A historic railroad trestle on fire in Box Elder County.

Historic Railroad Structures Destroyed by Wildfire

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A series of lightning-sparked fires in Box Elder County, which started on June 2, burned nearly 8,000 acres, much of it on or near the Transcontinental Railroad grade.

After crews had contained the fire, State Historic Preservation Officer Chris Merritt joined archaeologists from the Bureau of Land Management and a private firm to inspect the damage. Sadly, there was some history lost.

For those familiar with the area, the fires stretched from Matlin to the Hansel Valley. Although the fires started on June 2, they were not reported in the remote area until June 3, but high winds and high heat had already started to spread the flames. On June 4, the fire near Matlin jumped from 1,200 acres to more than 7,000 acres in a matter of hours.

In total, Merritt said the fire utterly and completely destroyed two historic trestles, both dating to the 1870s rebuild of the alignment. Second, a wooden box culvert (1880s-1900) also was sparked. 

When the archaeologists arrived to inspect the damage on June 5, they found a fire crew from Weber County still actively attempting to stop any more fire damage to the wooden box culvert. The crew chief said they wanted to protect any more damage because he loved history and took the loss “personal.”  

The fire does create some opportunity, because it created a “clear” glimpse in some areas that give archaeologists a new view. In this case, they saw artifacts and features that they didn’t previously find. Merritt is afraid, however, of increased looting in the burned areas, which is why exact locations of the new artifacts and features won’t be disclosed publicly.

Merritt is now working with the BLM to stabilize the wooden box culvert and do a detailed documentation of the burned areas before more history is lost to either looters or fire. He is also looking at ways to prevent future fires from damaging other historic structures, especially the wooden trestles.

Further reading:

  • Utah wildfire destroys 150-year-old pieces of transcontinental railroad history (KSL)