This winter has produced some pretty spectacular snow totals in Tooele. But even with storms that dropped more than a foot of snow in some areas, nothing we’ve seen this winter compares to the blizzard of 1937, which in a matter of days produced foothill snowbanks taller than some grown men.
Not familiar with the blizzard of 1937? If not, you’re not alone. The event is perhaps best documented at the Tooele Valley Railroad Museum — a local attraction many residents have never visited, even if they drive past every day.
The museum is located right in the heart of old Tooele, on the corner of Vine and Broadway, and it brings in quite a crowd during its operating season each summer. This past year, museum curator Jean Mogus said she had visitors from places as far-flung as Belgium and England. But locals, she said, are far less likely to visit the museum or to be aware it exists. They just aren’t as interested in this era from Tooele’s past, she said. That’s a shame, she said, because they’re missing an important piece of their heritage.
“The history here cannot be replaced,” Mogus said. “It was all of these immigrants that came to America with this greater dream. They came here, and they were treated like lower-class citizens, but they never asked for favors and they worked hard. It was neighbor helping neighbor. They sacrificed, and the kids were brought up with absolutely nothing. All the houses you see here — the older ones — were built with a lot of love, sweat and tears… And I think it should be preserved.”
The museum is dedicated to telling the story of how the Industrial Revolution reshaped Tooele in the first half of the 1900s, using its namesake, the Tooele Valley Railroad, as the focal point. The railroad was central to daily life in Tooele for decades — not only in the sense that many Tooele residents rode the train to and from work each day, but also in a very literal sense. The train’s route down the middle of Vine Street meant it bisected the town. Yet many newcomers are surprised to learn Tooele had its own railroad, Mogus said.
Mogus likes to start by telling surprised patrons about how the train had to traverse Main Street with its horn blaring to warn motorists on both roads — Main Street and Vine — of its approach. When headed east toward the mountains, she tells them, the train had to travel backwards, with the caboose in front. Company managers required this unusual method of travel because they worried a decoupled car could race downhill through the town and, due to the track’s proximity to road traffic, cause an accident.
Though important to the community’s economy and way of life, the Tooele Valley Railroad was by no means large in the grand scheme of railroads. The small company managed three stations and just over six miles of track. In spite of its small physical size, the railroad played an important role in solving a very big problem that challenged Salt Lake businessmen at the turn of the century — a problem that would change the course of history worldwide.
In Utah, the 1900s was an era of conflict, and nowhere was this more true than in Salt Lake City. The mining industry had taken off more than 50 years earlier, and after a few decades tensions between the miners — who in some places represented the population majority — and Utah’s more agrarian Mormon settlers came to a head. Farmers who had lost crops and livestock for then-mysterious reasons sued the smelting companies that serviced the mining industry and, for the first time in world history, won.
The judgment shut down key smelters in Salt Lake City, but on the other side of the Oquirrh Mountains, opportunity knocked in Tooele City. In 1908, Utah Consolidated, a mining company based in Bingham, created two new companies — the International Smelting and Refining Company, and the Tooele Valley Railway — and began three massive construction projects. The six-mile Tooele Valley Railroad was the first project to break ground; Utah Consolidated needed the newborn railroad company to connect the International Smelter to the nearest railroad station, which was located west of Tooele and serviced the Western Pacific, the Rio Grande Western and the Union Pacific. The next day, work also began on the $2 million International Smelter and shortly thereafter on a 20,000-foot long aerial tramway — imagine a giant ski lift — that would carry ores from the mines in Bingham Canyon to the International Smelter in Pine Canyon.
The Tooele Valley Railroad Museum is more than just a repository for this history, but is actually a relic itself. The museum complex is the property that once hosted the railroad company’s headquarters — and the railway’s main passenger station. The passenger station now contains displays dedicated to Tooele’s industrial and commercial history. The station is rather small, though, so the museum’s displays have overflowed into a second building, an old home once provided by the railroad company to the railroad’s foreman. Displays in this secondary building focus mostly on home and community life. The train cars still on the property also contain various displays — everything from military paraphernalia to an extensive model train collection.
The museum is owned and managed by the city — Mogus is a paid city employee — but Mogus said volunteers also play a crucial role in keeping the museum open, and have since the museum’s inception. Tooele City acquired the railroad’s property, and pretty much everything it still owned, after working out a deal with the railroad’s final owner, Atlantic Richfield, just before it shuttered the railroad in 1982. Once Atlantic Richfield’s abandonment of the railroad was final, volunteers descended on what remained of the railroad’s assets to convert the abandoned structures and rail cars into a museum.
In doing so, they created a bit of history themselves. In order to complete the museum, the volunteers got permission to relocate the last of the railroad’s original steam engines, engine No. 11, from the city park memorial where it had been interred when the railroad company went to an all-diesel fleet. The memorial was located in the Tooele City Park — more commonly known today as the Swimming Pool Park — on Vine Street, approximately one mile west of the museum site. The engine hadn’t been operational since 1964, so the museum volunteers, many of whom had worked for the railroad, borrowed a crane and a couple of flatcars from the Tooele Army Depot to tow it back to its old home. But when a temporary track and a pair of tractors proved insufficient to slide the engine into its final position, the volunteer crew realized someone had welded the brakes in place. A blowtorch solved this problem, allowing the engine to suddenly slide forward off the temporary track and become lodged in the asphalt on Vine Street.
The use of a few more tractors did eventually succeed in moving the engine to its current resting place, where it is now one of the Tooele Valley Railroad’s most popular exhibits.
Like many local museums, the Tooele Valley Railroad Museum is only open during the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. When open, the museum keeps regular hours from 1-4 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday. Admission is free.