Sunday, October 11, 2015

Developing the Concept - A History of the SPV and it's Neighbors

In my first post, I described the path that led me to freelancing a narrow gauge line - or rather, a network of narrow gauge lines - in southeastern Utah.  Today I'll expound a little on the railroads that became part of that concept.

It's very important to me for my fictional railroads to be as believable as possible, and to that end I've found it useful to develop a history of the lines which intermingles with reality here and there.  Before moving on to that let's take a brief look at the setting - the Four Corners region of Utah and Arizona.

Above you can see the "main characters" in my cast - the San Pablo Valley RR, the Utah Arizona & Pacific RR, the Castle Valley & La Sal Ry., and the Paradox & La Sal RR.  As many probably know, this is a spectacular region of the country, full of widely varying landscapes.  But no railroad served these specific areas until the construction of a D&RGW branch in 1963 to serve a potash mine near Moab.  I decided to change that bit of history somewhat significantly.

It's pretty well known to fans of western rail history that when he started the Denver & Rio Grande, General Palmer's goal was to create a north-south transcontinental route linking Denver and Mexico City via El Paso.  This, of course, never came to fruition.  Setbacks, largely to do with a protracted battle with the Santa Fe system, resulted in the D&RG never making it south of its rival's namesake city.  Nevertheless, some other southward routes from Utah into Arizona were considered and even surveyed.  My San Pablo Valley RR picks up at that point where history left off.

General Palmer resigned as president of the D&RG in August 1883, but kept the same post at the Denver & Rio Grande Western Ry., the D&RG's sometimes-subsidiary, sometimes-enemy across the Utah border.  What my line presupposes is that the general kept his eye to the south for a few years longer, looking for a way to build his dream line into Mexico after the Royal Gorge War and subsequent Treaty of Boston ruled out the Santa Fe to El Paso route.

Meanwhile, as the Rio Grande mainline from Denver to Ogden crossed the Utah desert in the early 1880s, miners and investors in the territory's southern La Sal and Abajo Mountains saw an opportunity to tap the mineral and lumber resources there and connect them to markets, primarily in the capital cities of Utah and Colorado.  The D&RGW leadership became aware of these plans and provided significant assistance in financing the one they thought looked most promising.  This was the beginning of the San Pablo Valley RR, linking the La Sals with the Rio Grande mainline at Whitehouse via the canyon of the Colorado River and the San Pablo Valley.  (In actuality, the valley I've named San Pablo is called Spanish Valley, and is the location of Moab, UT).  This was completed by Christmas 1883.  Construction resumed in the spring of 1884 and the line was extended to Monticello by fall.  About the same time, the Rio Grande sent crews into northern Arizona to survey routes and raise money to build north towards the new SPV.  By the end of the year, the grandly-named Utah Arizona & Pacific was incorporated for this purpose, and construction began northwards from Esperanza, Arizona Territory, where a connection was made with a new AT&SF branch line.

In September 1885, the SPV and UA&P met near the San Juan River, where the railroad founded a town they named Rome.  By this point, General Palmer's hopes for a line to Mexico had finally faded for good, but the two 3' gauge lines served as a viable north-south bridge route, linking the transcontinental lines of the D&RG/D&RGW and AT&SF.  Several additional smaller lines were built in the years that followed, as mining boomed in the La Sal range.  First was the Castle Valley & La Sal, linking the SPV mainline in the Colorado River canyon with the new city of Castleton and the mines of the northern La Sals, built in 1887.  The next year, the Paradox & La Sal was built, connecting the SPV to Colorado's Paradox Valley.  Several lumbering lines were also constructed in the mountains to supply the growing towns along the new railroads.

In these early years, the railroads flourished.  The SPV and UA&P even jointly operated an opulent pair of express passenger trains to include Pullman service - the northbound train named the Ute, and the southbound the Navajo.  They also carried agricultural products, including significant annual livestock rushes, as well as the raw materials for which they were originally founded and the many products necessitated by the expanding population of the region.

