The railroad was instrumental in the settling of the American West. With the railroads came prosperity to the towns and territories it serviced.
Railroad building was complicated and incredibly confusing. Companies merged, were taken over by larger roads, went bankruptcy, went into receivership or were abandoned. Some tracks were removed. Owners simply walked away from others.
One of the more important lines was the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. It filled the needs of the mountain communities of Colorado. It went “Thru the Rockies. Not Around Them”
General Palmer and his “Baby Road”
General William Palmer, a Civil War veteran, Medal of Honor recipient and civil engineer. He founded the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1870 with the purpose of tapping the perceived lucrative markets in New Mexico. Palmer’s first-hand knowledge of the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales led him to choose the, never before used in the United States, narrow gauge rails due to lower cost of construction and equipment. Palmer aggressively promoted his idea and it turned out to be a major selling point for his funding efforts.
The “Rio Grande’s” original plan was to push south to Pueblo then up the Arkansas River to its confluence with the Rio Grande River. From there the route would follow the Rio Grande River to Albuquerque and on to El Paso, Chihuahua, Mexico. There he hoped to connect with the Mexican Central Railway and open a trade link with Mexico.
His plan “B” was to expand south from Pueblo over Raton Pass, through Santa Fe and on to El Paso. Due to aggressive competition, particularly from the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, he was forced to adopt this alternate plan.
The First Spike
The first spike for the fledgling Denver & Rio Grande Railroad was driven at the bottom of 15th Street in Denver on July 28, 1871. Construction progressed as far as Colorado Springs by October 25, 1871.
The new railroad planned to tap into the rich agricultural, lumber and mining resources of the new Colorado Territory, as well as passenger traffic. Palmer planned to connect the mineral-rich territory of Colorado with the Rio Grande Valley which was described as” a garden only to be benefited by the presence of rail service”.
Financing the Railroad
Palmer was plagued throughout his empire building by a lack of funds. He was, however, a master of fundraising. He would sell stock in the railroad, holding controlling shares. He would then sell bonds for construction and Palmer’s own construction company would build the lines.
One of his other techniques was to offer subscriptions to pools that formed land companies up and down the railroad. These land companies offered predesignated townsites to subscribers and conveyed in railroad stock. Thus, towns were formed in locations decided upon by the railroad from lands granted to the railroad by the federal government for the right of way. If a neighboring town was in the way they were merely bypassed. Towns would then be built by Palmer’s construction company.
Palmer Builds His Empire
The Rio Grande railroad reached Pueblo, which had been established by General Palmer’s Central Colorado Improvement Company, in 1872. The Central Colorado Improvement Company established the first steel mill in the area in 1881. The Colorado Coal & Iron Company would become the largest employer in Colorado. Palmer built the facility to produce the rails for his railroads. It utilized local resources; coal from Trinidad, iron from the San Luis Valley, limestone from Pueblo and water from the Arkansas River.
From Pueblo, the Rio Grande extended its line up the Arkansas River. It arrived in Canon City on July 6, 1874. Canon City became the staging point for all shipments of goods going south and west. Palmer’s Central Colorado Improvement Company now had control of the lucrative high-quality coal deposits and was operating at full capacity.
From Pueblo, Palmer extended his line to El Mora, just north of Trinidad in 1876. The Santa Fe Railroad’s terminus was only as far west as Las Animas, Colorado, 80 miles to the northeast. Palmer wanted to take advantage of the lack of freight service available to the coal fields around Chucharas and El Mora and the goods coming north out of New Mexico. Trinidad would serve both purposes.
The Panic of 1873 slowed expansion of the railroad and all of Colorado’s economy for the next three years. However, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe did push on reaching Pueblo in 1876. The fight was now on!
Palmer proceeded west arriving in Chuchara in February of 1876 and onto El Mora in October of that year. From Chuchara, he began to push west toward La Veta Pass and Alamosa in the San Luis Valley, arriving in July of 1878 as per his original plan.
