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40 years since the last ‘All Aboard!’

Article by Ed Quillen

Transportation – July 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT WAS A BITTER January morning in 1985, so cold that my car wouldn’t start; so I walked downtown because I needed a power strip from Gambles. After a couple of chilly blocks, I turned the corner and looked down F Street. Instead of seeing Salida’s focal point, the art-deco Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad depot, I saw a pile of rubble.

“The only reason there ever was a Salida,” I thought, “was so that people could get on and off the train here. And now it’s gone. Why is this town still here? Why are we still here?”

I bought my power strip, then walked on down to the Victoria Tavern, where there was something of a depot wake in progress, with a couple of dozen local guys getting an early start on the day’s libations. The back bar already boasted a wooden “D” from the depot’s “SALIDA” letters that Ray James had rescued from the rubble earlier that morning.

The railroad had also just torn down the steel truss bridge across the Arkansas, which inspired a bit of mirth. We patrons, all unemployed or we wouldn’t have been sitting around the Vic at that early hour, were giving the bartender a hard time since he was the only one in the room with a job.

“Take it easy, guys,” Big Mike retorted. “It’s cold out there. Come summer, I’ll be back out sleeping under the bridge.”

“Not if the damn railroad has its way,” someone shouted. “There won’t be any bridges left to sleep under.”

Local efforts to save the bridge and depot had failed. Roy Romer, then state treasurer and a candidate for governor, had been in town a few days earlier. He was asked about preservation possibilities, and he said he was sure that his “good friend Phil” (as in Phil Anschutz, the billionaire who owned the railroad) would work something out. But the D&RGW just tore them down and hauled away the debris.

Despite the bar-room banter on that frigid morning, I felt like crying.

The tears did flow nearly 18 years earlier when the depot quit functioning as a place for passengers to board the train. It was 40 years ago, at 9 a.m. on July 27, 1967, that the last regularly scheduled passenger train departed from Salida.

Dozens of Salidans were gathered at the station to bid farewell. According to the July 28 edition of The Mountain Mail, a little girl started to cry as people boarded the train. “That’s how we all feel,” said an adult nearby as an era ended that began in 1880 when the railroad reached Salida.

IN MAY OF 1880, the first D&RG Train No. 1, the west-bound narrow-gauge San Juan Express, began serving Salida, which sat at the end of the line and was known as “South Arkansas” then. Its eastbound counterpart was the Denver Express. Either way, it took 11 hours and 40 minutes, and the trains ran in daylight. That works out to about 18.6 miles per hour.

The night-time runs were the westbound Leadville Express and the Eastern Express, complete with Pullman sleepers. Train No. 3 left Denver at 7:15 p.m. and arrived in Salida at 6:05 a.m. the next day. Eastbound, the train left Salida at 7:50 p.m. and pulled into Denver at 6:55 a.m. These were a little faster than the daylight runs: 20 mph.

To go into detail about all the service variants in the intervening years would take a book. Rail passenger service began declining in the 1920s as highways improved and autos became more popular. The decline continued in the 1930s, but reversed during World War II. Civilians couldn’t drive much, on account of gas rationing that limited them to three gallons a week, and the military sent soldiers and sailors around the country on troop trains. There were airlines, but the vibrations of propeller-driven planes made them noisy and uncomfortable.

Overall, American passenger-miles went from 18.5 billion in 1935 to 23.8 billion in 1940 to 91.8 billion in 1945. But after the war, people quit riding trains. By 1950, the total had dropped to 31.8 billion, and in 2003, it was only 6.8 billion.

Gasoline rationing ended after the war so people could drive on roads that were getting better all the time, especially the new multi-lane Interstate highways. The airlines, after the introduction of smoother jet flights in the late 1950s, took away the railroad’s long-haul passenger business. In Colorado, 1957 was a pivotal year — it was the first year that more passengers used Stapleton Airport than Union Station in Denver.

That’s the national backdrop. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad was making its own transformations. Its original narrow-gauge main line went south from Denver to Pueblo, west to Salida and on west over Marshall Pass to Gunnison, Montrose, and Grand Junction. Leadville, and the mining camps on the west side of Tennessee Pass, were served by a narrow-gauge branch line that was extended to Glenwood Springs and back up the Roaring Fork to Aspen.

Marshall Pass was relegated to secondary status after 1890. The main line was standard-gauged then, and that was the Denver-Pueblo-Salida-Leadville-Tennessee Pass-Glenwood-Grand Junction segment. In 1927, the Moffat Tunnel west of Denver went into service for the Denver & Salt Lake Railroad, and in 1934, the Dotsero Cutoff connected the tunnel to the Glenwood Canyon portion of the old main line.

