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Utah Construction’s Impact on Alameda – Part 3

Behind the company that changed the face of Alameda and beyond

Utah Construction Company has a history that spans almost the entire 20th century. The enterprise began life in 1900 with Thomas D. Dee chairing the board of directors as the company’s first president. William H. Wattis sat at his side as vice president and general manager. William’s brothers Edmund Jr. and Warren were also on the company’s first board, along with David Eccles and Matthew Browning.

Alameda Post - an old photo of six people standing in front of a store. The sign says "J. M. Browning & Bro. Guns, Pistols, Ammunition & Fishing Tackle."
The Browning brothers founded a company of gunsmiths. Their skill drew the interest of Colt Manufacturing. John Browning who owned the company pictured here designed weapons of note for the company. John’s brother Matthew, who sat on Utah Construction’s first board of directors, managed the company for his brothers. Photo courtesy Weber State University.

Dee and Eccles came to the firm after working as partners in businesses that included Ogden, Utah’s, municipal water system, the Ogden Sugar Company, and the city’s First National Bank. Dee died just five years after Utah Construction was founded. He succumbed to pneumonia that he contracted after he slipped into the Ogden River while inspecting a potential site for a dam at Huntsville, Utah. William, Warren, and Edmund Wattis Jr., built railroads in Oregon and Canada from 1882 until the economic downturn that we remember as the Panic of 1893 put them out of business.

Browning was a wealthy gunsmith by trade. He sat on Utah Construction’s board as an investor and friend to Edmund Wattis Jr. He is, arguably, the most famous member of Utah Construction’s board, although his name is rarely mentioned in connection with the company. Weber State University tells us that Browning created, managed and directed the Browning Brothers Co. “In 1917 he worked with (his) brothers John and Ed … to oversee the manufacture of arms designed by John: two Browning machine guns, the 1911 Colt pistol, and the Browning Automatic Rifle.”

Until 1906, Utah Construction took on construction jobs near its home base in Ogden. That year, the board was informed that Western Pacific Railway had selected Utah Construction to grade and lay the rail on the Feather River Route from Salt Lake City to Oakland. Western Pacific planned to use a route that Arthur W. Keddie had surveyed 45 years earlier through the Feather River Canyon and across the deserts of Nevada and Utah. They would tap into a route already partially traversed by the Oroville and Virginia City Railroad Company.

Alameda Post - a map through Nevada to California with lines indicating where railroads travel
Utah Construction’s first big-ticket item: grading the routed, laying the rail, building the overpasses, and blasting the tunnels for Western Pacific Railway’s route from Salt Lake City to Oakland. Photo California State Railroad Museum.

This arduous task cost Western Pacific Railway $72 million. Utah Construction received $60 million for doing the bulk of the work. Utah completed the 927-mile-long route in 1909. Western Pacific could boast that its route had a grade of 1%, half as steep as Southern Pacific Railroad’s Donner Pass route over the Sierra Nevada.

Come explore the impact of Utah Construction with the Alameda Post’s Adam Gillitt and Dennis Evanosky as they untangle the tales that brought an out-of-state giant to town—and how that colossus transformed Alameda. We held a Zoom presentation for about Utah Construction’s role in creating South Shore and Harbor Bay Isle and the link to the recording is available for ticket holders. Join the last walking tour of the series on Saturday, April 27 to explore South Shore—meeting at Rittler Park. The tour starts at 10 a.m. and tickets are $20 each. Our next exploration will keep us in the neighborhood, looking at the architecture of Grand Street from Otis Drive to Santa Clara Avenue on May 4 and 12, 2024. More tour information.

Utah Construction completed its second big-league job in 1923 with the 430-foot-tall O’Shaughnessy Dam that created the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco’s source for drinking water. The Major Leagues came knocking in 1931 with an invitation to join the team—known as the Big Six—that would create the Hoover Dam. The federal government was impressed enough with the O’Shaughnessy Dam that it tapped Utah Construction as team captain.

Alameda Post - an old photo of the Hoover Dam, one of the projects Utah Construction worked on
Utah Construction directed companies called the “Big Six” as they built the Hoover Dam from 1931 to 1935, the largest construction project of its kind at the time. Photo Library of Congress

The National Park Service relates that “the Hoover Dam is as tall as a 60-story building. It was the highest dam in the world when it was completed in 1935.” The base of the dam is 200 yards thick. Architect Gordon Kaufmann designed the spillways to let floodwaters pass without harming the dam itself. The spillways “can handle the volume of water that flows over Niagara Falls,” the National Park Service tells us.

Next, during World War II, Utah Construction took the lead in building the 1500-mile-long arctic link from Alaska to the contiguous United States, known today as the “Alaska Highway.” The company further diversified into mining in the 1950s in Wyoming, and as far away as Peru, where it mined for iron. Further expansion led to the purchase of the Moraga Ranch here in the Bay Area. The company developed the ranch into the Town of Moraga we know today.

Alameda Post - an old aerial photo of part of Alameda, including houses along the shoreline
George W. Emmons created the first landfill development along Alameda’s South Shore. Work began in 1910, but the first seawall collapsed into San Francisco Bay. By 1915, the site was ready for development. Emmons extended Dayton Avenue across Grand Street. This extension was on land that Joseph Leonard once owned. Leonard sold this property and his home at the foot of Union Street to Emmons in 1900. In this photo from the 1920s, the Emmons Memorial Column and steps on a small wharf can be seen at the foot of Grand Street. Those steps led members of the Encinal Yacht Club to their clubhouse further out on the Bay until it was demolished in 1956. Photo Alameda Museum.

The 1950s and 1960s brought Utah Construction’s dredging operations to Alameda completing projects outlined in other stories (read Part 1 and Part 2) in this three-part series. As a side note—it is of interest to point out that Utah Construction turned to the designer of Hoover Dam’s spillway gates, Yuba Construction Company, to design and build the barge Franciscan, which dredged San Francisco Bay to create Alameda’s South Shore and Harbor Bay Isle.

The company also completed dredging contracts here for the Port of Oakland, creating land for the Oakland Airport, and farther afield, for the City of Long Beach in the 1960s. At the same time, Utah Construction engaged in creating Minuteman silos for the federal government.

In 1969, the company announced two actions of note: it was going public on the New York Stock Exchange, and it was selling its construction business to the Flour Corporation in Irving, Texas. Utah Construction merged with General Electric in 1976. According to Weber State University this $2.2 billion dollar deal was the largest corporate merger at that time. Eight years later, GE sold Utah to the Broken Hill Proprietary Society, a Welsh mining company better known today as BHP.

Note: The author of this series found a rich vein of information about Utah Construction at Weber State University’s website.

Dennis Evanosky is the award-winning Historian of the Alameda Post. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at

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