Episode 4: Rio Grande Station
Trains. They used to be the backbone of a thriving nation. You couldn’t get anywhere, unless you went via train. There are more stories than can be counted about trains, some being hijacked, others helping people escape lives a grief and sadness, or even some run ins with the law. There’s even an episode of a much loved, space-based science fiction show called
“The Train Job.”
Trains are an integral piece of both American history and the way America had identified itself for more than a hundred years. They are loved and so much of this county, and many others for that matter, were built on the back of them.
Out here in Utah Trains are especially prevalent. That might be because the famed golden spike was placed here. The joining of the transcontinental railroad happened just a few miles away from the second location we covered, the Union Station in Ogden. It could also be that Utah was founded and grew up during one of the many highs rail travel saw.
Whatever the reason, trains are big in Utah. I think that might be why I choose to cover train stations right out of the gate. There is something to be said for a place that has seen so many hellos and goodbyes. Imagine going down to see your man off to war. You stand on the wooden platform as the train whistle blows. You turn to him, looking sharp in his army greens. Smoke from the train fills the air, along with the fog that seems to permeate every winter morning in Salt Lake City.
He leans down and gives you a quick kiss as they call for his unit to board. You grab his sleeves, desperately trying to memorize every line and feature on his face. From his boyish smile, to the way his eyes twinkle when he looks at you. You’ll want to hold this last image of his face in your head for as long as you can.
“Come back to me!” You shout at him as the train whistle blows again.
“I will,” he calls breaking away. “I promise!”
He jumps on board, and rushes to the open windows, waving at you and calling out his love. As the train begins to pull forward you, and several of the women and children around you move with the train, walking at first, and then running as it pick up speed, pulling away, taking the man you love with it, and leaving only uncertainty and dread in his place. You run to the end of the platform, and stop, your arm in the air, waving, and waving, until long after he head ducks back into the train car. But you still wave, just in case.
Once the train has pulled out of sight you lower your arm, hoping that the next time you stand on the platform, it will be to welcome him home, alive and well. You hope.
My name is Jenn, and welcome to Strange & Unexplained: Utah, episode 4, The Rio Grande Depot.
On May 10, 1869, four years after the end of the civil war, the Golden Spike was laid at Promontory Summit, Utah, joining the transcontinental railroad. At this point, Union Pacific Railway had a virtual monopoly on the rail travel in the west, but they were by no means the only railway operating in the territory at the time. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway became part of Utah’s history in 1883 hoping to be serious competition for U.P.
And they did try. The rivalry between the two is well documented. It was called a “freight war” by the Salt Lake Tribune. They also reported that there was “a good deal of trouble brewing.” The paper wasn’t wrong. But the trouble it thought was brewing was not for the good people of Utah. In fact, the rivalry between these two railroad giants was quite beneficial for everyone around.
Up, thinking they would make quick work of this upstart, dropped their prices to unheard of levels, sure that it would freeze DRG out. Well, not to be out done, the DRG started offering free rides from the SLC to Ogden. This back and forth carried on for a while, finally coming to head in construction. If they couldn’t outdo each other with prices, they would do it with the majesty and grandeur of their buildings.
UP was the first to get their depot or hub set up. Completed in 1909 the Union Pacific Depot was massive, and beautiful and a testament to how proud the company was to be the main means of rail travel in the Utah territory. It was designed by D. J. Patterson and is still an integral piece of the downtown Gateway mall. By the time construction concluded on the UP’S hub, the cost was a whopping $450,000, a staggering $13,830,000 dollars by today’s standard.
DRG would not be out done.
They saw the depot, with its grand entrance, intricate ceiling, the windows, the shops, and public space, and they saw an opportunity to do it better.
Now it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the DRG. The strain the building of a depot would put on the city could not be overlooked. New track would have to be laid, which meant that whole streets would need to be closed down. There would be significant changes to a fair portion of the city, and there were several groups of people that felt their property would decline in value due to construction and road closures. They even went to so far as to say that new tracks everywhere would endanger the lives of pedestrians on the streets.
They even held public hearing in 1899 where both private and public figures were able to come forward and argue their points both for and against the building of the hub. In the end, the supports won out and, despite the delays, the plans for the project began in 1906.
They selected a Chicago architect named Henry Schlacks. Most notable for the St. Paul’s Church in Chicago. A son of German immigrants Schlacks served as an apprentice to a well-known architectural firm of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. There he gained a good foundation for his craft which built on during a two-year long training stint at MIT.
It’s hard to understand why a man who was known for his Gothic inspired churches would enter into a contest to commission a railroad hub in the middle of Salt Lake City. It’s possible he wanted to break away, and try his hand at something new, somewhere new. Maybe he was tired of being known as the son of an immigrant, or maybe the idea of going west held a certain appeal that he couldn’t shake.
While we may never know the reason why he decided to enter, the one thing we do know, he lived to regret it, immensely. After he had been named the victor and given the task of designing the new DRG building, it all went down hill, very, very fast.
In the beginning things were good great even, by May of 1906 the young architect had finished his first rendering of the building and then sent the bill for his services, a total of $2,500, to DRG for payment.
If a fool and his money are soon parted, than a railroad is the exact opposite of a fool, as they were extremely unwilling to part with any money. DRG and Schlacks argued back and forth over the plans, the payment, materials, and even the watercolors that had been chosen for the building’s interior. And this went on and on. Letters were exchanged, harsh words spoken. As construction started, and the work moved on, things only got worse.
