Tom Clyde: Riding West on lightning
There are a couple of big anniversaries coming up. Two years ago this week, I got struck by lightning. Obviously not a direct hit, but close enough to count. My nephew (actually grand-nephew) and I were relocating the end bumper of the center pivot sprinkler system on the hay farm. Picture installing a football goalpost out in an open field. We had the bucket of the front end loader filled with wet cement that needed to get poured in the hole before it set up and became part of the tractor. A little micro-burst storm came up very suddenly, and while we were smooshing the cement around in the hole with shovels, standing next to this big metal thing sticking up in the air, we got zapped.
It was enough to knock us sideways, and I would have gone down but for the support from the shovel. The fingertips of my gloves were burnt, and my hands and arms tingled for several hours. I don’t recall either thunder or a bright flash of light. Just the sizzle of the fingertips of my rain-soaked gloves. The rain quit as quickly as it started, and nobody seemed to have any lasting damage. We got the cement poured and went on with the day’s work.
If the lightning strike imbued me with any superpowers, they have not become obvious in the last two years. I’m not ready to pack it in and join the Avengers. But the experience rearrange my perspective on things. Knowing that almost unmeasurable variables could have been the difference between nothing at all and being farmer-kabob puts the uncertainty of everything into focus. If the lightning strike had been closer, or if I had been touching the steel pole instead of a couple of feet away — who knows.
Anyway, it’s become a great excuse to ignore a lot of stuff that really doesn’t matter.
The other important anniversary is the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. It was a huge technological advance. For the first time, people and goods could move from the East to San Francisco at a speed faster than a horse could walk. It was possible to move heavy freight long distances in high volume. Within about 20 years from the completion of the transcontinental, there were feeder lines that extended out into the hinterlands. The coal mines near Coalville could affordably ship coal to heat the homes of Salt Lake and Ogden and power the boilers in the Park City mines. Park City’s ore shipped to smelters in Salt Lake where the economies of scale made the processing profitable.
Rail service extended into Heber and places like Sanpete County, and Utah became a major player in the wool industry. Before the railroad, wool raised in Utah would have been limited to local use. It’s too bulky to economically freight it any distance by horse and wagon. Once they could put it on a train, ranchers in Utah could sell their wool into a world market, and places like Spring City, Fairview, and Heber became wealthy little towns. It was a big business in Utah from about 1890 to the 1920’s.
The local railroad history is largely gone. There is, of course, the Rail Trail. There’s not much along it in terms of water tanks or buildings. It’s more trail than rail at this point. It’s not obvious that millions of dollars of freight moved along it. The depot on Heber Avenue survives, inexplicably abandoned despite its prime location. There is something of the old Rio Grande building there. Union Pacific had a stockyard near the Blackrock Ridge condos on SR 248. That’s where beef raised in Summit County began the trip to Chicago, making large-scale cattle ranching profitable here. The Heber Creeper is preserving the Wasatch railhead, and is the closest place to see it all in action.
There was an ambitious proposal to build a railroad over Wolf Creek Pass, into the Uintah basin, pushing east into Colorado, and then south into New Mexico. It was going to be an extension of the line that came up Parleys Canyon from Salt Lake to Park City. For some reason, they started building at Hailstone, more or less under the Jordanelle dam. The roadbed was graded all the way through Woodland, where there were several big sawmills. Ties were cut and laid, but as best I can tell, it all went bust because they couldn’t come up with the money to buy the rails. That, and the weird fact that it wasn’t connected to existing railroads in Park City. The laborers and tie suppliers didn’t get paid, and it all went bust.
But right there, about a quarter mile from where I got struck by lightning, the old rail grade is still an obvious hump in the ground.
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