Shortly after the turn of the century, conditions were ripe for an attempted conquering of the Great Salt Lake. Rail traffic had increased. The Promontory Line "had developed into the chief bottleneck of the whole transcontinental line." (Miller, David E. Great Salt Lake Past and Present. Publishers Press. 5th edition by Anne M. Eckman, 1994, p. 38) Southern Pacific was led by visionaries who believed the railroad could cross the lake. William Hood, Southern Pacific's chief engineer, "had always dreamed of routing the lines straight across the lake." (Dant, Doris R., "Bridge: A Railroading Community on the Great Salt Lake." Utah Historical Quarterly 53, no. 1 (Winter 1985), p. 56) He found an ally in the head of Southern Pacific, Edward H. Harriman, "a man whose financial ability and boldness matched the engineering skill and pluck of Mr. Hood." (Davis, p. 459) The abilities and vision of these men were able to take root in a business environment which had become more conducive to bold, long-term investment:
The times had changed. The day of great and bold enterprises had come. The old era of pinching and often false economy, that let road-bed and rolling-stock run down in order to squeeze out an unjustified dividend, was ended. The condition had been reached where it was only necessary for the engineer to show how the interest on the investment could be made to be told to go ahead. (Davis, p. 460)
Apparently Mr. Hood was able to show Mr. Harriman that the interest on the investment could be made, because the work on the Lucin Cutoff began. This was an ambitious project. It involved 103 miles of new track between Ogden and Lucin, including an almost 12-mile-long permanent wooden trestle and several more miles of rock and gravel fill through shallow lake brine. Temporary trestles were used to help construct much of the fill. (Hofsommer, p. 17; Miller, p. 38)
Perhaps even more impressive than the magnitude of the Lucin Cutoff was the speed with which it was constructed. Construction of the approaches to the east and west sides of the lake started in February, 1902. The first piles were driven into the bed of the Great Salt Lake in August, 1902. By October, 1903, the permanent trestle was completed. The Lucin Cutoff was put into service on March 8, 1904, just over two years after the start of construction.
Southern Pacific made this aggressive schedule possible by throwing massive amounts of resources at the project. The project was not to be delayed by a shortage of materials, equipment or manpower.
A "perfect forest of piles," not to mention millions and millions of board feet of timbers, was diverted from more typical destinations to the Great Salt Lake for the construction of the permanent and temporary trestles. (Davis, p. 463) Almost unfathomable amounts of rock and gravel (fortunately, available locally) were used to construct the fills.
Large amounts of equipment were needed to handle these materials. Southern Pacific gathered as much equipment as it could. It commissioned the fabrication of 25 huge pile drivers in San Francisco. It bought, borrowed or begged over 800 dump rail cars and lined up 80 locomotives with which to pull them. It purchased 8 five-cubic-yard steam shovels.
Of course, large numbers of workers were also needed. At times, over 3000 men were working on the cutoff, about 1000 of them on the trestle. Workers were paid between $2.00 (unskilled laborers) and $4.00 or $4.50 (skilled mechanics, carpenters, bridge-workers and engineers) per day. (Davis, p. 464) Men working on the trestle quickly settled into a very predictable routine:
A station was erected at each mile-end of the projected road. There two pile-drivers went to work back to back, driving away from each other. Five bents of five piles each, or seventy-five feet in all, was a good day's work. At each station a boardinghouse was built on a platform raised on piles well out of the way of storm-waves. There the men lived until their work was finished. The company furnished supplies and cooks, and the men paid four dollars a week for their board. They worked in ten-hour shifts, day and night, Sundays and holidays. (Davis, p. 465)
Bad weather provided about the only break in this routine:
There was never a hindrance on the permanent trestle, save when now and then a heavy storm smashed a log-boom and sent the scattered timbers and piles cruising about the lake on their own account, to be slowly and painfully collected again by the launches and towed back to new booms, while the men in the boarding-houses played cards, read, smoked, and talked, and drew their pay in idleness. (Davis, p. 467)
Of course, bad weather was not the only source of challenges. The sheer magnitude of the project, combined with its remote location, created mind-boggling logistical issues:
A constant problem resulted from the need to supply water-in the amount of 500,000 gallons daily-for the locomotives, pile drivers, steam shovels, and boats employed on the project. Much of it was hauled from Deeth, Nevada, to Lakeside, 145 miles. (Hofsommer, p. 16)
Driving the thousands of piles of the permanent and temporary trestles was not an easy task:
Water in the permanent trestle section varied from 30 to 34 feet in depth and piles had to be driven many feet into the lake bottom in order to insure a stable structure. When 'soft spots' were struck a 100-foot pile could often be driven out of sight without striking solid footing. In such places it was necessary to lash two piles together and drive them into the lake in order to make a solid trestle. (Miller, pp. 39-40)
In other areas of the lake just the opposite problem was encountered:
The progress would be much slower either at this side of the western arm of the lake or at the other side when the 3,200-pound hammers could drive a pile only a few inches. Sometimes, when the pile was already thirty to forty feet deep, it would rebound two or three feet after being struck. Then a hole had to be steam-blasted. (Dant, p. 57)
All things considered, though, the construction of the permanent and temporary trestles went remarkably smoothly. The project's greatest challenge, contending with the settling of the fill, was not even trestle-related:
Here the real work of building the Lucin Cut-Off came in. For a year and nine months that thing [settlement] kept up. . . That first sink began a fight the like of which has not been seen in railroad engineering. It became, apparently, the stupendous task of filling up the bottomless pit. Twenty-five hundred men were at it day and night without cessation. Every hour saw at least one great material-train thrust out on the crazy track to pour its tons of rock and gravel into the greedy, yawning hole. (Davis, p. 467)
Eventually the 2500 men prevailed. The result was the completed Lucin Cutoff, "one of the most remarkable and courageous engineering accomplishments of the time." (Hofsommer, p. 17) Thomas A. Edison affixed his stamp of approval: "The Salt Lake cut-off is certainly a bold piece of engineering and well worth seeing." (Hofsommer, p. 17)