Historians will present a free prequel to the Transcontinental Railroad
David Nicholas and Steve Leatham will talk Aug. 26 at the Echo Church
The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 opened marketing between the east and west coasts, boosted industry and gave people a convenient means of relocating themselves and their families to territories west of the Mississippi.
But what were some of the other reasons to lay down the tracks? Historians David Nicholas and Steve Leatham will answer that question during a free presentation, “From Camp Floyd to Fort Bridger: Logistics of the Mormon War 1858,” at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 26, at the historic Echo Church, 50 Temple Lane, in Echo.
The lecture is sort of a prequel to the Transcontinental Railroad, Leatham said.
“The time frame we’re mostly looking at is 1858, 10 years before the completion of the railroad,” he said. “Our starting point will be 1857 when federal troops were sent to Utah to put down what was called the ‘Mormon Rebellion.'”
The Mormon Rebellion, or Utah War, was a confrontation between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and federal troops, who were sent by President James Buchanan to put an end to polygamy, Nicholas said.
“By 1857 the country was being torn apart by partisan politics between the Republican and Democratic parties,” he said.
The Republican party was a new political party formed in the 1850s, and the two parties’ philosophies were different than they are now, according to Nicholas.
“Part of the Republican party’s platform was to end and stop the spread of slavery, while the Democratic Party, which was primarily southern-oriented, didn’t want anything to do with that,” he said. “But there was one thing that the two parties could agree on at that time. They were both anti-polygamy.”
Buchanan and the political parties also hated the fact that Brigham Young, the leader of the Latter-day Saints, which condoned polygamy, had set up a separate legal system that was populated and controlled by its members, also known as Mormons.
“Buchanan wanted to send a message and unite the two parties around the fact that they were both anti-polygamous, and were upset that the Mormons set up their own form of government and legal system,” Nicholas said. “The parties decided to, for the lack of a better word, make an example of Brigham Young.”
That example was going to be sending between 4,000 and 5,000 troops to enforce federal laws in the Utah Territory, because Buchanan wanted to show that the federal government would not be intimidated by any type of separatist thoughts, according to Leatham.
In order to keep these troops fed, cared for and armed, the government hired 5,000 teamsters, blacksmiths and other suppliers, he said.
“This huge supply train included an estimated 4,500 wagons, and 50,000 oxen that pulled the wagons,” Leatham said. “If you put the troops and the supply carts in a line, it would cover about 50 miles.”
Another topic the lecture will cover is the road the troops traveled on while in Utah, Leatham said.
“While I was doing some research for the Echo Church, and doing my own family-history research, I found out that Brigham Young had 200 Mormon settlers build a road up Provo Canyon in the spring of 1858,” he said. “I came across a report that Captain James H. Simpson … was in the group of topographical engineers, who reported back to Congress about this road that he surveyed later that fall. I had never heard of this road before, even though I had lived in Park City and Heber Valley.”
The road, Leatham discovered, ran from Camp Floyd, where the federal troops would be housed, up Provo Canyon and through the Heber Valley, including Keetley, which is now underwater from the Jordanelle Reservoir.
“From there it ran across Richardson Flat, and continued down Silver Creek Canyon into Coalville,” he said. “From Coalville the road went up Chalk Creek Canyon to Fort Bridger. So, it was kind of the precursor to U.S. Highway 189, Highway 40 and Interstate 80.”
During his research, Leatham discovered that he had some relatives who were among the 200 Mormon men who worked on building the road.
“Richard Sessions was my fourth great-grandfather and his son, Daniel Alexander Sessions, who they called Alexander, worked on the road,” he said. “They were also among the first settlers in the Heber Valley.”
One of the reasons Brigham Young ordered the road to be built was to employ Mormon men, Leatham said.
“When Brigham Young got word that 5,000 troops were coming to Utah, he didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “The church members thought they were going to hang Brigham Young.”
Since church members had been violently run out of Illinois and Missouri, they didn’t want it to happen again, according to Leatham.
“There were 30,000 people living in Salt Lake City and to the north, so Brigham Young made plans to move everyone south of what is now Provo,” he said. “In doing so, he needed something for the men to do, so he authorized the building of the Provo Canyon Road as a public work project.”
Ironically, the troops were able to use the road, but with a stipend, Leatham said.
“When the road was completed, Brigham Young put in a toll gate at the mouth of Provo Canyon,” he said with a laugh. “So when all the army supply wagons arrived, they had to pay a toll to get across the bridge.”
This train of troops, wagons and purveyors also opened the Buchanan administration’s eyes to the importance of building a railroad that connected the East to the West, Nicholas said.
“The care and feeding, and providing supplies to the troops, underscored the fact that if the West were invaded without a rail connection between the East and West we would be (in trouble),” he said. “Also, between 1848 and 1861 there was a rapid advancement in technology, associated with any type of science, especially with mechanical engineering. Those advancements made it practical for the building of the Transcontinental Railroad that united the East and West coasts.”
Leatham and Nicholas’ presentation will complement the “A World Transformed: The Transcontinental Railroad in Utah” exhibit that is currently showing at the church, said Sandra Morrison, treasurer of the Echo Community and Historical Organization, aptly acronymed as ECHO, which oversees the caretaking of the church.
“The original exhibit was showcased during the railroad’s 150th anniversary in 2019 at the Utah State Capitol,” she said.
After its showing, Utah State University Special Collections Curator Daniel Davis and the Utah Division of Arts and Museums created a traveling exhibition, which features some of the nearly 1,000 historic photographs that Andrew J. Russell took of the Union Pacific building the Transcontinental Railroad, according to Morrison.
“There are something like 27 different images and interpretive panels, so we split it up between the church’s main floor and lower level,” she said.
The Park City Treble Makers have already booked their Christmas-concert season schedule.
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