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the Union Pacific's Nomadic Photographer
by Barry A. Swackhamer
Published in Journal
of the West, Vol. 33, No. 2; April 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Journal of the West, Inc. Reprinted with permission of
Journal of the West, P. O. Box 1009, 1531 Yuma, Manhattan, KS 66505-1009, USA
Promontory, Utah (two parts of a possible panorama; a third part has been found)
Courtesy Barry A. Swackhamer and Carol A. Williams,
Publisher, Journal of the West.
PROMONTORY STATION in later years, [From a National Park Service
page no longer on their website]:
Promontory Railway Station and Restaurant.
"A few days prior to the First Transcontinental Railroad completion ceremony, May 10, 1869, a few businessmen from the nearby camps moved up to the summit area and inaugurated the townsite. Photographer Savage noted on May 9, 'Promontory Point consists of 1/2 dozen tents and rum holes, all 9 miles from water.' The Summit was already being confused with the tip of the Promontory Peninsula some thirty miles to the south. By noontime, May 10, about 16 tents had been erected at the site. At the end of the month, the town consisted of the ticket offices of the Union and Central Pacific railways, their telegraph offices, about 14 saloons, some restaurants, assorted gambling dens, and a few stores. There were perhaps 30 tents in all, most of them squatting on the Union Pacific right of way.
By late July there were still no accommodations at Promontory with waits of up to 15 hours. Open gambling booths and whiskey shops were the rule. Union Pacific built a depot at Promontory Station in the fall. The building housed a waiting room, telegraph office, restaurant, and had two apartments upstairs. Central Pacific followed suit.
On November 17, the Central Pacific bought out the Union Pacific between Promontory and Ogden, making Ogden the junction between the two railroad lines. With the move to Ogden, the end-of-track town disappeared at Promontory and the Central Pacific set up its station at the site. The station housed 'helper' engines used to boost trains up the steep Promontory grades. It included a 'well kept eating-house for passengers and train men and large coal sheds with a three-stall round-house and other buildings for the convenience of employees.'
From 1870 through the opening of the Lucin Cutoff in 1904, Promontory Station served a threefold function on the railroad. First, and most important, it was an engine terminal for locomotives in helper service. Second, it was the location of section houses, a base for crews that maintained the track. Third, its depot and eating house served the needs of local shippers and the traveling public. Developments in the town grew from these functions and the need to house associated employees.
In 1870 there were 43 people living at Promontory Station, including the hotel operator and his family, and 25 young Chinese laborers and one Chinese cook who lived in two section houses. In about 1879, a one-room school was built off the right-of-way north of the depot. Thomas Brown took over the hotel (an eating house with a small store) in the middle 1880s. In 1885 the Central Pacific Railroad was absorbed into the Southern Pacific System. There was a general upgrading of facilities with more and larger engines.
Though Promontory Station was a railroad work camp, it served as the commercial center for the surrounding cattle community. The railroad provided ranchers access to national markets. Charles Crocker set his son George up in the cattle business with the establishment of the Promontory Stock Ranch Company in 1886. The ranch was referred to as the Bar M after the Company brand. A three story mansion with piped in water known as the 'Big House' was built just a mile north of the Last Spike site. The hard winter of 1887-1888 destroyed much of the stock of the Company, but it survived and continued in the cattle business into the following century.
From the 1860s through the 1890s section hands were Chinese who lived at Promontory in rude dugouts. In 1883, nationwide anti-Chinese sentiment resulted in the passage by Congress of the Chinese Exclusionary Acts. In the 1890s Central Pacific began to hire Italians and by 1900 the Promontory track force was half Chinese and half Italian.
In 1901 a proposal was made to build track across the Great Salt Lake saving time and the use of helper engines over Promontory Summit. When the Lucin Cutoff was completed in 1904, the Promontory Branch was used as a backup line serving the country north of the Great Salt Lake. The Promontory engine house closed and the depot and eating house shut down, but the Southern Pacific maintained its section crews at the station. Headquarters of the Promontory Stock Ranch Company, along with the 'Big House', moved from Promontory.
The new century marked the beginning of dryfarming. A school, store, and post office were established for a growing rural community. Frederick Houghton purchased the store in 1907. The enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 and the Promontory-Curlew Land Company buy-out of the Promontory Stock Ranch Company allowed farmers to purchase land and gain access to water. Train service on the branch line and the outbreak of war in Europe stimulated boom times on the Promontory. There was a rush to buy advanced machinery, autos and tractors, and cultivate more land. By 1919, Promontory had been transformed from cattle range to a profitable farming community.
Debt, overexpansion and the end of the war resulted in a nationwide agricultural depression. The increased efficiency of the tractor allowed surviving farmers to enlarge their holdings resulting in a period of farm consolidation. With improved roads and automobiles, farmers began to commute to their holdings, living in town. From an all-time high in 1920, Promontory's population began to plummet continuing to decline throughout the 1930s. The store was abandoned in 1935. The rail line was used less and less with the last regularly scheduled train crossing the Promontory Branch in 1938. In 1942 the track of the Promontory Branch line was removed for the war effort."
Courtesy National Park Service.