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2 bidders vying for abandoned Creede branch

Brief by Ed Quillen

Transportation – May 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

When the mines close, the railroad follows. That’s been the pattern for the past century or so in Colorado, and this decade is no exception.

Creede’s last silver mine closed in 1992, and now the Union Pacific has proposed abandoning the tracks that served the place when it was “day all day in the daytime, and there is no night in Creede” — a poem written by Cy Warman, who drove steam locomotives from Salida before he took up newspapering and poetry in Creede a century ago.

Much of the 65-mile branch line that extends from Alamosa to Creede will stay in service, though, since the sawmill at South Fork is an active shipper.

The 21.6-mile abandonment starts just past the sawmill and a wye known as “Derrick” on railroad maps (milepost 299.3), and extends to the end of the tracks at Creede, milepost 320.9.

The abandonment has to be approved by the federal Surface Transportation Board. The board can also approve potential buyers, who can then negotiate with the Union Pacific.

One potential purchaser, the Rio Grande & San Juan Railroad Company, has made an offer — $302,000. That may not sit well with the UP, which has estimated the salvage value at $778,000.

We called the RG&SJ’s office in Denver, and talked to a fellow who wouldn’t give his name but said he was speaking for Troy Hubbard, the company president. “We can’t say what our specific plans for the branch are,” he said, “because if we show our hand, it could upset our negotiations with the UP.”

Pressed for something more specific, he said “We do plan to operate both freight and passenger service on the Creede branch if we get it.”

The other possible buyer with STB approval is the Denver & Rio Grande Historical Foundation of Durango. Don Shank, who runs things there, said his organization has already been active in the San Luis Valley with restoration of narrow-gauge engine 169 in Alamosa’s Cole Park.

“We’re devoted to preserving the narrow-gauge in Colorado,” he explained, and if his foundation gets the Creede branch, “it would be rebuilt to its original narrow-gauge [3 feet between the rails, as opposed to the standard gauge of 4′ 8½”]. It would be a tourist line with historical equipment, and would serve as a rolling museum.”

It’s now up to the Union Pacific to decide which party, if any, to deal with. If no deal is reached, then the tracks would come up, and then it would be time for controversies about a rail-trail.

IN ITS ABANDONMENT petition, UP said the line hasn’t carried any traffic for more than two years, and that “it is doubtful that there will be future traffic sufficient to justify the cost necessary to sustain rail operations.”

UP acquired the line when it swallowed the Southern Pacific in 1996, and the Southern Pacific got it when it merged with the Denver & Rio Grande Western in 1988.

As is obvious from its original corporate name, the Denver & Rio Grande planned to connect a city and a river, originally via Raton Pass to El Paso, Texas.

The Santa Fé grabbed Raton pass, so the D&RG took a different tack in 1878 with a line over La Veta Pass to Alamosa, which is on the Rio Grande.

Various lines radiated from Alamosa, among them an 1881 branch that went up the Rio Grande to South Fork and then on to Wagon Wheel Gap. So when Creede was booming in 1891, it made sense for the D&RG to extend the line.

But it didn’t. Its bondholders had just fired David Moffat as president, and the new management didn’t spend money, even on a cheap and obvious extension. In the words of historian Robert Athearn:

“A few years earlier the D&RG had built a line from Del Norte to Wagon Wheel Gap only to discontinue service in 1889 because of extremely heavy snows and the great expense of putting the track in shape each spring. Creede was nine miles from Wagon Wheel Gap. David Moffat had heavy investments in Creede and could promise considerable traffic, but when he suggested to the Rio Grande people the necessity of a railroad into the mining camp, he was turned down. Dipping into his private fortune, Moffat built the extension himself and sold it to the Rio Grande in March of 1892.”

Moffat (namesake of the town between Villa Grove and Hooper, as well as the county in northwestern Colorado) went on to bankrupt himself building a line due west from Denver to compete with the Union Pacific. The UP now owns that track and sends scores of trains daily through the Moffat Tunnel, which is the reason UP believed it could abandon Tennessee Pass.

There is no news on that front at the moment. UP withdrew its abandonment request more than a year ago, but has no plans to put the line back into service this year. As always, there’s gossip, the latest being that Tennessee Pass will go back into service in 2000.