Lucin Cutoff -- Still Needed as a Railroad Shortcut
Railroads love straight tracks.
TALES of a mysterious monster lurking in the briny waters of the Great Salt Lake have been around since 1877. But if a century plus of running trains across the north end of the lake proves anything, it's that the real monster there is simply the lake itself.
When the Golden Spike was driven at Promontory on May 10, 1869, it heralded an unprecedented era of transcontinental railroad transportation. However, it was apparent a few years later that the Promontory Mountains created the worst railroad bottleneck in the entire nation.
Something had to be done. More than a century ago, work started on the Lucin Cutoff, a revolutionary railroad causeway and trestle that spans nearly 20 miles of Great Salt Lake water and mud flat and creates a much-needed shortcut, even today.
But during those 110-plus years of rails across the lake, its monstrous, heavy waters have consistently battered the man-made shortcut. Salt has coated workers, equipment and machines white, sometimes shorting out electric signals and even halting locomotives with its unusual mineral water.
There had been occasional problems with the soft and hungry lake bottom swallowing up Paul-Bunyan-size posts and 20-ton rocks when the original trestle was built in 1902, but there were also significant sinkage problems in the 1920s, the late 1950s and even as recently as 2000.
The wet years of the mid-1980s forced the railroad to sometimes dump several trainloads of rock a day along the tracks to protect them from record-high lake waters.
In short, the Lucin Cutoff has been a maintenance nightmare. It ended up cutting almost 50 miles off most freight train trips through the area. The former trestle was also considered to be the longest, straightest, most level stretch of track ever built. The cutoff was named after the town of Lucin, west of the Great Salt Lake.
In addition to eliminating 2.2 percent grades to Promontory, 1,500 feet higher than the lake, all the curves in the Promontory route that could turn a train 11 times were avoided.
Lee Witten, librarian/archivist for Ogden's Union Station, said this Southern Pacific trestle was an engineering marvel of its age and was at one time the longest such span in the world.
Even conductors had a problem at times, if they had to get out of the train and the wind was blowing and making waves.
"Your uniform would quickly turn white," Richard L. Couturier, 63, of Kaysville, a retired Union Pacific conductor of 42 years, said.
He said if enough lake spray was hitting the tracks, sometimes the locomotive engine would even fizzle out.
"You'd have to wait until it dried out," he said.
Another danger along the trestle was the possibility of fire. One in November 1957 destroyed a 600-foot portion of the trestle and it had to be replaced. Two trains collided along the trestle in 1904, killing 26 people. But the most famous accident on the trestle came on New Year's Eve 1944, when two trains collided, killing 48 people and injuring 79 others.
Couturier said almost three dozen trains a day traversed the Lucin Cutoff in the 1960s. Today, the traffic is about six freight trains a day in each direction. Passengers trains have bypassed Lucin since the mid-1980s, going through Salt Lake City and along the south side of the lake shore.
Speed limits were 20 mph for freight and 30 mph for passenger trains on the trestle, taking 15 to 20 minutes to cross the lake. For the causeway, speed limits are 40 to 60 mph, traversing the lake in as little as 12 minutes.
"The sunsets and sunrises were out of this world," Couturier said of his numerous Lucin crossings. He also said Hill Air Force's bombing range is southwest of the causeway and that would produce its own great show at times.
Couturier said the trestle decking was rotted out by the early 1970s. Its era had ended.
Today a dirt-and-rock causeway has replaced the trestle. In fact, the trestle's wood has now almost all been salvaged by a wood company, Trestlewood.
Daniel B. Kuhn, rail planner and historian for UDOT, said passengers across the Lucin Cutoff at night felt they were riding across the ocean and could not see very many city lights. He also recalls an experience riding Amtrakacross the cutoff eastbound in 1983 when rising lake waters had just washed out a portion of the causeway. The train had to back up all the way to Nevada and divert passengers by bus from there.
The Lucin Cutoff history clearly illustrates how man has failed to tame the Great Salt Lake completely, even in the 21st century.
SOURCESL www.trestlewood.com; "Tale of the Lucin," by David Peterson and Utahrails.net, by Don Strack.
(-Originally published in the Deseret News, by Lynn Arave, on Dec. 26, 2002.)