Emma Penrod and Dr. Quint Randle, Dept. of Communications
Beginning in 1908, the Tooele Valley Railroad played a key role in bringing this dusty desert community up to speed with the Industrial Revolution. A collection of mining companies in the Bingham area, known then as Utah Consolidated, incorporated the railroad company and funded the construction of its six-mile-long line to connect the International Smelter to larger railroad lines including, among others, the Union Pacific. Vine Street happened to be the shortest route between the two points, so Utah Consolidated built its railway down the middle of the town’s main east-to-west thoroughfare. Before long, the railroad became a local icon. Images of steam trains proceeding up Vine Street caboose-first remain ingrained in the local memory. However, in recent years Tooele has become one of the fastest-growing communities in Utah1, and newcomers, as well as the rising generation, often have no idea that Tooele ever had its own railroad.
Until the publication of Images of Rail: Tooele Valley Railroad, there was no single publication dedicated exclusively to the history of the Tooele railroad. Several notable local histories, as well as popular online resources, touched on the railroad’s history, but no one had completed an entire book on the topic. As a result, knowledge of and interest in the railroad’s past has diminished dramatically, and several Tooele historians with whom I am acquainted have expressed concern that the history they have preserved will be lost within a few generations because no one is interested in taking up the torch.
I began seriously researching the railroad’s history about three years ago, at first with the intention of writing a newspaper article about a local legend, the Elton Tunnel, which was affiliated with the railroad. This article was published in the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin in 2011. Subsequent to writing this article, I continued my research with the intention of writing a history of the railroad geared toward a popular audience. A few months later, an editor from Arcadia Publishing contacted me to express interest in creating and publishing a pictorial history about the Tooele area, and I suggested the railroad as a possible topic we might pursue.
I took the bulk of my research from original copies of the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin; at one point, over the course of several weeks, I actually skim-read every copy of the twice-weekly newspaper from 1905 to 1985, looking for articles about the railroad. I found some of these papers available in online archives such as Utah Digital Newspapers, which is hosted by the University of Utah, and others in physical archives available at local museums. As an employee of the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin, I also had access to the company’s own on-site archives.
Additionally, I referred to the work of other authoritative historians who have written about the Tooele railroad, and, where possible, conducted formal and informal interviews of locals who worked on or otherwise remembered the railroad.
At the end of the process, I submitted a 15,000 word manuscript to Arcadia for publication. Because Arcadia specializes in pictorial histories, and because Arcadia intended to publish my manuscript within its ongoing Images of Rail series, I also sent approximately 180 historic images of the railroad to accompany the manuscript. The final 128-page product was released this past September.
Because the book was primarily intended to introduce readers to the railroad’s history, my manuscript focused on providing a basic overview of the company’s creation, its successes and failures, and the economic factors that ultimately led to its demise. However, I also tried to include some little-known details I uncovered during my personal research. For example: during the railroad’s early years, local newspapers published articles about a heated dispute between the railroad company president and the Tooele City mayor2. The mayor, it seemed, was under the impression that the railroad intended to run electric street cars, and was less than impressed by the steam engines running through downtown Tooele. The railroad won out when executives threatened to take their business elsewhere.
Since the official publication date, I have attended a number of signings and lectures that have afforded me the opportunity to interact with my audience and learn more about their interests. I have discovered that the vast majority of my book’s readership either worked on the railroad, had relatives who worked on the railroad, or had some other connection to local history. While this may not align entirely with my original goal of expanding interest in Tooele’s history, I have learned an important lesson about writing in today’s world of niche audiences: readers today seek out information that is relevant to them far more often than they read about new topics that might expand their personal horizons. Modern audiences seem more interested in books and articles that illustrate a common experience, perhaps because re-processing these events helps them assign meaning to the things that have shaped their own lives. As a writer, I may better fill this need if I focus on adding more analysis and context to my work in addition to the factual information I already strive to provide.
- Thomas Consultants Inc. Tooele Valley Demographic & Market Assessment. Tooele, UT: Co.tooele.ut.us, 2002.
- “Tooele Smelter out after Ores.” The Tooele Times 28 Jan. 1911.