Palmer Loses the Race to Raton Pass
Meanwhile, the Santa Fe headed for Raton from Las Animas to tap the coal deposit between there and Trinidad. In 1878, they beat the Rio Grande crew to the pass by only hours and laid claim to the right of way.
A great deal of legal maneuvering ensued. There were acts of sabotage and threats of further violence. Finally, the Santa Fe hired local gunmen to protect their interests.
Faced with financial difficulties and armed resistance, the Rio Grande gave up its fight for Raton Pass. The dispute appeared to be over, but the battle heated up the following year.
The Royal Gorge Railroad War
With the discovery of silver in Leadville, both railroads made a dash for the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas, the Royal Gorge, in the spring of 1878. The Rio Grande already had a track into Canon City, two miles east of the mouth of the gorge. The Santa Fe rushed to the same spot.Royal Gorge-1892 Both railroads began grading west of Canyon City. The Santa FE crew actually arrived at the mouth of the gorge, once again, before the Rio Grande crews and laid claim to the right of way.
Court orders were issued, gunfighters were hired by both sides. Acts of sabotage destroyed equipment and track. Threats were made, but there was little violence and little bloodshed.
Over the next two years, through injunctions and restraining orders, possession of the gorge went back and forth no less than four times. During this period, the Rio Grande had possession but no funds to operate or build. So the rights to operate and build in the gorge were leased to the Santa Fe. The Santa Fe continued to make improvements.
Finally, on March 27, 1880, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Rio Grande making the lease null and void. Unwilling to continue the battle, the Santa Fe agreed to relinquish rights to the Royal Gorge and a settlement was reached.
The Tripartite Agreement, known as the “Treaty of Boston” awarded the right to the Royal Gorge to the Rio Grande. The D&RG would pay $1.4 million to the Santa Fe for work completed plus “court costs”. The Rio Grande could not build east of its current north-south lines or south of the 36th parallel and east of the Spanish Range (Sangre de Cristo Range) in New Mexico or to Trinidad. The Santa Fe could not build, in Colorado, west of the Rio Grande’s existing north-south line or north of the 36th parallel west of the Spanish Range except for their line already to CanonCity. New Mexico was open west of the Spanish Range. Both sides were banned for a period of 10 years.
Thus ended the Colorado Railroad War. It opened up the way for the Rio Grande to move into the mining districts and the territory west of the front range.
Over La Veta Pass
Anticipating competition, Palmer had planned the route following the Arkansas River from the very beginning of his push to El Paso. In 1876, fearing pressure from the Santa Fe railroad at Raton Pass, he started his expansion over La Veta Pass and on into the San Luis Valley. He planned not only to tap into that region’s rich mineral and agricultural markets but this was his backup plan. If his plans to reach El Paso via Raton Pass failed he would simply head west to Alamosa and follow the Rio Grande River south through Albuquerque.
With the failed attempt, in 1878, to reach Raton Pass ahead of the Santa Fe, Palmer was deprived of the lucrative New Mexico traffic. Pressured by competition from the standard gauge competitors Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe and the Kansas Pacific, Palmer knew he couldn’t stand still. He pushed west out of Chuchara Junction, Colorado arriving in Garland, Colorado on July 1, 1877, and in Alamosa, Colorado July 10, 1878.
The original narrow gauge line over La Veta Pass crossed the Sangre de Cristo Range at an elevation of 9,380 feet above sea level. At the time, it reached the highest elevation of any railroad built in the United States at that time. It was an engineering marvel, steep and winding. The Rio Grande railroad billed it as “The Scenic Line of the World”.
Between the years of 1890 and 1899, the line was converted to dual gauge and then to standard gauge and was moved south 9 miles to better accommodate the larger heavier equipment and to better work with the standard gauge lines servicing the territory.
The years from early 1878 to early 1880 saw little expansion on the Rio Grande. All of Palmer’s funds were going to fight the “Royal Gorge War”.
Santa Fe or Bust?
Prior to the Treaty of Boston, the Rio Grande had laid track as far as Antonito, 29 miles south, with plans of going to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and El Paso. With the agreement not to build south of Espanola, NM, Palmer switched his attention westward to the mining districts in the San Juan Mountains. He would continue his Chili Line on to Espanola arriving there on December 30, 1880.
