Friday, September 16, 2016

The Cache Valley Branch, a Window into Yesteryear

This photo from the Library of Congress's online web archives shows the starting point of the Cache Valley Branch as seen circa 1933. From here the Cache Valley Branch connected into the Oregon Shortline Railroad's mainline from Ogden to Pocatello Idaho (the modern day Union Pacific's Ogden Subdivision)

In the early days of railroading, branchlines and shortline railroads served a crucial role in connecting small towns and industries into the national rail network. In an era without Interstate Highways, Semi Trucks, and a gas station every couple hundred of miles, branchlines were often the only way to bring goods into a small city. In some cases branchlines served large industries on the edge of an urban sprawl. Famed branchlines in Utah included the Denver and Rio Grande Western's Bingham Branch (Midvale Tramp), the Tintic Branch, The Marysvale Branch, the Heber Branch; the Western Pacific's Warner Branch; and Union Pacific's branches to Little Mountain, Cedar City, Malad Idaho, and the Cache Valley Branch.

In many cases the post-war era changed the operation of branchlines and lead to many being abandoned or converted into other purposes. For example part of the DRGW's Heber branch became the modern day Heber Valley Railroad, while the remainder of the line was abandoned. The Bingham and Garfield Branches owned by the DRGW (affectionately known as "The Midvale Tramp") would be cut of from Copperton, and were partially converted into the right of way served by the UTA Trax Red Line (freight service continues, after the fall of night). Both the Warner Branch (WP) and the Little Mountain Branch (UP) fell after mergers made their purpose redundant, seeing that the railroad acquired in the merger owned a mainline to the location the branch had served. Some of the branchlines were destroyed by natural disaster, as was the case when the Thistle Landslide cut off the Marysvale branch from the rest of the DRGW system, leading to the DRGW to abandon the rest of the line. Other branchlines have become caught up in scandal and theft, as the fate which befell the Tintic Branch just this year when businessman Al Mckee hired a scrapping agency to 'remove' the line illegally for the purpose of selling off the scrap (a bizarre story that deserves to have it's own post on this blog someday...).

This view taken by the author on August 23, 2016 at Midvale Utah shows the transformation of the Denver and Rio Grande's branchline to Bingham and Garfield, into the modern day UTA Trax Redline. The line does remain in use by freight trains (as evidenced by the boxcar in the industry at the right, and the distant freight locomotives idling down line), but the freight trains are now forced to work it at night after UTA operations have been silenced for the day. The modern look of this location contrasts with that of historical photos of the line in operation, as seen in the link to 1994 photo of this location (linked photo by James Belmont):

But while many branchlines have fallen, a few still remain in service, intact and still making a living. One of the most resilient branchlines in Utah is the Cache Valley Subdivision, a stretch of track from the far end of Cache Valley, down into Hyrum, and then back up into Preston Idaho. While the equipment might be modern, the modern day workings of the line are not far removed from the work done on it say 50, 60 or 70 years ago. During my time at Utah State University before I transferred schools, I had the ability to frequent the line and record it's operation and history.

This shot taken on September 8, 2015 by the author is at Cache Junction, the same location as the 1933 photo at the start of this article. UP 3687 (SD40-2) and UP 1977 (SD40N), are seen here after having exited the lead into the Cache Valley Branch, and taking a load of covered hoppers to the grain silo at Trenton.

On a normal operating week the Cache Valley local operates at a predictable and steady pattern. Departing the Union Pacific yard at Brigham City, the train travels north through Wheelon and then travels south into Cache Junction. The train crew ties up for the night at the junction, departing Tuesday morning for the JBS Swift slaughterhouse and meat processing facility. After switching at JBS, the crew ties up at Logan, Utah right besides the historic depots preserved there. Wednesday morning takes the train up from Logan and at least as far as Presto, a plastic products plant located in Lewiston, Utah. If needed, the train will run further up into Preston, Idaho at the terminus of the branch. Once all work upline is completed, the crew returns to tie up at Logan.

Thursday's schedule works as Tuesday's in reverse, the train leaves Logan to work at JBS Swift again, then it comes to Cache Junction. If necessary, the train will travel up the mainline to Trenton to switch out a grain silo. Friday morning is the return trip to Brigham City. 

This regular (almost clockwork) pattern of work, plus the scenery of northern Utah; has made the Cache Valley local run one of the favorite trains to chase for railfans in Utah. A yearly tradition is beginning to emerge called "Cache Valley Rails" were rail enthusiasts from as far south as Salt Lake City, will be gathered in Logan, Utah as early as 7:30am to catch the movement on the rail line. 

