Be careful what you wish for — you might get it

Essay by Ed Quillen

Geography – January 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

When we moved to Salida in 1978, the railroad depot stood at the end of F Street. More than a decade had passed since the last passenger boarded, but the depot explained why the town was here. About a block upstream was the steel truss bridge that crossed the Arkansas and carried trains through town and into the mountains.

Once upon a time, that had been the main line of the Denver & Rio Grande — cross Marshall Pass to Gunnison, skirt the Black Canyon to reach Montrose, and then Grand Junction and points west.

In our time, the tracks through town served only the Monarch Quarry. Every summer morning, a trainload of empties would rattle through town. In the evening, loads of limestone came down the mountain and waited in the Salida yards. The next eastbound freight hauled the gondola cars to the CF&I steel mill in Pueblo.

Monarch Quarry was only part of the CF&I empire. Steel-making also requires iron ore and coal. In days of yore, the iron ore came from the Hecla Mine northeast of Salida and the Orient Mine east of Villa Grove; more recently, from the Gurnsey Mine in Wyoming.

Coal once came from the Big Mine in Crested Butte, hauled laboriously over Marshall Pass by narrow-gauge locomotives; in later years, from places like Segundo and Tercio west of Trinidad.

Steel-making is just about the definition of “heavy industry,” and we delude ourselves if we look upon this area’s past, at least since 1880 or so, as “rural.” It wasn’t. Central Colorado was a supply zone for big factories — not just steel mills. All those cows and cowboys, pastures and windmills — that was part of another industry, providing the raw materials for the big slaughterhouses of Chicago and Kansas City.

So we fool ourselves if we think of the past as somehow “rural.” It hasn’t been truly rural hereabouts since 1879, when the railroads arrived. They tied this area into a national and international system of commerce, and in many respects, Salida was a less-isolated town in 1920, when it was a division point on a main line, than it is today, when it’s, well, what is it?

I wondered that on a bitter morning in January of 1985 when I walked downtown — too cold for the car to start — to get something at Gambles, and there was a bulldozer tending to what was left of the Salida depot.

“The only reason there was ever a town here,” I thought, “was for people to get on and off the train, and now that’s gone, and what are we doing here?”

Silly emotional response, I grant, since the railroad hadn’t been much of an employer or anything else in Salida since about 1955. But while the depot and the truss bridge — also ripped out that morning — remained in place, you could see how Salida had been established to do a job. And on that morning it was obvious that the job didn’t need done any more. Even the ruins were being hauled away.

Not that these transformations are anything new. After white people arrived but before the railroads came, the centers of commerce in this region were Nathrop, Poncha Springs, Saguache, and Gardner. This ignores Cache Creek, Granite, and Oro City, but they were mining camps that necessarily sat close to the ore bodies. We know why those towns were where they were.

As for the others, Nathrop enjoyed a good strategic location at the west foot of Trout Creek Pass, thus connecting the South Platte and Arkansas headwater basins. Poncha Springs sat at the foot of Poncha Pass, as well as some wagon roads over the Divide (it was sometimes known then as South Arkansas, which causes no end of confusion because that was Salida’s original name, too). Saguache had Poncha Pass to the south, Hayden and Mosca passes to the east, and to the west, Cochetopa Pass, the best wagon route over the Divide in Colorado. Gardner could connect to the main stem of the Arkansas via Huerfano and Wet Mountain valleys, and to the plains down the Huerfano River, and to the San Luis Valley via Sangre de Cristo, Mosca, or Medano Pass.

A whole network of 1870 trade centers, towns that might have grown and prospered as more people came into the territory — but these settlements didn’t. The railroads changed everything. Walsenburg took over Gardner’s job. Buena Vista outpaced Nathrop. Salida managed to take over from both Poncha Springs and Saguache.

