railroad burned

Inspectors with the Utah Division of History and Bureau of Land Management look over the remains of a historic wooden railroad trestle that burned last week during the Matlin Fire in western Box Elder County.

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The wildfires that burned across thousands of acres in Box Elder County last week were handled without injuries or damage to working structures, but one of them took a piece of history with it.

The Matlin Fire, named because it burned an area that includes the railroad ghost town of Matlin, claimed two wooden railroad trestles that have stood in the area for 150 years.

Chris Merritt, historic preservation officer with the Utah Division of State History, said the trestles measuring about 15 feet long and 7 feet high had vertical posts that were driven between 1870 and 1872, shortly after the transcontinental railroad was completed at the site of Golden Spike National Historical Park.

Merritt was part of a team that visited the area late last week after the fire was contained and extinguished. He said last week’s fire, fueled by invasive species like cheatgrass, burned through the area “so quick that there was no chance to really save” the trestles.

A wooden box culvert built around the same time was damaged, but firefighters were able to save it before it was a total loss. Merritt said firefighters from Weber and Box Elder counties “did an awesome job” in saving the culvert.

“They hit it with water the day before, and when they came back and saw it still smoldering, they sprayed foam on it,” he said. “The fire crews do such a great job out there every year. They care about the history.”

Merritt has gotten to know the area well through his work, having spent the last couple of years leading tours of historic railroad sites in the county.

He gave tours to visitors last year as part of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory.

The trestles that burned were two of many built during the period to allow trains to cross gullies that would occasionally fill with more water than a culvert could handle.

“One of the lessons we tried to share last year is that while we celebrated on May 10, 1869, there were already construction crews working backwards, fixing things that were hastily built and replacing them with more permanent infrastructure,” Merritt said. “These two trestles were probably built using redwood and Douglas fir cut in the Sierras (Sierra Nevada Mountains in California) and hauled out there to install.”

He said that until the rail line through Matlin went out of use in 1942, there were crews out inspecting the area every day to make sure everything was functioning properly.

“Every one of those (trestles) was critical to the safety of the railroad,” he said. “Since then they’ve been impacted by erosion and fire, but they’ve done pretty well without any maintenance.”

He said the trestles, located about 25 miles west of Kelton, were two of approximately 140 such structures remaining in Box Elder County from the era.

“There are still quite a few left, but every one we lose is a little bit of heartbreak,” Merritt said.

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