2T that weighed in at 236,000 pounds and produced around 42,000 pounds of tractive effort. It could operate at reasonable speeds over the entire line, best a Shay in tonnage by at least 50% on the grades of Baxter Pass while only taking half the time, and reportedly did it all with maintenance costs less than one Shay. (Note: Although often referred to as such, they are not Mallets. Each of the four main cylinders was directly fed with high pressure steam, rather than recycling high pressure exhaust through low pressure cylinders in a true Mallet.) Within a few months of 50 proving itself, a second 2-6-6-2T was ordered – 51. Ten-thousand pounds heavier than 50, this unit would take the title of being the largest and heaviest narrow gauge steamer built.

Even the mighty 2-6-6-2Ts could not save the Uintah from lean revenue during the Great Depression and increased competitive pressure from trucks and the D&SL connection at Craig. To add to it all, the mines served by the railroad were starting to play out, with new deposits located on the north side of the rugged White River Canyon. On 24-Aug-1938, the railroad petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for abandonment of the route. By 1939, only a single train each week would ply the line, and on 8-Apr-1939, abandonment was approved. The last revenue train left Mack northbound at 0810h on 16-May-1939, concluding nearly thirty five years of operation. By August of that same year, the scrappers were already working their way south from Watson, and by early 1940, the railway was just a memory.

For those unfamiliar with the route, I’ve put together an interactive map of the line to help you acquaint yourself with it.

Today, much of the old grade has become a public road, and in dry weather, can easily be explored by any vehicle with good ground clearance and reasonably deep tire tread (due to the loose silty dirt that forms much of the road surface). This is something best done only after some period of dry weather, though, as my guess is the road surface can quickly turn into a muddy quagmire after rain. Don’t expect any great speed, though – the road is narrow, steep, winding, and in places, hideously rough and deeply rutted. I’d strongly recommend printing off a copy of Bill Pratt’s excellent Uintah tour guide. This is what I used to start planning my trip, and found it invaluable. You’ll also want to consider taking a Delorme topo map (or similar) and possbily Rodger Polley’s “Uintah Railway Pictorial”, volumes 1 and 2, along with you, as these will help you figure out exactly where you are, and what railroad-related sites may be around you. As a final note, fill your gas tank before you leave Mack, make sure you have a good spare tire, and take food and water with you. Much beyond Mack, there’s no cellphone service, so you’ll need to be able to handle whatever comes up out there on your own. Don’t let that scare you off, though – exploring the Uintah is a relaxing, interesting all-day trip along one of Colorado’s most unique narrow gauge routes.

Although I’ve never met any of these individuals, I’d like to take a few lines to offer thanks the following: To Mr. Henry Bender, for capturing my interest in the Uintah with his original book, “Uintah Railway – The Gilsonite Route”. To Mr. Rodger Polley for his two wonderful volumes, “Uintah Railway Pictorial”, Volumes 1 and 2 – their included maps, photos, and town layouts were invaluable in indentifying things I was seeing along the way. To Mr. Bill Pratt, with his detailed driving tour guide to the Uintah, without which I likely would have spent much more time fumbling around with the map and missed half the stuff I was out there looking for. Thank you all for the efforts you’ve put into teaching us newcomers about the Uintah Railway – when I say this trip wouldn’t have happened without you, I mean it.

What follows are a series of pictures from my drive up the route in November 2007.

Mack to Carbonera

Carbonera to Atchee

Atchee to Baxter Pass

Baxter Pass to Wendella

Wendella to Rainbow Junction

West of Rainbow Junction

Watson, UT, and Miscellaneous


All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 40D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM or a Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS/USM.

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This work is copyright 2020 by Nathan D. Holmes, but all text and images are licensed and reusable under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Basically you’re welcome to use any of this as long as it’s not for commercial purposes, you credit me as the source, and you share any derivative works under the same license. I’d encourage others to consider similar licenses for their works.