The D&RGW acquired the D&SL in 1947. With those tracks and the Moffat Tunnel, the rail distance between Denver and Salt Lake City was 175 miles shorter than the Royal Gorge route over Tennessee Pass. The prestige passenger trains, like the California Zephyr, went due west out of Denver over the Moffat route, not along the Arkansas River.

[Rail lines circa 1960]

Nonetheless, passenger service remained. In 1950, there was a night train, the Colorado & New Mexico Express. Its westbound started in Denver, and was split at Pueblo. One part continued south to Walsenburg, and then west over La Veta Pass to arrive in Alamosa around sunrise, where it connected with the narrow-gauge San Juan to Durango.

THE OTHER PART of this night train went west from Pueblo to Salida and Leadville. Night trains, especially when there were no sleeping berths available, were not especially popular with passengers, but the U.S. Post Office liked their schedules, and the mail was an important source of revenue for the railroad.

The San Juan quit running from Alamosa in 1951, and so there was no need for the night train with its early-morning connection in Alamosa. The Rio Grande quit running the Colorado & New Mexico Express, and replaced it with the daylight San Luis. It was part of train No. 1, the Royal Gorge, from Denver to Pueblo. From there the Alamosa cars continued as Train No. 15 south to Walsenburg and then west to Alamosa; that train and its No. 16 eastbound counterpart lasted only until 1953.

The Royal Gorge continued running through the 1950s — from Denver to Pueblo, then west to Salida, then north to Minturn and on over to Glenwood and Grand Junction. Train No. 1 always started in Denver, but its western terminus moved back from Salt Lake City to Grand Junction, where it would connect with a westbound passenger train on the Moffat Route and continue into Utah. The Royal Gorge No. 1 left Denver at 9 a.m. and arrived in Grand Junction at 10:30 p.m. Train No. 2, the eastbound, left Grand Junction at 2:40 a.m. and arrived in Denver at 3 p.m. Via Tennessee Pass, Grand Junction was 415 miles from Denver; via the Moffat, only 274 miles.

For many years, the Royal Gorge also picked up four cars from the Denver Zephyr (a Burlington overnight train from Chicago) and left them in Colorado Springs, returning them to Denver on its way back. That gave Colorado Springs a good rail connection to Chicago.

This brings us, more or less, to the summer of 1964, when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater got the Republican nomination for president and standing rib roast was 69 cents a pound at Safeway in Salida, where a “well-equipped large house” was on sale for $9,000.

On July 9, 1964, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Co. filed a petition with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which regulated railroads as well as gas, telephone, and electric companies, “to discontinue the operation of its passenger Trains Nos. 1 and 2 between Denver, Colorado, and Grand Junction, Colorado; said discontinuance to become effective on August 10, 1964.” Each train consisted of “a Diesel locomotive, mail car, baggage and express, grill car and a chair car.”

The issue went before the Colorado PUC, rather than the federal Interstate Commerce Commission, because the trains operated only in Colorado.

The D&RGW cited losses for the trains. In 1962, income was $542,645 and expense was $1,039,327, for a loss of $496,682. The next year, only $505,613 came in, and the railroad spent $1,021,282 for a loss of $515,669. In the first three months of 1964, income was only $86,268, expense was $222,351, for a loss of $136,083. The revenues were not just passenger fares, but also came from milk, cream, mail, and express — in those pre-UPS days, that’s how parcels were moved if they didn’t go by mail.

THERE WOULD STILL BE passenger trains between Denver and Pueblo on other lines like the C&S and Santa Fe, as well as from Denver to Glenwood Springs and points west via the Moffat route, the D&RGW pointed out. The railroad did not provide any passenger counts, but cited “a system of bus routings and schedules [that] also provide daily service at principal rail points on the route; the preference of the public for transportation by private automobile, buses and air-lines of the region, together with declining patronage indicates the public convenience and necessity no longer requires operation of Trains Nos. 1 and 2.”

Hundreds of protests were filed with the PUC, and so on Aug. 4, the agency scheduled hearings at points along the route, and told the Rio Grande that it would have to continue operating the trains into December, at least.

Even before the July 9 application was filed, Salida’s Mountain Mail was on top of the story. Its July 8 edition announced that the application would be filed, and pointed out that “Approximately 13 persons would be directly affected in the Salida region should the train be discontinued. A train crew and engine crew of 13 men is required to take the train from Denver to Grand Junction or back along this route. This figure does not include dining car personnel.” Salida was then a division point, as it would be until 1971, where train crews were based.

