Relics hundreds of years old unearthed in Salt Lake County

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Installing a storm drain may sound bland but uncovering buried treasure in the process – in this case; hundreds of years old artifacts – definitely adds flavor into the mix.

Last weekend, while installing a storm drain at the construction site of UTA’s new Depot District Clean Fuels Technology Center, Big D Construction discovered an archeological jackpot; coming across a “Midden” of artifacts potentially hundreds of years old.

Cultural consultants use the term “Midden” in reference to a trash pile. But this pile yielded
more than refuse. Fully intact bottles and ceramic pottery, including an intact soap dish, were retrieved from this dig.

According to Christopher Merritt, Historic Preservation Officer for the Utah Division of State History, “This is a unique discovery in a railroad yard.” That yard was once the site of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Locomotive Shop which operated as a maintenance facility from the mid-1880s to the late 1950s.

While the mighty engines were being serviced, the trains were being cleaned, possibly accounting for the relics unearthed by Big D. “I have a sneaking suspicion these are the contents of a
passenger car,” says Merritt. “Sort of like a movie theater. Once the movie was over the crew went in and cleaned out all the trash and these items were deposited. That’s really unique. I can’t think of any other similar discovery in the United States of what a passenger experience would have been like on the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad in the 19th century.”

Big D and UTA have been praised for following established protocols, wisely conducting an onsite meeting with State Historic Preservation Officer Chris Merritt and Kelly Beck of SWCA Environmental Consultants to discuss appropriate steps to document the bottles and other finds while mapping the area where these artifacts were deposited, nestled against a large concrete foundation with embedded railroad rails.

David Osborn, UTA’s project manager, shares “I’m so pleased with the care and attention we’ve taken with this discovery, and the great collaboration we’ve had with SHPO.”

“Several of the bottles were still corked and had contents in them, what looks like whiskey or other hard liquor still in the bottles which is kind of a cool time capsule in itself,” Merritt echoes.

This discovery was made possible by the careful work being done on the site where the ground was broken for the new bus facility in 2018 and demolition of the long-abandoned locomotive shop began in 2019. Once the building had been razed, Big D went to work installing the infrastructure for the Depot District Clean Fuels Technology Center, making sure to follow proper protocols.

“These aren’t just kids with big Tonka toys,” says Merritt. “The operators on the ground are experienced, they’re highly skilled. They know what doesn’t feel right when they’re digging with a backhoe. Some of these guys can feel a historic bottle while it’s still in the ground.”

While documentation and mapping of the artifacts site are being completed, Big D will continue work on the new Tech Center designed to replace UTA’s outdated Central Bus Garage which is fast becoming obsolete. The Depot District Clean Fuels Technology Center will be a state-of-the-art maintenance and fueling facility designed to accommodate today’s alternative fuel, clean air transit vehicles.

Project Manager David Osborn says “UTA is excited to be building this new, greatly needed facility. We’re also excited about being able to preserve such vital cultural artifacts as we work.” The Depot will free up the existing Central Bus Garage for a mixed-use Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), provide a LEED-certified facility to charge electric buses, expand service by housing more buses, and create long and short term jobs.

“You do wonder what other surprises might be encountered. Every time we scrape with a backhoe or a bulldozer we’re learning something more about our state’s past. In this area we’re just learning about this really cool railroad history. What was it like to ride in a passenger train dining car in the 19th century? What were they drinking and eating? This kind of discovery is our only window into that past.”

The Tech Center is targeted for completion by 2022. Until then, Merritt says it’s impossible to say whether these artifacts will be the only ones found on this construction site.

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