A Look at the Mormon Church Influence in Building the Union Pacific Railroad

by SAMIRA GUIRGUIS

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Mormon surveyors worked in Utah’s Uintah Mountains during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

A civil war and the prospect of a quick fortune from the California Gold Rush left big companies like the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads starving for a labor force. While it is common knowledge that Utah played a role in building the Transcontinental Railroad, an important factor often overlooked is that a big section of it was mostly done by Mormon workers. Power, influence, culture, geography and even a little luck all played a role in why the Mormons were perfect candidates for this job. (KUED)

In 1868, Union Pacific, desperate for workers and approaching Utah Territory, needed to recruit a lot of workers, including surveyors who knew the lay of the land against the intimidating Wasatch Mountain Range. Who better for this job than Mormon leader Brigham Young, who not only had access to a large number of workers, but also men with the discipline and sobriety of their faith? In fact, Mormons were so influential in the building of the railroad tracks that songs were even written about them.

In the Canyon of Echo, there’s a railroad begun,

And the Mormons are cutting and grading like fun;

They say they’ll stick to it until it’s complete,

For friends and relations they’re longing to meet.

Hurray! Hurrah! The railroad’s begun!

Three cheers for our contractor, his name’s Brigham Young!

Hurray! Hurrah! We’re light-hearted and gay,

Just the right kind of boys to build a railway. … (“Echo Canyon”)

The clean, sober, and polite Mormons stood out in stark contrast to the hard drinking, “wild west-type” of most other railroad company crews. Instead of whisky-induced boisterousness, gambling and “soiled doves,” the Mormon campsites operated under orderly and religious governance. (Miller, 102). Deseret News assistant editor Edward Lennox Sloan noted, “In but one camp of less than one hundred men, out of between two and three thousand working in the canyons, did I hear profanity.” The only evidence of any problem between other crews and Mormon crews was good natured “horse play” such as those cited in The Golden Spike, like hiding each other’s equipment, turning horses loose in the middle of the night and, in one example, dropping a rattlesnake into a nearby camp’s soup kettle. (Miller, 199)

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Union Pacific Railroad workers construct tunnel no. 2 at the head of Echo Canyon, Utah. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

Mormons proved to be excellent surveyors. They knew the lay of the land better than any outsider possibly could and grew up in a culture that highly valued the creation of records with meticulous detail. One only need look at the LDS genealogy to understand that. Consequently, Mormon surveyors drew detailed maps to help engineers determine the path of least resistance. (KUED) On one account, “Mormon workers became experts in the use of nitroglycerin ‘blasting oils’ and other explosives… Their sobriety would prove to be an advantage, indeed.” (Stewart, 93)

The Mormon Church used notices in the advertising section of the Deseret News to elicit help. For example, “MESSRS. Joseph A. Young, Brigham Young, Junr., and John W. Young, agents for President Brigham Young, left this city on the 8th inst., for the head of Echo Canon, to let contracts for grading on the Union Pacific Railroad…. Parties wishing contracts on that road can now start their men.… About 10,000 men will be wanted. (“Notice”) In fact, there weren’t enough men in the area, so Brigham Young sent letters to his friend and apostle Franklin D. Richards, encouraging him to send newly converted Mormons from Europe to Utah in order to keep a steady flow of workers. (Stevens, 17)

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Mormon laborers grade the Union Pacific line at the mouth of Weber Canyon, Utah. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

There’s also a mention that “fit men—immigrating from England to Zion could ride from Omaha to the end of the line free of charge if they agreed to work for the railroad.” (Stewart, 183) This fact is important because it kept the work in Utah hands; the wealth didn’t go to other places to be invested. Interestingly enough, Mormon crews worked for both the UP and CP lines east and west of each other. This competition between the two companies allowed the Mormons to increase their wages by starting bidding wars between the two companies. (Stewart, 198)

Despite working hard and being praised for their skill, there was a huge debt scandal and many Mormon workers weren’t paid for months, sometimes not at all. (Stewart, 177) One good thing did come from this experience: working with the Union Pacific gave Utahns the knowledge of how to make their own railroads rather than relying on big companies like the Union Pacific for future building. More importantly, it armed Utah with the economic power to grow. (Miller, 122) Having the manpower and new income, Brigham Young could now choose where the next railroad line would go and thus have a direct route pass through Salt Lake City. The railroad brought change to Utah, which was unsettling, but it also brought a bigger barter system, immigrants, and information. Brigham Young knew he couldn’t stop the railroad from coming. So, he prepared for its inevitability, making sure his people didn’t miss out on the economic opportunity and at the same time showing the world that the Mormons were a hardworking, selfless people (KUED).

Sources


“Notice,” Deseret News, June 17, 1868, 4.

Emrich, Duncan, ed. “Echo Canyon” in Songs of the Mormons and Songs of the West, from the Archive of Folk Song. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1952.

Miller, David E. The Golden Spike. Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, University of Utah Press, 1973.

Stevens, Thomas M. “The Union Pacific Railroad and the Mormon Church, 1868-1871: An In-depth Study of the Financial Aspects of Brigham Young’s Grading Contract and Its Ultimate Settlement.” M.A. Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972.

Stewart, John J. The Iron Trail to the Golden Spike. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1969.

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