USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 707
Guidebook of the Western United States: Part E. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Route



An interesting trip from Salt Lake City is that by way of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad through Parleys Canyon to Park City. This trip has much of interest to almost every traveler, for the route follows for a distance the old Mormon trail by which many of the immigrants reached Salt Lake City, thus giving it a historic interest, and it ends at the mining town of Park City, one of the great gold, silver, and lead camps in the State.

The route lies south along the main line of the railroad to Roper, a distance of 2-1/2 miles from the station at Salt Lake City. Here the road turns to the east (left) and pursues a nearly direct course to the mouth of Parleys Canyon, so named in honor of Parley P. Pratt, the leader of the "First Immigration," or handcart companies. In crossing the valley the traveler may obtain a good idea of its productiveness, for here he sees all kinds of agricultural activities—truck gardening, fruit growing, and live-stock raising. The area passed through is largely suburban, with comfortable bungalows embowered in shade. Just beyond the station of Sugar House is the State penitentiary, on the left.

From time to time in passing across this low land the traveler can see the terraces back of the city, the State Capitol, the University of Utah, and Fort Douglas. Parleys Canyon is the second one south of the fort and the next one south of Emigration Canyon.

The canyon is narrow and somewhat winding and in its lower part is rather rugged and rocky. The red sandstone and quartzite which form so conspicuous a feature of the Wasatch Range show on the left, but in a short distance they are cut through by the canyon, and then they make the great mountain slope on the right. The rock is resistant to weathering and stands out in great cliffs and ribs of red that cross the slope nearly at right angles. Farther up, the canyon is cut entirely in gray limestone and calcareous shale, and here the slopes are generally smooth and the canyon, though V-shaped, has not particularly steep walls. The canyon continues to widen and the surrounding hills to diminish in height until about a mile above the station of Dale the valley is very broad and shallow.

Here the creek forks and the railroad follows the south fork to its head. If the traveler will observe closely the slope north of the stream at the point where it divides he will see an old road winding up over the low ridge which separates it from Emigration Canyon. This road is the old Mormon trail. It crossed the high mountain that may be seen on the left, came down the north fork of the creek, and then crossed the divide to Emigration Canyon, in which it may still be seen at the point where it comes down to the creek. As the traveler who makes the journey from Salt Lake City to Park City has an opportunity to see some of the country crossed by the Mormon pioneers a more extended description of the route they followed and the reasons for so doing are given in the following footnote.85

85Although it is probable that between the years 1825 and 1840 most of the streams, valleys, and passes of the region about Great Salt Lake had been traversed by hunters and trappers in search of the beaver, these dauntless explorers left few if any records of their explorations, and the credit for the discovery of new routes and the making of new trails must be given to those who first gave to the world a written description of their travels. This is undoubtedly true of the route that the Mormons followed down Emigration Canyon. It is probable, indeed almost certain, that Jim Bridger was familiar with every valley and canyon and mountain pass in this region long before the advent of the Mormon pioneers, but the information was never published, and it was circulated only from one trapper to another by word of mouth.

The main route through this western country until 1846 was the Oregon Trail, which crossed southern Wyoming to Jim Bridger's fort, near the southwestern corner of the State, and then turned sharply to the north and passed through Idaho. Emigrants to Oregon and California traveled together by the usual route up Platte River, along the Sweetwater and through South Pass to Fort Bridger and then to Bear River valley. They followed this stream as far as the soda springs, where those for Oregon turned north to Fort Hall, and those for California followed Bear River southward, until at a point within 10 miles of Great Salt Lake they turned to the west to Ogden (Humboldt) River. (See fig. 63.)

FIGURE 63.—Map showing old trails for Oregon and California. 1, Weber Canyon route; 2, East Canyon route; 3, Parleys Park route.

The route thus described was followed until 1846, when the emigrants destined for California were met in the region of Fort Bridger, which previously had been abandoned, by Lansford W. Hastings and James M. Hudspeth, guides, who induced the emigrants to try shorter routes than that by the soda springs. One of the parties, which was guided part of the way by Hudspeth and equipped with pack mules, followed down Echo Canyon and Weber River along the present route of the Union Pacific Railroad to Great Salt Lake. This party had little difficulty and was one of the first of the season to reach California. Two parties guided by Hastings had much difficulty in finding a way for their wagons through Weber Canyon and were so much delayed that they were the last to cross the Sierra Nevada that season. On account of the difficulty experienced in Weber Canyon, Hastings advised some of the parties following to take a route farther south, passing around the south end of Great Salt Lake. This was partly explored the previous year by Fremont and later became known as the "Hastings cut-off."

