Corridors after abandonment

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Transportation – January 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

When a railroad line is abandoned, the right-of-way generally passes into other hands. Just whose hands is no simple matter.

Many old Colorado grades — Marshall Pass, Boreas Pass, Rollins Pass — are unpaved county roads. Others, such as the Ute Pass segment of the Colorado Midland, are chopped up and in a variety of hands.

How did things evolve this way?

Let Al Sulzenfuss, the Salida city attorney, explain. When the D&RGW abandoned the 21-mile line between Salida and the Monarch Quarry in 1984, Sulzenfuss represented the city, as well as some private property owners, in their efforts to acquire parts of the right-of-way.

“The railroad is happy to get rid of it,” he said. “But figuring out who owns it, or who has the first option to buy it, can be very complex.”

When the D&RG came through Central Colorado in the 1880s, much of its trackage was on federal land — a 100-foot-wide right-of-way from the General Land Office.

“If the land beside that right-of-way is still federal, then generally the railroad land reverts to the federal government if the tracks are pulled up,” he explained.

Another simple case is if the railroad just bought land from a private owner. “Then it’s railroad property, and the railroad can sell it.”

Sometimes the railroad didn’t buy the property, but only an easement which lasted as long as the line was in use. “In those cases, historically the land has reverted to the property owner. But there are new federal rules [rail-banking] which hold that if the corridor is maintained as a right-of-way, say for a public trail, then the easement continues.”

What of cases where the surrounding land was federal when the tracks were laid, but became private later through a homestead or a mining claim?

“Then it depends on how the railroad is mentioned in the deed,” Sulzenfuss said. “If it’s not mentioned, the landowner may have rights to it. If it is mentioned, or if it’s used as a boundary between parcels that were subdivided after the original deed, then it gets real tricky.

“Every situation is different, and I encountered all kinds just between Salida and Garfield. In some cases in 1984, all I could do was give my client a list of entities which might own the old railroad bed — there can be many conflicting claims, all with some basis in law.”

Colorado is working toward a policy for abandoned rail lines, according to Dave Ruble in the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“Our main goal, once the policy is implemented,” he said, “is to keep the corridor intact. Then we want to find the best use for it, whether as a highway, back road, or rail-trail.”

If, at the time of abandonment, the railroad opts for a process called “rail-banking,” then the corridor is preserved so that tracks might be relaid some day. Meanwhile, it generally becomes a “rail-trail.”

In essence, a rail-trail is a public foot, bicycle, and horse path which uses the railroad right-of-way, usually after minor modifications, such as planked bridges or a strip of asphalt. It is maintained and administered by a public agency.

As of June 1, 1994, Colorado had 13 rail trails extending for a total of 77 miles.

Some are in Central Colorado: the Midland trail east of Buena Vista, the Mineral Belt above Leadville, a couple of miles along the old Quarry Spur in Salida. Some are nearby, in Summit County.

The trails began to take shape about twenty years ago, according to Joe Sands, a county commissioner. “We had some federal transportation money available, and the idea was that the trails would be an amenity for local residents, not a major tourist dray — we had skiing for that, after all.”

But now, the trails “are a major summer attraction. The ski-rental shops rely on bicycle and in-line skate rentals in the summer. We’d have a rebellion on our hands if we tried to remove the trails.”

Their popularity is growing, according to Jerry Vest, county statistician. In 1987, she said, the trails accounted for 70,800 user-days. In 1989, 125,000, and in 1991, the year of her last trail census, 212,800.

As of ’91, “the average trail user was a 38-year-old metro Denver resident, spent $51 a day in Summit County, and made just over $50,000 a year. Fifty-eight percent were male and 42 percent female.”

Such numbers could support an argument that the overall economy of Central Colorado might improve if the tracks were replaced by a rail-trail.

Headwaters State Park is already in place to administer a rail-trail along that route, and manager Steve Reese says they’re watching the situation closely. “We don’t have a stand on abandonment, one way or the other. If the rails stay, that’s fine with us. But if the Southern Pacific does announce an abandonment, we want to be ready.”

But “don’t estimate the amount of opposition a rail-trail proposal can generate,” says Chris Ford, a trail planner for the state.

“People along the route are used to trains. They’re not used to hikers and cyclists going past their houses and farms, and some aren’t going to like it. They’ll fight it every way they can.”

Another complication surfaced in Salida recently. The old railroad grade through town naturally attracted industry a century ago.

The tracks are gone now, and there’s a 4,800-foot paved trail along the corridor — but the industrial uses remain. When the city proposed changing the zoning to residential, rather than industrial, the commercial property owners protested.

— E.Q.