A Century of Stewardship: The Railroad and Early Mining

In the 1860's, mining was a costly venture in Utah. The costs of transport made mining barely feasible. In 1869, with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and the North-South Railroad Lines, the cost-effective transport of ore became a reality. Col. Connor’s prospecting patrols had aided in the discovery of precious metals along the Wasatch Range, and the mining industry in the mountains of the Uinta exploded. Mines appeared on almost every mountain along the Wasatch Range, including, but not limited to, Santaquin Canyon, Mt. Nebo, Spanish Fork Canyon, Provo Canyon, Rock Canyon and, most notably, American Fork Canyon.

The American Fork Mining District

Early mining in the American Fork Mining District had a great effect on land management in American Fork Canyon today. Early mining claims resulted in the checkerboard of public and private property in the canyon, a pattern of ownership that complicates right-of-ways and ecological land management aspects.

Among the first mines established in American Fork Canyon was the Pittsburgh Mine just south of Alta. It was discovered by soldiers from Fort Douglas and officially located by them in 1870. A flurry of activity followed and the American Fork Mining District was formed in July of 1870. Soon there after, Jacob and William Miller found rich ore deposits on what would become known as Miller Hill. The following year, they sold their claim to the Aspinwall Steamship Company of New York City. Aspinwall had the capital to develop the mines and soon they became the leading producer in the canyon and a catalyst for the development of transportation systems there (Stauffer 1971).

The American Fork Railroad Company was established in April of 1872 by the Aspinwall Steamship Company in order to haul ore from the Miller Hill mines to American Fork City. The railroad was to end at the Sultana Smelter at Forest City at the mouth of Mary Ellen Gulch which was near the head of American Fork Canyon.

View of railroad tracks crossing stream in valley surrounded by forest.A grade was completed all the way up to Forest City but a proposed trestle to climb the “Z” Dugway near Major Evans Gulch would have been too steep. The decision was made to terminate the railroad at a large flat near Deer Creek, the site of present day Tibble Fork Reservoir. The little town that sprang up there to service the railroad was known as Deer Creek City. Deer Creek produced charcoal in ten large kilns to provide fuel for the train and a lime kiln processed lime for the Sultana Smelter at Forest City. There was also a large boarding house and a mining district recorder’s office. A small cemetery was established on a small flat to the north of Deer Creek City (Stauffer 1971). The grade constructed to the Sultana Smelter was used by wagons to haul the ore to Deer Creek, and it continues to be used today to access the head of American Fork Canyon.

Black and white drawing of the American Fork locomotive.

Locomotive in steep-walled canyong surrounded by workers.Two locomotives operated on this line, an 0-4-4 named the “American Fork”, which operated until 1873, and an 0-6-0 which operated from 1874 to 1878. These locomotives hauled not only ore, but lumber for use in and around American Fork City. Records indicate that horses or mules were sometimes used to pull the flat cars up the canyon and “...going down was no problem at all, it being possible to get from Deer Creek to American Fork on a flatcar by judicious use of the brakes” (Pitchard 1987)! In “Histories of American Fork Canyon,” Alan Stauffer mentions an injury occurring while coasting a flatcar down canyon: “John Chadwick was one of the first brakemen. On November 24, 1873, he fell off his speeding car and was injured, causing him to miss five days of work. Pay was $3 per day (Stauffer 1971).” No mention is made about what happened to the unmanned car.
Large wood building standing in forest clearing.The Sultana Smelter which was located at the head of Mary Ellen Gulch as it appeared in 1872. Privately published drawing: Aspinwall Mining Co., New York.

In 1876, the ore bodies on Miller Hill began to give out and mining activity in the American Fork Mining District began to decline. The Sultana Smelter was dismantled and Forest City was never again as large or as important. Several of the larger mines were leased to smaller operators and a few local operators continued their own mining operations.

Due to the decline in mining activity, the cost of operating the railroad became prohibitive. To help cover the operating costs, the train was made available for sight seeing trips into the canyon. By 1878, revenue could not cover operating costs and the railroad was discontinued. The associated hardware, remaining mines in the canyon experienced a transportation crisis until the formation of the American Fork Wagon Road Company, which established a toll road over the former railroad grade (Crosland and Thompson 1994).

Group of men standing in camp.Though mining continued in the canyon, the years between 1872-76 saw the most productive period in the American Fork Mining District, in which over $2,000,000 worth of gold, silver and lead was recovered. Less than half this amount was recovered in any other decade of mining in the district. Mining activity did surge again after the turn of the century when George Tyng relocated the rich ore bodies in Miller Hill that had brought the mining district to life in the first place. There was also a resurgence during World War I, when many world metal sources were cut off from U.S. markets. Even creative attempts by miners at the Yankee in Mary Ellen Gulch in the 1930's to reduce ore transport costs were not enough to keep canyon mining alive. Towers from their four and a half mile long tramway still stand in the canyons, a testament to grim determination. Mining in American Fork Canyon came to a close, for the most part, by 1950 (Crosland and Thompson 1994).

The Railroad in Spanish Fork Canyon

The railroad in Spanish Fork Canyon was constructed in the 1870's to more easily extract coal from deposits discovered near Pleasant Valley (present day Scofield). As early as 1872, Milan Packard of Springville projected and began work on the Utah and Pleasant Valley Railroad. The line began in Springville at the Utah Central Railroad yards. By midsummer of 1872, the track had been placed to the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon and by the fall, rails were laid to a construction camp name Thistle. In 1875, a road and sawmill were completed into Mill Fork to provide ties for the railroad. Timber was taken off of Uinta lands and used not only in Spanish Fork Canyon, but on railroads all over Utah. The railroad, when complete, extended to Tucker, turned south up Starvation Canyon and eventually entered Pleasant Valley. In 1880, the company was sold to The Rio Grande Western Railroad. They dismantled the railroad between Tucker and Pleasant Valley and relaid it toward the summit in Spanish Fork Canyon. The summit known at that time as Soldier Pass was renamed by the railroad as Soldier Summit. In 1881, the line connected with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and became the major line between Denver and Ogden.