Thursday, August 5, 2010


The story of the American West is closely tied to the coming of “The Iron Horse”, and the ribbons of shiny steel which sought to bridge the Atlantic and the Pacific. Nowhere did this mighty endeavor face a greater challenge than in the tortured geography which makes up much of the state of Colorado, with narrow canyons that are 1200 feet deep, and grades which were difficult enough to discourage even early pack trains. At the same time, gold, silver and other precious minerals in which those same mountains abounded spawned a mining industry that hungered for rail transportation, across a landscape in which water transport was not an alternative. And then too, there was the coming of the telegraph and the promise of near-instantaneous communications across the miles of singing wires which followed the laying of pioneering tracks and rights-of-way.
To the rail historian, Colorado’s unique geography is nearly synonymous with the story of America’s “narrow gauge” phenomenon – the deviation from the world’s newfound fondness for trackage measuring four-feet-eight-and-a-half inches from rail to rail. With the need for short, sharp curves and frequent switch-backs on grades sometimes amounting to 7.5 percent, the narrower three-foot spacing was just what the doctor (or engineer) ordered. Where a minimum radius of 955 feet would have been required for a standard gauge turn, only 220 feet would accomplish the same turn for a narrow gauge system. The difference in cost was significant: in 1870, the cost of grading a particular stretch of roadway up Clear Creek Canyon would have cost $90,000. for the standard gauge, but came in at less than $20,000 for the chosen narrow gauge. Additional savings came from being able eliminate some of the tunnel construction otherwise necessary. Of course in time, the advantage of being able to carry much heavier loads and at greater speeds would change that advantage, and standard gauge would come into its own. (It is fascinating to learn that at times and in places, the two rail systems would be so intertwined on the same road bed that trains of “mixed” axle widths could operate.)
While literally dozens of long-forgotten names litter the history of railroading in Colorado, the two surviving “giants” came to be the Denver & Rio Grand Western (D&RGW) and the Atichson, Topeka & Santa Fe (Santa Fe). A little-remembered battle took place between the two in 1879 over ownership of the right-of-way through Colorado’s Royal Gorge, a route which would eventually become the most important passenger route connecting east and west. What came to be known as “the Royal Gorge War” pitted some of the most legendary peace officers of the day against each other (including Bat Masterson and “Doc” Holliday), ending with one dead and a peace treaty carved out in Boston, which saw the D&RGW building the line, and the Santa Fe leasing its use.
A “war” of another kind played out with the enactment of the “Sherman Silver Purchase Act” of 1890 – an early example of what can happen when government attempts to solve one economic problem, and thereby ends up creating something much worse. (Do I hear laughter?) The nation had been suffering from a period of deflation – the overproduction of farm commodities had burdened a number of entities with high debt. Enter a well-intentioned Senator from Ohio named Sherman, who believed that if the federal government would just buy more silver allowing it to issue more paper money, folks would buy more stuff, and all would be well. In the short term, this really helped Colorado, where more silver had to be mined. But alas, the folks,(and many big investors), suspicious of silver certificates (paper money), began buying up gold, nearly emptying the nation’s gold reserves, before President Grover Cleveland brought about a repeal in 1893. The damage was done, and the panic which followed ruined many parts of the business community, including railroads; and it particularly hurt Colorado’s silver mines.
A recent visit to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden reacquainted me with a niche of railroading history worth some pondering. It reawakened personal memories of traveling the entire length of Japan, from the north to the very southern tip, on a coal-fired, narrow-gauge rail line still operating for U.S. troops in 1952, and of being rocked to sleep in a hammock slung from the ceiling of a swaying, wooden passenger car left over from another age.

The oldest locomotive in Colorado today, this 2-8-0 Baldwin was built in Philadelphia in 1880. It went into service for the Denver Leadville & Gunnison narrow gauge line in 1885, and still wears the proud “191” tag.

Two of Al’s great grandkids peer into the interior of a beautifully-restored narrow gauge caboose dating back to 1881. Equipped with the original four-wheel configuration, this artifact also saw service as a bunk house at an Animas River placer mine. The museum sometimes allows children to hold birthday parties in its historic crew quarters.

Rocky Mountain snowfalls have always been a challenge for train traffic negotiating Colorado’s narrow canyon defiles, and this rotary snow plow with its ten-foot blades has many stories it could tell; One more “eye-catcher” at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.

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