SALIDANS organized in opposition. The Chamber of Commerce said that the city would have trouble attracting new business if it lost passenger service. “Baggage car service is vital to our dairy, floral service, and light freight,” the Chamber pointed out, and “the railroad is important to transportation of dude ranch visitors which is big business in this area.”

The Chaffee County Republican, Buena Vista’s weekly newspaper then, said the loss of the trains “would very likely mean the end of operations for the Chalk Creek greenhouses owned and operated by Jack Wright and his son Bill. These two men produce geraniums for shipment all over the country and were the train service deleted it would mean difficulties which Jack Wright terms ‘almost insurmountable.'”

That fall, the PUC held hearings along the route. On Oct. 7, business and political leaders from Colorado Springs and Pueblo testified in Pueblo that “the area was growing economically, educationally, militarily and through tourism — and needed the passenger route continued.”

Salida’s hearings started on Friday, Oct. 9, and continued into Saturday because so many people wanted to testify before the PUC. One argument was that passenger demand would increase in the future as the population grew on account of planned water development: the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, authorized in 1962 but then a long way from completion.

Don Hardy, publisher of the Cañon City Daily Record, implied that the train’s slow speed — average 35 mph — was discouraging passengers, and wondered why, with modern diesel equipment, the railroad had cut off only an hour from the trip in the past 52 years.

Sister Mary Ellen, administrator of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Leadville, said the train’s express service was important for transporting vital drugs and for sending tissue samples to a pathologist in Grand Junction. Also, the passenger service was important for transporting critical patients.

Salida’s economy would be hit hard, said R. E. Carroll, an official of the Trainmen Union. Losing the train would mean losing 15 jobs with a total annual payroll of $121,000. He charged the D&RGW with deliberately diverting passenger and express business to the Moffat Route away from the Royal Gorge Route.

Ed Touber, mayor of Salida then and for many years thereafter, told the PUC that the Fryingpan-Arkansas project would be seriously affected if the trains were discontinued, and Frank Chelf, president of the Salida Gas Service Co., wanted to see faster and better train service, and added that it was dependable all-weather transportation.

The Mail also reported that “Mrs. Thelma Baumgardner, owner of Salida Cab Co., testified that during the past year she has driven 1,261 persons to board the two trains and accepted as passengers, 1,480 from the train. She added that of these, 401 were old-age pensioners who depend almost solely on the two trains for transportation.”

On Nov. 5, 1964, the PUC presented its decision after conducting “seven grueling days of hearings” along the line. The D&RGW could terminate passenger service from Salida to Grand Junction after Dec. 5, 1964. But it would have to continue daily service between Salida and Denver.

THAT WOULD MEAN continued passenger service to Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Then there were Salida, Cañon City, and Florence. “These towns, due to ideal climate, rail and bus passenger service have attracted a large number of our senior and retired citizens, who due to the crowded conditions of our highways no longer operate their motor cars on the open highways. This, during the past ten years, has become an important aspect of the economy of these cities. Railroads we realize are built and maintained for profit, but after continuous operation for approximately 90 years, these older citizens have made large investments in their homes on the natural assumption that the railroad facilities offered since the construction of the railroad some 90 years ago would be maintained and in this they feel and contend they have a vested right.

“Businessmen located on the Arkansas River have for the past twenty years been fighting for additional water contending that with additional water their economic future is assured. Victory is within their grasp by the appropriations of Congress for the preliminary construction [of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project]. This they believe will bring about an explosive growth in the area north of Pueblo to the headwaters of the Arkansas River. This will assure the area of sufficient water to attract industrial growth and will open up a year around recreational area. These people are disturbed. They feel that the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (the Colorado Home Railroad) has let them down.”

The PUC could not “find sufficient public need to operate these trains between Salida and Grand Junction,” even though it meant “inconvenience to the towns of Buena Vista, Leadville, Red Cliff and Eagle.”

The money the railroad saved by discontinuing service west of Salida would help it maintain the rest of the route, where the Fry-Ark Project would produce “a bright future both industrially and for Colorado’s new economy based on the tourist and recreation seeker.”

THE RAILROAD did not provide specific passenger counts and cost breakdowns, so the PUC had to estimate. It concluded that a Denver-Salida train would have annual revenues of $299,125 and expenses of $369,972, for a net loss of $70,847. That would save the railroad a considerable sum from the current losses of about $500,000 a year, and “give to the public a much needed and valuable service” which “would not tend to retard the growth of the communities served.”