Now that Palmer had lost his bid for the New Mexico trade he turned his focus to the mineral wealth of the central and the southern Rocky Mountains. Alamosa Colorado became the hub of this expansion. He went west to Del Norte, Colorado, through Wagon Wheel Gap and into Creede, Colorado in 1891. He headed north to connect with his Royal Gorge branch in Salida, Colorado. His main focus became the line west from Antonito, Colorado to Durango and Silverton in the San Juan Mountains.On to the San Juans
On to the San Juans
In November of 1879 contracts were let for the grading of the new San Juan Extension of the Rio Grande. Work on the line began in early 1880 and pushed west towards Cumbres Pass and Ogier, Colorado. The new line was to run from Antonito, Colorado, through Chama, New Mexico and onward to the Animas River near the town of Animas City, Colorado.
The line snaked along the New Mexico /Colorado border on the north side of the Los Pinos River. The line followed the natural drainage of the Los Pinos River through narrow canyons and valleys and through the Toltec gorge where the line clung to the side of the canyon 600 feet above the river. It continued on through two tunnels and over the 400 foot long Cascade Creek trestle to Cumbres pass at 10,015 feet. From that point, the line followed an old wagon toll road downhill following the Wolf Creek drainage. Where Wolf Creek joined the Rio Chama, the line crossed the deep drainage on the 300 foot long Lobato trestle.Durango and Smelter Mountain
Next Stop, Durango
The railroad reached Chama, New Mexico on December 30,1880 and established a division headquarters. Chama was the midway point between Antonito and Animas City making it an ideal service point. Here they constructed a roundhouse, oil house, sand house, coal tipple, water tank, and bunkhouse. The line now proceeded west from Chama, through the high desert of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Elevation changes between, and the Animas River and Chama are relatively minor so construction proceeded rapidly. The line arrived in what was to become Durango, Colorado on July 27, 1881.
As a side note, the small town of Animas City was the original destination of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, San Juan Extension. As excited as the residence of Animas City were to have a rail connection to the outside world, they were unwilling to meet Palmer’s demands for free land for the new town. So, in typical Palmer fashion, he simply built a new town 3 miles south of Animas City naming it Durango, after Durango Mexico and Durango, Spain.
In its early days, the line crossed numerous timber bridges over nameless creeks and rivers. Over the years many of the smallerSurviving timber bridge at Hermosa bridges were replaced by fills and culverts. A few of the timber bridges survived. The rest were replaced with steel girder construction to facilitate heavier engines and rolling stock.
The Riches of the San Juans
The rail line between, New Mexico and Durango Colorado was rich in natural resources. The ore mined around Red Mountain and Silverton was shipped by rail to smelters in Denver and Pueblo. Coal mined near Hesperus was used to fire the locomotives, for the coke mills in Silverton and for home and business heating.Pagosa Junction 2014 Timber was another valuable commodity shipped on the rail lines. Logging spurs sprouted off the mainline at Gato(Pagosa Junction) and Chama. Other spurs branched off at Lumberton and around Taos.
Oil also became a factor. In 1935 oil was discovered 13 miles west of Chama in the “Gramp’s” oil field. Oil was piped to Chama and sent by tanker car to the Oriental Refinery in Alamosa. Oil was discovered near Farmington ad oil field freight kept the road open into the 1960s.
The Farmington Branch was opened in 1905 to haul produce and livestock to the miners and eastern markets. It was also built to prevent the Santa Fe from building a line north from Gallup.
A great deal has been written about the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad and the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. My focus, going forward will be on the abandoned rail spurs that split from the Rio Grande mainline.
I hope you have enjoyed the article and I hope that you will come back for future articles on the small but very important abandoned spurs and branches.
This narrative is but a brief overview of the history of the Denver and Rio Grande in southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico. I have tried to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal of the events of the time. Please leave any comments in the comment section. Any suggestions or any additions are greatly appreciated.