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The Railroad and Utah Agriculture

On May 10, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant brought the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads together in Promontory, Utah. The Transcontinental Railroad was the culmination of decades of American ingenuity and grit. For many observers, the railroad was the embodiment of the American dream.

A quarter-century before the golden spike was driven in the ground, Ralph Waldo Emerson envisioned what the railroad might mean for American life. He described railroads as “a magician’s rod, in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.”

With the strike of President Grant’s hammer, quiet little farm towns throughout Utah were instantly connected to global markets. The truth of Emerson’s words are evidenced by the monumental changes Utah’s agriculture and food industry experienced.

With the newly completed railroad, it became profitable to move factories nearer raw materials and stimulated food manufacturing activity throughout the state. Where once Utah’s farmers and ranchers sold their goods locally, they now could access a variety of markets and receive higher prices for their products.

The railroad took products grown and manufactured in Utah to consumers across the country and around the world. Utah wheat was shipped either as grain or as flour to California and the southern states. Sugar beets were shipped to processing facilities throughout the state on rail lines built exclusively for that purpose. The finished sugar was then shipped to the Midwest and Pacific Northwest on railcars.

Utah’s dairymen saw immense profits as they sold condensed milk and other dairy products to consumers in railroad towns throughout the U.S. beef, pork, and lamb raised and processed in Utah could now be found on dinner tables across the country.

Most of Utah’s vegetables and some of its fruits were grown to support the state’s burgeoning canning industry, centered mostly in Weber, Davis, and other counties along the Wasatch Front.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Utah’s agriculture and food industry has been living the American dream for the last 150 years in large part due to the monumental changes brought about by The Transcontinental Railroad.