The ill-fated Donner party, which left Fort Bridger on July 28, 1846, were undecided which route to take. As they were only a few days behind Hastings a messenger was sent ahead to confer with him. He advised the "cut-off," and as a result the party proceeded down Weber River only to the head of the dreaded canyon, 6 miles below the mouth of Echo Canyon, at a point where the station of Henefer is now situated on the Union Pacific Railroad. Here they turned to the left and crossed over a divide and down a ravine to what is now known as East Canyon Creek, a route probably as rugged as the one they were trying to avoid. They followed this stream up for a distance of about 8 miles through a very rocky canyon and then turned to the right and ascended a tributary stream which heads in one of the high summits of the Wasatch Range. They crossed this summit and descended the northern branch of what is now known as Parleys Canyon. This they followed until the canyon closed in about them and then they crossed the low ridge on the right into what is now called Emigration Canyon, and this they descended to the main valley. The road was so rough and mountainous that it took them 16 days to travel from Fort Bridger to the valley of Great Salt Lake. This delay and the difficulty which the party experienced in the desert around the south end of Great Salt Lake caused them to he overtaken by winter in the Sierra Nevada, and here the whole party would have perished had they not been rescued by men sent out from the mining camps of California. At any rate, 39 of the 87 persons in the party died of cold and starvation.

Many have wondered why the Mormon pioneers followed this route instead of keeping down Weber Canyon and reaching the valley at Ogden. It seems almost certain that they had, while at Fort Bridger, determined upon their future location, provided the soil was found to be suitable for agriculture. As the location was practically decided upon it was only natural for them to take the most direct route, which was evidently the so-called Hastings cut-off, or the Emigration Canyon trail, as it was known in after years. Besides, they knew that the trail was passable, for the Donner party had cleared it out the year before. A glance at the map will show that the Mormon trail is a much more direct route from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City than the route through Echo and Weber canyons by way of Ogden. Some of the old trail is still visible in Emigration Canyon, which is one of the points of interest about Salt Lake City.

The railroad climbs steadily and makes several loops in order to decrease the grade and finally arrives at the summit at the siding of Altus (6,900 feet), about 2,700 feet above the starting point at Salt Lake City. By several loops and curves it descends on the east to East Canyon Creek at Gogorza and then follows up that stream to Kimball. Although the original trail by which Brigham Young and his party of pioneers entered the valley of Great Salt Lake came up East Canyon Creek and crossed the crest of the mountains north of Altus at nearly its highest point, this trail was used only a short time, for three years later the incoming bands of Mormons, instead of following Weber River downstream from the mouth of Echo Canyon, turned up Weber River and were soon in the open valley where Coalville now stands. They continued up the Weber to Wanship, where they turned to the west, and after crossing a low, flat divide reached Parleys Park at Kimball. From this point their route practically followed that of the railroad, crossing the summit at Altus and continuing down Parleys Canyon to the Salt Lake Valley. Over this trail came the "handcart companies" of 1856 and most of the Mormon emigrants who entered the valley prior to the building of the Union Pacific Railroad.

The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad continues to the southeast from Kimball through a wide flat known as Parleys Park, crosses a divide so low that it is all but imperceptible, and then follows up one of the head branches of Weber River to Park City. Parleys Park is at so high an altitude that the ordinary crops can not be grown satisfactorily, so it is devoted almost exclusively to stock raising. It contains fine fields of hay and pasture, and the surrounding mountains afford ample range.

The Wasatch Mountains are noted for the brilliancy of their autumn coloring, and should the traveler pass this way in the early autumn, after the first week in September, he will doubtless see a riot of color on the mountain sides, the dwarf maples showing great streaks and splotches of the most vivid scarlet and the aspens rivaling them with a blaze of yellow.

The ores mined at Park City carry silver, gold, lead, zinc, and copper. At the end of 1920 the camp had produced 142,490,000 ounces of silver, gold valued at $4,603,000, 661,000 tons of lead, 37,000 tons of zinc, and 17,000 tons of copper. This was marketed for over $183,800,000. The ore occurs as vein fillings or in bedded layers in the sandstone and limestone of the Carboniferous system.

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Last Updated: 16-Feb-2007