As the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) began construction on its Depot District Clean Fuels Tech Center (the Depot) west of downtown Salt Lake City, archaeologists and crews expected to excavate gigantic concrete structures. This new hub for UTA’s partially electrified bus fleet was being built on approximately 1.4 acres of the main railyard that served the historic Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
Turntable and roundhouse? Check!
Massive boiler and cistern? Check!
And…a cache of small artifacts located over three feet below ground? Pump the brakes!
While digging a utility trench in November 2020, workers uncovered two sets of raised railroad tracks with a trash pit underneath them near what was once the railyard’s historic oil house. When a cultural resources discovery like this happens, construction pauses and people come together.
Supporting UTA with construction monitoring and excavation of several archaeological discoveries on this site since 2014, SWCA archaeologists jumped at the opportunity to dig into this unique trash pile. UTA’s project manager, Buffie Chournos, responded enthusiastically despite the temporary disruption to the Depot’s construction schedule. Chris Merritt, the Utah State Historic Preservation Officer and a historic railroad expert, dropped in regularly to visit the team throughout every stage of excavation and analysis. The excitement was contagious — even the construction foreman and his crew were eager to help document and unearth artifacts.
“I have a personal relationship with Utah’s railroad history because several members of my family have worked for the Union Pacific Railroad here in Salt Lake City,” Christine Michalczuk, a career archaeologist and project manager at SWCA, explains. “I’ve enjoyed sharing a connection to our state’s history through this project. There was a little something there that I could share with everyone: the SWCA team, the Utah Transit Authority, the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, and the construction crew.”
Amidst the initial thrill, an important question lingered: what is the best way to preserve this slice of history while enabling the Depot construction to move forward?
Uncovering railroad history while keeping construction plans on track
Moving quickly, SWCA archaeologists collaborated with mechanical excavation experts to unearth a one-cubic-meter section of the trash pile located within the utility trench. Because SWCA had provided preconstruction training materials to the crew ahead of time, the deposit was largely intact once discovered.
In all, the team collected 9,508 artifacts! Transporting the artifacts to the SWCA laboratory in Salt Lake City, our archaeologists cleaned, analyzed, photographed, and cataloged the collection. The database contains pertinent information on each artifact, including age and function.
A cultural resources discovery like this also prompts regulatory requirements. Aligning priorities between UTA, the Federal Transit Authority, and the Utah State Historic Preservation Office was key to moving the project forward.
SWCA supported UTA by developing a technical report that summarized the archaeological investigation and by responding to mitigation and compliance processes. Cultivating strong relationships between agency stakeholders and supporting UTA through all stages of the discovery and reporting enabled the utility trench construction to resume swiftly.
With all archaeological data on the table — and construction operations back on track within days — the fun could begin. Time to put the puzzle pieces together!
Rich history: what the trash tells us about the times
Much of this site’s story remains a mystery. Studying this collection of artifacts, SWCA archaeologists developed hypotheses about the origins of the refuse and the individuals who contributed to it.
Remember how crews discovered two lines of railroad tracks next to the trash pit? Those tracks provided a clear start date to the timeline. The buried tracks were narrow gauge, and archaeologists knew that the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad converted its tracks to standard-gauge width in 1890. It seems like once the old rails were abandoned, the area underneath became a perfect place to throw trash, possibly for decades, into the 1920s. Then, the dump site was buried and forgotten, inadvertently creating a snapshot of railroad life that is rarely recorded in written history.
Artifacts from this collection — some dating back all the way to the 1870s — tell us about the people who rode the rails and worked at the railyard. Some of the artifacts included the following:
- Glass bottles made up 85% of the collection: soda water and snake oil medicines, shoe polish and cold cream jars, and beer and milk bottles
- Ceramics: a marmalade crock, broken dinner plates, serving platters, porcelain teacups, and even beautifully decorated chamber pots
- Durable pieces of clothing: a leather shoe and buttons
- Pieces of toilet rim with hand-painted gold decoration: it’s called the Gilded Age for a reason
- Steak and chicken bones: fresh-cut meat for fine dining
- Scraps of metal, wood furniture, and leather: regular upkeep for a ritzy customer experience
- A set of paper ledgers with hand-written tallies of canned goods: a rare find because paper decays quickly
Might you expect more variety from a collection of nearly 10,000 artifacts? SWCA archaeologists suspect that most of the artifacts characterize a particular type of society, one in which people traveled on dining cars with chef-cooked meals and stayed in ultimate comfort on luxurious Pullman sleeping cars. Most of the ceramics and decorative glass are high quality, indicating that many of the artifacts are the result of lavish consumption during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The set of paper ledgers with hand-written tallies of canned goods, however, raises additional questions as to its origin. No cans were found in the trash pile. Did the notes belong to a railroad worker? Or do they suggest that another class of passengers was also using these rails?
“This was not a standard discovery. My investigative research went in several directions while wrapping my head around what this cache of artifacts meant,” explains Tiffany Collins, an assistant project archaeologist and historical researcher at SWCA. “Why was the passengers’ trash discarded next to an oil house? What do the notebook pages represent? Ultimately, what does this discovery tell us about people’s lives? Developing possible answers to the unexpected elements is what I love most about my job.”
In the history books, the United States during the 1890s to 1920s is often associated with political corruption, rapid industrialization, the extreme wealth of a few families, exploitation of immigrant labor, and turmoil as the nation reoriented itself for several decades in the aftermath of the Civil War. Although many people moved from farmland to cities after the Second Industrial Revolution, others used transcontinental railroads to get away from it all and settle out West. Immigrants from countries such as China, Mexico, Italy, and Greece traveled to Utah to work on the railroads during this time period, and Africans and African Americans commonly worked as porters and waiters on trains. Railroading also became popular for leisure, taking people to scenery, heights, and speeds they had never before experienced.
In 1893, the overproduction of railroads led to a financial crisis, economic depression, and the bankruptcy of some of the major railroad companies. Though the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad did not go bankrupt, one can’t help but consider the dichotomy that existed within any railyard from this era. While most of the population struggled in a survival-of-the-fittest society, wealthy passengers indulged in excursions to the benefit of the very industry that collapsed the national economy of the late 1800s.
Sometimes, the wrong train takes you to the right station
Although the construction for the Depot came to a temporary stop back in 2020, the project moved forward once the archaeological excavation was complete. Now in 2023, the construction of a key bus facility in the Depot is nearly finished. UTA plans to display several of the artifacts from this project in their main lobby while putting the others into safe storage. At the end of the day, everyone is pleased that this unexpected discovery brought to light more of Utah’s railroad history, with artifacts and stories to share with generations to come.
SWCA’s Salt Lake City office would like to personally thank key cultural resources partner, Certus Environmental Solutions, for bringing our team onto the UTA Depot project in 2014.