The odd thing is that these arrangements persisted for years after the railroad quit being much of a factor. That might be because nothing really replaced the railroad. The highways generally paralleled the rail routes, and this area never got an interstate highway, which made a big difference elsewhere. Look at Eagle County, where I-70 enabled Vail, which didn’t even exist until 1962, to surpass older towns like Red Cliff and Minturn.

To put it another way, Central Colorado was part of the Rust Belt for a lot longer than other parts of the mountains. Mining and heavy industry persisted here long after they were factors in Aspen or Crested Butte. Those towns had to build new economies in the 1960s and 70s; this area had an economy.

And now, with the proposed abandonment of the last railroad through here, we’re seeing the final stage of a collapse that began in about 1955 when CF&I closed the Big Mine in Crested Butte and the resulting loss of traffic caused the D&RGW to abandon Marshall Pass.

In essence, industrial America has proclaimed that there is nothing in Central Colorado that it wants any more. Our quarries and mines, our few industries — they’re just not enough to matter in the big national and international scheme of things. They don’t produce enough local traffic, and it’s not as though the railroad has tried to attract local traffic.

For instance, I asked one potential rail shipper (Merle Baranczyk of Arkansas Valley Publishing, who imports about 350 tons of paper — a few carloads — every year) what it would take to get him to have that paper shipped by rail, rather than truck. “The railroad has never even asked me about it,” he said.

Shippers I talked to a year ago generally said they got indifferent service, at best, from the railroad. It’s an old scheme. The railroad provides bad local service, so that people move to trucks, and that way, there are fewer people to complain at abandonment time.

Except that, this time around, everybody seems ready to complain about the abandonment. This is in marked contrast to 1984, when the D&RGW was abandoning the Monarch Line. Chaffee County Commissioners held a public hearing to determine what, if any, action the county should take regarding abandonment.

At the time, I had never heard of a “rail-trail.” But it struck me that we had this right-of-way that stretched from downtown Salida almost to the Continental Divide. It had a maximum grade of 4 percent, gentle enough for cycling, hiking, horseback riding.

I went to the hearing and made that suggestion. Also at the hearing were any number of “ranchers,” who wanted the tracks out pronto. “I’ll be so glad when them damn rails are gone so I can move my haying machinery around.” “You put in a trail and we’ll just get hippies and their dogs harassing our cattle.”

But I had done my homework. “I talked to the county extension agent before the meeting,” I said, “and he told me that there are fewer than a dozen families in Chaffee County who get their livelihood from ranching. None of them are here. We’re talking tax shelters and hobby ranches, and why are their hobbies more important than mine?”

I never got an answer, but I did get out before they caught me with the rope and tar barrel.

And we hear the same things today, couched more politely, about the possibility of a “rail-trail.” Most people seem to like the idea, but some property owners adjacent to the railroad right-of-way don’t.

The research I have at hand indicates that, in general, rail-trails don’t bring trespass, vandalism, and other crimes. Criminals, in general, are as lazy as the rest of us, and prefer to drive to and from their work. The need to walk a mile or two up an old railroad grade is a considerable deterrent.

I try to imagine myself in the landowners’ situation. The sidewalk in front of my house conveys hippies with dogs. Sometimes the hippies are coming to visit me, and sometimes their dogs just bark a lot at my dog, who barks back, which inspires other barking, and a quiet neighborhood sounds like a kennel at feeding time.

The sidewalk also carries kids on skateboards, vandals who break mirrors on my car, little thieves who swipe cigarettes from the car when they’re walking to their sixth-grade classes, and doubtless other criminals.

But still, if the city announced that it was abandoning the sidewalks and I could move my fence clear out to the street line and block hippies with dogs and other vermin from passing my property — I’d oppose it. The sidewalk might not always be a blessing to me, but I like sidewalks in general, and if I want to use the sidewalks in front of other people’s property, then I should be prepared to put up with the minor aggravations which come from having a sidewalk in front of my own property.

