Ceramic Pieces, Bottles From 1880s Uncovered At UTA Construction Site
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The saying “one man’s trash is another’s treasure” is the best way to describe a surprising archaeological discovery at a Utah Transit Authority construction site.
Crews from Big D Construction were installing a storm drain at the UTA’s Depot District Clean Fuels Technology Center in Salt Lake City when they found the artifacts in a decades-old garbage dump, according to a news release.
“We have just a really neat opportunity here to do some history and learn a little bit more about our past,” said Kelly Beck. “We’re going to end up counting thousands of pieces of glass, and it’s probably going to represent several hundred bottles.”
The ceramics, which included a fully intact soap dish, and bottles are from the late 1800s, officials said.
“Every little piece tells a story,” said Michelle Knoll.
“This is a unique discovery in a railroad yard,” said Christopher Merritt, historic preservation officer for the Utah Division of State History.
The release said the construction site is where the Denver and Rio Grande Western Locomotive Shop was located from the middle of the 1880s through the late 1950s.
“I have a sneaking suspicion these are the contents of a passenger car, 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,” Merritt said. “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.
“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 are kind of a cool time capsule in itself.”
The release said Big D and UTA have won accolades for working with Merritt, as well as Kelly Beck of SWCA Environmental Consultants, to document and preserve the artifacts as well as map the area.
“I’m so pleased with the care and attention we’ve taken with this discovery, and the great collaboration we’ve had with SHPO,” said UTA project manager David Osborn.
“These aren’t just kids with big Tonka toys,” Merritt added. “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.”
The Depot District Clean Fuels Technology Center will be a state-of-the-art maintenance and fueling center for UTA’s Salt Lake City busses designed for current alternative fuel, clean air transit vehicles, officials said.
Ground was broken on the new facility in 2018 and demolition of the abandoned locomotive shop started the next year. Construction on the new facility is scheduled to be completed in 2022.
Merritt said the prospect of finding more artifacts was exciting.
“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,” he said. “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.”
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