A Look Back in Rail Time
The Denver & Rio Grande, the Florence & Cripple Creek, the Denver, South Park & Pacific, the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek, and the Midland—do the names sound familiar? These pioneering railways loom large in Colorado’s colorful history. Museums statewide celebrate them, and visitor-oriented passenger lines still operate. Rail buffs love them all, but let’s start with the big one . . . . . .
THE DENVER & RIO GRANDE
General William Palmer, only 34 when he launched the Denver & Rio Grande railroad in 1870, was as tough, combative, and ruthlessly entrepreneurial as any modern-day mogul. Palmer’s railroad may have been the most significant business venture in Colorado history. Without the Rio Grande, Colorado Springs and Salida wouldn’t exist, Pueblo wouldn’t have become the ”Pittsburg of the West,” and the Pikes Peak Region might have remained isolated and bucolic, a footnote to a larger history. After his distinguished service in the Civil War (for which he would eventually be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor) Palmer put away his uniform and went to work for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Although only 30, he had spent several years in the railroad business before the war. He was bursting with ideas, but his staid employers weren’t interested. So like any youthful entrepreneur, he raised money and started his own company.
Unlike its competitors, the D&RG wouldn’t use wide, standard-gauge tracks, but three-foot narrow gauge. Laying track would be faster and cheaper, and the narrow cars and light locomotives would be able to tackle steeper grades and negotiate tighter curves than standard-gauge competitors. According to the mischievous rail historian Lucius Beebe, “Palmer felt that narrow gauge was morally superior.” The universal practice of the time was to sell space for not one, but two occupants of the lower berths of sleeping cars of conventional dimensions”, Beebe wrote. “(For the straitlaced General) this arrangement was unthinkable, and the narrow gauge solved all problems. It was impossible for more than a single occupant to occupy a narrow gauge berth.” The DR&G was founded on Oct. 27, 1870 and reached Colorado Springs exactly one year later, speedily completing the 76 mile mainline from Denver. Palmer was just getting started. By 1884 the Rio Grande was operating more than 1,600 miles of narrow gauge track extending through the Colorado Rockies all the way to Salt Lake City. He launched steelmaking in Pueblo, founded Durango, Salida and Alamosa, and engaged in pitched battle with his bitter rival, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, over a prized western route from Pueblo to Leadville and the mountain west.
THE ROYAL GORGE WAR
Both the Santa Fe and the Rio Grande sought to build a line through the Royal Gorge and up the Arkansas Valley to Leadville. The Gorge was narrow and constricted. Rival work crews began work on their respective lines, while the courts were overwhelmed by “a blizzard of writs, processes, opinions, judgments, subpoenas, injunctions, court orders, briefs and decisions.” The Rio Grande concentrated on building its line west of the Gorge, while the Santa Fe worked to finish construction through the narrowest part of the canyon. As the lawyers battled politely in stately courtrooms, grading crews and working parties clashed violently. Storage sheds burned in the night and thunderous explosions sent rockslides tumbling down the abyss, burying equipment, and wiping out rights of way.
In June of 1879, fearing that the courts were about to settle the dispute in favor of the Rio Grande, the Santa Fe recruited an army of toughs from Kansas led by legendary hard guys Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, and Ben Thompson. They arrived in Pueblo aboard a special armored train and holed up in the easily defended Santa Fe roundhouse. Meanwhile, the D&RG had their own enforcers, and the two sides traded threats.
Idled in Pueblo, the Santa Fe’s so-called “Army of Kansas” came apart at the seams, surrendering to the city’s bars, gambling parlors, and bawdy houses. The management of the Rio Grande passed the word to the proprietors of such establishments that the fix was in—the law wouldn’t interfere, as long the Santa Fe gangsters were kept busy. The Rio Grande won in the courts, settled the dispute, and drove through the Gorge and up the Arkansas, reaching Leadville in 1880. The cities that the Rio Grande had created grew and flourished. By the late 1880s, Pueblo was the most prosperous city in Colorado. Colorado Springs was a cultured city of opera houses and tree-lined boulevards, and Palmer held court in a splendid mansion. Palmer’s narrow-gauge legacy is still alive and vibrant. The famous Durango & Silverton railroad still carries passengers between the two cities, which it has served since the 19th century.
In 1997, the Union Pacific sold the historic track segment through the Royal Gorge to the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, a heritage line that now operates a 1950s-era passenger train that departs daily from the Santa Fe Depot in Cañon City. The train passes over the famous 1880 hanging bridge, offering passengers the kind of luxurious train travel that once characterized American rail. It’s an amazing ride at any time of year, one that now attracts not only rail buffs but also travelers from all over the world. Is it too much to hope that the noble old iron horse will one day pull a string of passenger cars up the Royal Gorge Route to Salida and Buena Vista? Who knows, but if so, I’ll see you aboard!
THE CRIPPLE CREEK TRIFECTA
The discovery of gold in Cripple Creek in 1891 triggered the last great gold rush in the continental United States. The once placid ranchland west of Pikes Peak soon became home to thousands of fortune hunters, job seekers, card sharks, con artists, assayers, barkeepers, miners, and capitalists. Hundreds of claims were staked, scores of grandly named mining companies were incorporated, eager investors provided capital, and some of the miners struck it rich. Getting to Cripple Creek wasn’t easy though. Residents of the freshly minted boomtown had to import food, drink, construction materials, mining equipment, and all matter of supplies. North of Cripple Creek, the Midland Railroad could carry goods as far as Divide, but the remaining 18 miles to the gold camp was via horse-drawn wagons. The road was rough and narrow, ill-suited to the volume of goods that had to be transported over it. To the south, the Denver & Rio Grande’s Royal Gorge route paralleled the Arkansas, but there was no rail connection route to the gold fields. That didn’t deter David Moffat, the Colorado railroad pioneer who laid out and built the narrow-gauge Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad. Moffat chose to follow the wagon tracks of the Florence & Cripple free road, a precarious shelf route along Phantom Canyon. Built at the then outrageous cost of $500,000, the F&CC reached the mining district on July 1, 1894. As the first railroad to serve the district, the F&CC enjoyed a monopoly that ended 18 months later when the standard gauge Midland Terminal Railway arrived from Divide. Mine owners expected that competition would drive down freight rates, but the two companies quickly made a deal to divide the traffic and kept rates high. A few years later, Colorado Springs entrepreneurs built the standard gauge Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek District Railway, directly connecting Colorado City mills and refineries with the mining district. Looping around the south slope of Pikes Peak, the railroad’s investors believed that the new line would put its competitors out of business.
Two of the three railroads flourished for years. The Denver Republican claimed that the F&CC paid for its construction every three weeks during 1894, while at its height the Midland Terminal ran ten passenger trains daily to Cripple Creek. But the CS & CCD was never profitable, having opened just as the Cripple Creek bonanza began to fade. Today, the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad runs from Memorial Day to mid-October, with departures every 40 minutes from the historic Midland depot at the head of Bennett Avenue in downtown Cripple Creek. Three vintage coal-burning locomotives pull the railroad’s period coaches, taking passengers on a four mile out and back tour of the mining district. It’s a cheerful, fun trip.