There was talk of appealing to the federal Interstate Commerce Commission, but the Nov. 30, 1964 Mail announced that “Saturday, Dec. 5, will be the last day that Trains 1 and 2, the Royal Gorge, will operate from Salida to Grand Junction.” It would mean the loss of 10 local jobs: three conductors, three trainmen, two engineers, and two firemen.

On Dec. 5, “several civic leaders of Salida made a sentimental journey as far west as Buena Vista on the train Saturday afternoon.” A private car, owned by the Intermountain Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, was attached to the train, and it carried a sign: “Last Passenger Train Over Tennessee Pass.”

Salida-based crews had handled the train between Salida and Minturn. With the truncated route of Trains Nos. 1 and 2, a Pueblo-based crew brought the train into Salida at 3:15 p.m. each afternoon, laid over, and took the train back to Pueblo at 9 a.m. the next day, where a Denver-based crew, having laid over in Pueblo, would take it to Union Station.

Just a few days after the last westbound train left Salida, a story in the Mail foretold trouble for the remaining Denver-Salida segment of the Royal Gorge train. “Post Office May End Railway PO Service,” the headline announced. Those were the years when the Post Office was switching from trains to trucks and airplanes. Instead of sorting mail in special cars as the passenger trains rolled along, the Post Office would truck mail to mechanized “sectional centers” for processing. To help that process, ZIP codes were announced in 1963.

[1966 timetable for the Royal Gorge Route]

The switch to trucks was proposed as an economy move here. “Post office officials point to the figure of $290 per day in terms of savings to the post office department, which, from the other side of the coin, means practically that much in loss to the railroad. The post office clerks presently making the run stay overnight in Salida, but are residents of Denver.”

ON APRIL 1, 1967, the U.S. Post Office quit sending mail over Trains 1 and 2 between Salida and Denver. Mail revenue in 1965 was $82,701, in 1966 it was $88,477, and in the first quarter of 1967, $21,090. Now there would be no more postal income.

The D&RGW wasted no time in applying to discontinue the two trains. While there was some opposition in 1967, it was not nearly as intense as that of 1964. As the PUC noted, “The loss of these [mail] revenues constituted the fatal blow to the economic viability of these two trains,” and area residents apparently knew a death knell when they heard it.

Even with postal revenues, the railroad had lost $198,596 in 1965 and $213,696 in 1966. The PUC found that “the public use made of the involved trains is slight indeed. By way of illustration, we find that the average number of passengers entraining per trip at Salida during the first three months of 1967, which incidentally are the months of most probable bad weather, was 2.21, and the average number of passengers detraining per trip at Salida was 2.93. For the same period, the average number of revenue passengers entraining at Pueblo per trip of Train No. 1 was 1.27, and for Train No. 2 was 6.40, and the comparable detraining figures were 6.74 and 2.33.”

With so few people riding the trains, and with the railroad facing big losses on account of losing the postal business, the PUC agreed with the D&RGW. On July 7, 1967, it granted the railroad’s request, to become effective 21 days later.

Passenger business did pick up in the final days. The Mail reported that “Local D&RGW officials said they have been running two coaches for the past few days because of the interest in ‘riding it for the last time’ on the part of many area residents. Sunday, there were three coaches on the run that normally carries only one.”

At 9 a.m. on Thursday, July 27, 1967, Train No. 2 pulled out of Salida for the last time, just as Train No. 1 left Union Station in Denver. No. 1 arrived in Salida that afternoon, and that was the end for scheduled passenger service on the Royal Gorge Route. The cars were returned to Denver on a freight train.

THESE DAYS, with no depot on F Street, no D&RGW, and indeed no trains at all along the rails that remain in place along the line, it may be more difficult to imagine what might have been, if American transportation history had taken a few different twists.

But whenever I need to go to Denver, I ponder how nice it would be just to walk a few blocks and board the train. So what if it took six hours instead of less than three? Without the need to pay attention to manic traffic, I could relax, enjoy the scenery, read a book, even work with my laptop computer (the last regular passenger train I rode, the Amtrak Cascade from Seattle to Eugene, Ore., offered laptop computer outlets).

Alas, that will likely never come to pass around here. But we seem to have found some other purpose for Salida since that last passenger train arrived 40 years ago.

Ed Quillen, a resident of Salida since 11 years after the last passenger train, has been a railroad buff for as long as he can remember, and he wrote to the Colorado PUC to protest the abandonment of mixed-train passenger service (passengers rode in the caboose) on the Great Western Railway in 1972.