By Justin Franz
BOX ELDER COUNTY, Utah — A pair of trestles built nearly 150 years ago along the route of the First Transcontinental Railroad were destroyed late last week in a wildfire in Utah. The lightning-caused Matlin Fire scorched more than 8,000 acres last Thursday through remote Box Elder County.
While firefighters were able to protect a number of structures from the fire and no one was injured, they were not able to save two small bridges built by the Central Pacific Railroad in the early 1870s. The fire also damaged a small wooden culvert. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees the historic right-of-way, called it “a great loss.”
The remains of a bridge near Matlin, Utah. Photo Courtesy of Utah Division of State History.
The route of the First Transcontinental Railroad west of Promontory Summit was slowly turned into a backcountry roadway after it was bypassed in the 1940s. Today, the Transcontintial Railroad Backcountry Byway stretches nearly 90 miles from Promontory to Lucin, where it meets up with the Lucin Cutoff, which is still in use by Union Pacific. According to Chris Merritt, a historic preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History, there are about 140 structures along the byway, including wooden bridges and stone culverts. In 2019, BLM got a grant to do a survey of all of the structures, including the two bridges that were lost. Merritt said as wildfire seasons get more intense across the west — due to extreme drought and invasive plants that fuel wildland fires — records like that will become more and more important.
“This is sort of a wake-up call because we have a lot of wooden structures out there,” Merritt said. “We have to figure out how to protect this other infrastructure from a similar fate (as these two trestles).”
The wooden culvert impacted by the fire was built sometime between the 1880s and 1900 when the railroad was improving its infrastructure along the route. Firefighters discovered that the culvert was on fire on Thursday and quickly doused it before nightfall. But the following morning, the culvert had reignited so they put it out again, this time for good. Merritt said the state hopes to slide a metal culvert into the wooden structure to stabilize and save it.
Firefighters put out a fire inside a wooden culvert. Photo Courtesy of Utah Division of State History.