So I have trouble sympathizing with the landowners who oppose a rail-trail. Perhaps one will write and explain the position more clearly, so that I will understand the opposition.

That said, perhaps the future will bring the past — in the form of a railroad operator who has an asset and wants to find ways to make it pay.

When I heard Tim Eklund, who said he was fronting for a group of five Midwestern capitalists interested in such a venture, he sounded like a dream come true. Yes, they wanted to run regular passenger service. They might be interested in passenger excursions, too. And they were certainly interested in developing local freight traffic.

If that could work, then we’d get big trucks off the highways, and make the roads safer while postponing the need for highway construction. And the sooner that those old school buses hauling raft trailers get off the highway, the happier I’ll be — put that traffic on the rails.

As for passengers, Vail and environs sound more than interested. Their problem is that Interstate 70 is a bottleneck. Already a quarter of Vail’s skiers arrive by air. If a substantial portion of the others boarded a train in Pueblo, Vail would be pleased.

Further, the I-70 jams don’t just affect skiers. You’ve heard of “just in time” manufacturing. Raw materials would arrive in bulk and be stored for days or weeks or months until they were used. This tied up space and capital, so now they get small, frequent shipments.

There isn’t a lot of manufacturing in Eagle County (more than you might think, though), but even restaurants go by the “just in time” principal these days. They don’t keep a lot of food at hand. If the highway is blocked for a few hours, the restaurant might have to shut down.

And so Vail worries about those jams on I-70 that seem so remote to us along U.S. 50 or U.S. 285. Vail might see rail service as an easier alternative than getting the state to expand the highway. Two lifelines are better than one.

Rail service is already essential to the 135 or so jobs at the Black Cloud Mine east of Leadville, and to a few other jobs at quarries and factories up and down the line. If we’re going to preserve “economic diversity,” then we need those blue-collar jobs that pay a living wage. An aggressive railroad operator might encourage the development of more such jobs.

So, there are many possibilities for a short-line carrier. One might improve manufacturing, raw-material production, highway safety, tourism, and everything else on a Chamber of Commerce manager’s wish list.

But remember the old saying: “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.”

The two short-line railroads often offered as examples are the Wisconsin Central, created from old Soo Line trackage, and the Montana Rail Link, formed from parts of the Burlington Northern system.

Neither offers regular passenger service, although there are occasional excursions.

Montana Rail Link is essentially a bridge between Burlington Northern lines between Billings and Spokane, although it originates some paper, lumber, pulp, and mineral traffic. Wisconsin Central hauls a lot of iron ore to Chicago.

Neither seems to fit here. Our iron-ore mines have long-since shut down, and big mining operations aren’t on the horizon. The Montana Rail Link relies heavily on bridge traffic from the BNSF, and the UP/SP hasn’t given any indication that it would provide any bridge traffic to a new operator between Dotsero and Pueblo.

Aggressive railroad marketing might mean more quarries and factories — but we’ve got a substantial chunk of population who moved here to get away from that, and I hate to think of the years of heated hearings, environmental impact statements, water quality assessments, etc. that a real expansion would bring.

Trains could mean more tourism, but that isn’t always a blessing either. Visit Silverton sometime — the whole town holds its breath until the train pulls in, runs like crazy for two hours, then goes back to sleep. That doesn’t seem like a good way to operate.

If there were commuter service between Leadville and Vail, that would just turn Leadville into more of a bedroom-town suburb, less of a community with its own identity.

So the Millennium wouldn’t arrive even if some smart capitalists appear and save the railroad and find ways to offer every imaginable rail service at a profit. We’d still have a lot of conflicts and problems. A railroad that served this area, rather than just passed through it, could solve some problems — but it would create others, likely things we can’t anticipate now.

Perhaps, though, Salida would make more sense if there was still a depot at the end of F Street and you could catch the train there. Otherwise, I’ll still glance down F Street every so often and wonder “Why are we here?”

— Ed Quillen