The Potash Local

Every Friday, a local job leaves Grand Junction in the mid-morning for one of the most scenic standard gauge branches on the Rio Grande system – the Cane Creek Branch. This 38 mile branch leaves the mainline at Brendel, UT (otherwise known as Crescent Junction) and stretches southwards toward Moab, eventually reaching a salt mine at a location appropriately called Potash. The line runs right between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and passes through many of the beautiful red sandstone geographic features associated with those two national treasures. Having a little vacation to burn before the end of May 2007, I decided to take Friday off and go chase the Potash Local.

Sitting between US Highway 191, Utah Highway 279 and the Colorado River just north of Moab is the site of the former Atlas Mineral Corporation’s Moab Uranium Mill. (Here on Google Maps…) Founded in the 1950s to mine a nearby rich uranium ore body, the mill closed in 1984 and left some 12 million tons of tailings behind, all mildly radioactive due to all manner of left over radioisotopes. While capped, the threat remained that the pile would be swept into the Colorado by flooding. In 2001, the Department of Energy assumed responsibility for cleaning up the site.

The current plan is to load tailings into special covered railcars on a new spur at the east end of Bootlegger Tunnel. The mill was located just below the east end of the Bootlegger Tunnel and across Utah Highway 279, making rail a convenient and safe way to haul out the toxic and mildly radioactive tailings, and just a short haul by truck up the hill from the site. From there, the waste will travel 30 miles north to Brendel (aka Crescent Junction), where it will be unloaded and deposited into an engineered storage cell for permanent disposal. The haul will occur, obviously, over the former Rio Grande Cane Creek Branch. To facilitate this operation, two ex-US Army Baldwin/Whitcomb RS4TC switching locomotives are being brought in.

The first of the two RS4TCs – OHFX 1250 – was on Friday, Apr 27, 2007’s Potash Local. The RS4TC was a military-specific model built by Baldwin/Whitcomb in the mid-1950s. They were officially Whitcombs, having Whitcomb serial numbers, but were built at the Eddystone, PA, Baldwin plant (according to Jay Reed’s Critters Dinkies & Centercabs and a post on Trainorders.com). Various sources list them between 400-500 horsepower. OHFX 1250, as well as 1258 (which was still in Grand Junction with brake problems that day) will be delivered from a uranium mill cleanup site in Fernald, Ohio. These units are already considered contaminated, and will be stored in a fenced area at the far end of the branch. The two locomotives will be used to assist in loading up uranium tailings from the former Atlas Mineral Corporation Moab Uranium Mill.


All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 20D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.6 IS/USM.

Creative Commons License

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.