June 8th, 2016; evidence of the popularity of the Logan Rails event is shown here in this photo taken south of Smithfield Utah. A line of cars belonging to the attending railfans' is parked at the side of the road, with their occupants standing trackside, waiting for the perfect shot of a southbound photo of the Cache Valley local. Below is a photo of the local lead by UP 1736 (SD40N), once it arrived at the group's location.

Of course this clockwork regularity on the Cache Valley branch can be easily disrupted by the arrival of northern Utah's harsh winter storms and cold spells. A particularly harsh storm hindered the line's work in the first week of Febuary 2016. Since many portions of the line only see a train once or twice a week, snow removal is infrequent. As snow melted, water slipped into the joints of rail at road crossings, were it then froze in place. The passing cars above melted the ice again, and further compressed it in between the rails and the roads. When the train finally arrived to travel the line, the railroad discovered it was almost impassible due to the ice frozen in their path. Maintenance of Way crews worked at cleaning out the rails, while the train slowly crept through the line. Trips that would only have taken an hour or two on a clear line, became gruelingly slow 8 hour journeys. 

Febuary 4th, 2016; the storm crippled Cache Valley Branch show's evidence of slow progress cleaning the rails. The train is tied up at Presto in Lewiston, Utah; and not it's normal location in Logan, Utah. This is evidence suggesting the long trip to clear out the snow to this point of the line resulted in the crew reaching their legal work shift limits, and rather than return the train to Logan, the decision was made to leave it at Presto. The broom left hanging on the hood of the UP 1729 (SD40N),helps to covey the sense of struggle against the snow. UP 2327 (SD60M), is the trailing unit in the consist.

The second photo was taken on the same day near Franklin, Idaho; showing a portion of the line that had yet to have been cleared.

On Febuary 16, 2016; evidence of Utah's fast changing weather is seen on the Cache Valley local at Logan Utah. Only a few weeks after the disastrous snowstorm, the line is now clear, as snow begins to melt away from it. The blue sky stands in stark contrast to the whiteout that dominated only a few weeks earlier.

Of course one of the greatest assets of any branchline is it's sense of history. In some areas the Cache Valley Branch traverses, few has changed in a hundred years. Near the line is a large collection of abandoned rail spurs and industries, testimony of a once busier line that saw daily rail service. One of the railroad treasures of the line though is the amount of preserved stations. Next to the track's in Logan, the old station stands having been preserved as a Mexican restaurant, south from it is the former freight depot, itself having undergone a miraculous restoration. It is easy to imagine the era when these rails were not ruled by SD40's or SD60's; but traveled by 2-8-0's and GP7's. 

June 26, 2013; at Heber Utah. The Union Pacific 618, the famed 2-8-0 currently being restored on the Heber Valley Railroad; is recorded to having worked from 1945 to 1955 on the Cache Valley Branch. 

September 30, 2015; Logan, Utah. The Logan Utah train station has been restored, and now houses the restaurant Cafe Sabor. The tracks behind it still remain in use as part of the Cache Valley Branch. Nearby is the preserved freight depot, and a few blocks away is the current location of the former Smithfield depot. The valley also hosts a few stations left over from the Utah Idaho Central, an interurban electric railroad that ran from Ogden to Preston.
May 3, 2016; this building (currently a private home) north of Mendon bears witness to having once been a rail served industry. The windows are built into what was once the loading docks. Allegedly this building once served farmers who transferred equipment and goods to the railroad here.
May 28, 2016. An abandoned sugar factory in Preston Idaho, is yet another relic from an era were the branchline served many large agrarian based industries. South from here in Richmond Utah, is another large abandoned factory located near the rails.
 May 24, 2016. An abandoned spur leading towards grain silos in use by IFA in Logan. This spur once lead to a condensed milk factory and the silos pictured here.
Yet another abandoned spur as seen on Febuary 27, 2016 at Smithfield, Utah. The Morgan Pea Company (later part of the Del Monte brand), was one of the largest shippers on the Cache Valley branch, and one of the largest sources of rail traffic on the line. The tracks remain mostly intact leading into the facility, although it is unlikely that they will ever see use again.

The ability to feel like one has stepped back in time is ever present on a small town branchline. Simple and steady operations combined with eclectic bits of history help to convey the sense that something truly special exists with this rail line. Of the many branchlines that once existed or still serve Utah, the Cache Valley branch has a special character that is truly unique. 

June 8, 2016; a few of the rail movements captured at the Logan Rails event was the rare sight of a self powered rail crane, moving along the branchline. Another sight of the day was UP 1736 running long hood forward, and with only one hopper in tow, proof of the fluctuating nature of traffic on a branchline.

Until next time,

-Jacob Lyman

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