Around 1910 the depot began to near completion, and I’m sure by now Schlacks was ready to be done with this troublesome project. The man wanted to be paid and put the whole mess with the DRG behind him and move on with his life. But any hope of that was short lived. DRG was so tight fisted about things, that at one point, just to make sure the work kept going as it should, Schlacks had to take out a loan for a thousand dollars.
A personal loan, just to keep himself and the project afloat.
In a letter he later wrote to the higher ups of the company he stated, “The large force of men employed on the building has piled up the work tremendously for me at my office so that it was necessary for me to borrow a thousand dollars to carry me through December.” Which to me sounds like a subtle nudge in the will-you-pay-me-already-direction.
I don’t know what the brass at DRG had to say about that, or how they felt about Schlacks none to subtle jab at them. But I do know that it was not the response our pour architect was hoping for.
Have you ever been mad at someone while texting? Maybe your sibling won’t let off, or your significant other forgot to take the trash to curb, again. Maybe your coworker still hasn’t paid you for their share of the rideshare gas.
Either way, when you send a message to someone, via text, or even email. And you want to get your point across. You put that bad boy in all caps. Studies have found that as far back as the 1880’s people were sending messages in all caps to signify they were yelling.
Now, I tell you that, so when I explain that Schlecks, after being ignored and having to take out a loan, sent DRG a telegram, with no punctuation to speak of, and all in caps, you understand that the man meant business.
His telegram read:
“I DO NOT CONSIDER IT FAIR TREATMENT TO WITHHOLD MY MONEY
AS YOU KNOW I AM DOING A LOT OF WORK IN CONNECTION WITH THIS JOB
WHICH IS NOT IN MY CONTRACT
AND FOR WHICH I AM MAKING NO CHARGE
AND WHICH WORK I AM DOING JUST TO HELP MATTERS ALONG
AND I FEEL I AM ENTITLED TO SOME CONSIDERATION
I EXPECT AT LEAST A PART OF MY MONEY
IF NOT ALL”
Despite all this, the bad blood between the company, the man hired to see the project through, and the hard financial times the railroad had fallen on, the depot was completed in 1910, after huge delays, and it was opened to the public in 1911. For a staggering price of $750,000, which has to be close to a cool 23 million dollars by today's standards.
With a price tag like that, as well as some very highly publicized train accidents, DRG was looking at a pretty bleak future. Several features that had been set to adorn the halls of the Depot were canceled due to a lack of funds. (Including a set of murals that were surely meant to compete with the murals in the main waiting area of the UP Depot just up the street.)
DRG continued to face financial difficulties during the 1910’s. Caused in no small part by the then CEO George Gould. This pushed the company into receivership.
Receivership, as defined by Wikipedia is: “In law, receivership is a situation in which an institution or enterprise is held by a receiver—a person "placed in the custodial responsibility for the property of others, including tangible and intangible assets and rights"—especially in cases where a company cannot meet financial obligations or enters bankruptcy.”
Which means things for a little rail company was so bad, a person had to be placed within the company to ensure that they started to meet their financial responsibilities. Its easy to understand then why the company was then sold in 1920 and became the Denver Ro Grande Western Railroad Company, or the D&RGW. Things were bad, and not looking to improve anytime soon when the Great Depression hit the nation.
A great many rail companies were lost during this time. As the number of people who could afford to travel dwindled. Things went from grim to downright terrifying for our poor little depot. And it wasn’t until the US declared war on Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1941 that the entire railway industry saw a turn around.
In the case of our little depot it began to service upwards of 20 trains a day full of military personal, gear, and supplies. Along with people forced to ride the rails due to wart time rations on gasoline. Traffic at the depot began to boom, becoming so bad sometimes that rail employees were forced to make trains wait down by 4th south before they could be let in to off load their passengers and take on the new ones.
Imagine being the guy who had to tell the train, sorry friend, you’re gonna have to chill here for just a bit. And with all the hustle and bustle, all the life that was breathed back into the depot, you can’t overlook the death that passed that way as well.
They were called “Mortuary Specials”; these sad trains came clad all in grey and sealed so as to preserve the men inside as they made their final trip home. You have to figure it was a different day in the Depot on the days those trains rolled in. While people still poured into the station for the train, they did it with a heavy heart, all in black, as they came to claim the piece of their life and their heart that the war had taken from them. I’ve been unable to ascertain how many of these sad precessions came through the Rio Grande Depot, but when they did, they were 25 to 30 cars long, each one filled with men who had given their all for our country.
25 to 30 cars. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to stand there on the platform, waiting. Would you be shocked to see all the dead? Or would you already know how bad it is? Would the whole family come? Or just you? How did the people on the platform interact with each other? Was there comfort all around, or did every one keep to their own grief?
Once the war was ended and the surge of business for the D&RGW began to ebb, it became apparent that not only would they be facing steady decline, but all other rail companies as well faced the brutal reality of America’s return to their car’s, now that gas rationing was over. This was hastened by the passing of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956.
According to History.com:
“On June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The bill created a 41,000-mile “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” that would, according to Eisenhower, eliminate unsafe roads, inefficient routes, traffic jams and all of the other things that got in the way of “speedy, safe transcontinental travel.” At the same time, highway advocates argued, “in case of atomic attack on our key cities, the road net [would] permit quick evacuation of target areas.” For all of these reasons, the 1956 law declared that the construction of an elaborate expressway system was “essential to the national interest.””
This act and the interconnecting roads that followed as a result lead to people being able to move out to the suburbs and out of busy city centers, out of the places where trains still held sway. Then the rise of aviation put that final nail in the coffin for the trains.