In 1890, what originally appeared as a major windfall became an existential threat to the lines - the standard gauging of the Rio Grande mainline.  Due to their close corporate relationship, it was first speculated that the SPV/UA&P system would also widen its gauge, but this was not to be.  Rather, in order to assist in financing its transition, the larger railroad - now reorganized into the Rio Grande Western - sold most of its shares in the shortlines and left them to fend for themselves.  As the only route of commerce into the region, they survived, but were never again as profitable now that it was necessary for bridge traffic to change gauges twice - once at each end.

The SPV would eventually gain a few miles of track with 4' 8-1/2" between the rails.  With the continued success of mines in the region, a smelter was constructed on the outskirts of Moab in 1895, and its founders helped raise money to add a third rail between their facility and Whitehouse, so that processed materials could be loaded directly into standard gauge boxcars.  Again, rumors flew that the entire railroad would be standard gauged, and again they proved false - only the line's northernmost 40 miles were converted to dual gauge, although the SPV did acquire one new standard gauge engine to serve it.

#51, an 1895 Baldwin 4-4-0, the line's only standard gauge engine

And that's roughly where October 1907 finds the railroads - the UA&P is currently emerging from receivership to the SPV, which is doing reasonably well.  The CV&LS and P&LS are still profitable and keep their small rosters of second-hand engines in excellent condition.  The Ute and Navajo continue to run, although less frequently and with shorter consists.  The fall stock rush is in full swing.  Over the next few decades, much will change, and by midway through the century, all these rails will be torn up and few will remember that narrow gauge trains ever even ran here.  But for now, 3' gauge teakettles jacketed in Russia Iron proudly roam the mountains and desert of the American Southwest, and most people seem to think they always will.

SPV #20, an 1887 Baldwin 2-8-0 near Castleton, UT, circa 1907


  1. Tony,

    Noticed your email on my blog recently and of course needed to check you out. Beautiful work, terrific blog with excellent postings of your progress and experiences. Your focus on the history is a particular emphasis for myself as well. However for my RR, I need to do some cajoling to get club members and friends to operate as my line uses link and pin couplers.
    Continued fun and I look forward to reading more.

    1. Well, Thom...I'm about a year late in replying, but thanks! I really enjoy your work as well. As to the link and pin couplers, that's one thing that pushed me into the early 1900s - at one point, my main interest was about 20 years earlier (1889-1892ish). But I also like the variety of motive power and freight car appearances that can be seen around 1907.

      Thanks again for the comment!

  2. Hi there,

    Looks like you have some interesting plans here strongly rooted in the history of southeast Utah and Colorado. I too love the history aspect and appreciate any modelers that pursue this. I also like that you are NOT doing DRGW narrow gauge which has been done to death. As a Coloradoan, I have no clue why it is so popular when there were so many other interesting and wonderful narrow gauge lines that ran throughout the state. The Moab area is wonderful and creates a lot of opportunity for spectacular scenery including arches and the Colorado River. I noticed your entries are pretty old so I hope to see some more very soon!

    Thanks for the link to my blog by the way...

    1. Hi Sean, sorry for the long delay in response, but I appreciate your thoughts. I will admit that I am fond of the Rio Grande narrow gauge, but I certainly have a preference for those years before it was the D&RGW (and the years that most people model). And you're right that there were a LOT of other lines all around the West that have been mostly forgotten. Many of those serve as my primary inspirations, especially the forgotten short lines of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.

      I agree that this corner of Utah provides for a number of interesting opportunities. I hope to someday be able to capture scenes of little narrow gauge trains dwarfed by the red rock canyon walls, the open sage brush country, and the alpine environment of the La Sals. I haven't made much progress lately, but the the concept and plans are still very much alive.

      I enjoy seeing your work as well! The main use of my blog personally over the past year has been as a compilation of links to other blogs that interest me.