Leadville Mineral Belt Railway: The rails before the trail

Article by Sharon Chickering

Local History – August 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE MOURNFUL WAIL of a train whistle only sounds four or five times a day now, and then only during Leadville’s few summer months. Although mineral ores no longer await rail transportation from mine to smelter — and the railroads have all but abandoned the tracks which once crisscrossed this region — Leadville’s 140-year mining legacy still holds a strong grip on the area’s imagination and identity.

The Leadville Mineral Belt Railway had only about three miles of track, but it covered some of the richest territory on earth during Leadville’s frenetic boom years. Those familiar with that history will recognize such names as the Little Pittsburgh, the Matchless, the Denver City, the Robert E. Lee, the Robert Emmet and the Penrose. All of those prominent mines were served by this little dual-gauge railway.

[The Denver City Mine along the Leadville Mineral Belt Trail]

Railroads first reached Denver in 1870, a little more than ten years after gold was discovered in California Gulch near present-day Leadville. It was another ten years, however, before the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) completed a much-contested route up the Arkansas River Valley, through the Royal Gorge to Salida and then into Leadville with its narrow-gauge line.

In an region reporting the extraction of $10 million in silver and $15 million in gold in 1879 alone, railroads were anxious to compete for freight business. At that time wagons were charging $18 a ton to haul freight to Colorado Springs. By cutting that cost to $10 a ton, it was estimated the railroads could make close to a quarter of a million dollars per year hauling the same freight in a more timely fashion.

By 1884, a second narrow-gauge line, the Denver, South Park & Pacific (DSP&P), defied the steep grades, daunting chasms and severe winter weather to build a mountain railroad. It crossed the Continental Divide twice, from Como (where part of the roundhouse remains) over Boreas Pass, and then across Frémont Pass to reach Leadville from the north.

And in 1887, the standard-gauge Colorado Midland came to town. It came west from Colorado Springs, then crossed Trout Creek Pass and followed the Arkansas River upstream to Leadville. It inspired the D&RG to convert its Leadville line to standard-gauge in 1890, with a third rail so that narrow-gauge traffic could still be handled.

That was the same year that the Denver, South Park & Pacific changed its name to the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison (DL&G). Soon it merged with ten other railroad companies to become the Union Pacific, Denver and Gulf Railway (UPD&G). By 1893, it was bankrupt and became part of a Union Pacific receivership.

At a time when railroad crewmen made $1.75 to $2.00 a day, and rail clerks $75 to $125 a month, passenger fares to Denver were approximately $12.50.

In 1898, Frank Trumbull, appointed as an independent receiver, reorganized the DL&G and the UPD&G into the Colorado & Southern (C&S) with capital of $48 million.

[C&S goes to standard-gauge in 1943]

During this period of somewhat convoluted wheeling and dealing among railway companies, organizers of the C&S chartered the Leadville Mineral Belt (LMB) in 1898 to build spurs to mines as high as 11,000 feet on the mineral-laden east side of town.

A spur connected back to the C&S main line at what is known as Leadville Mineral Belt Junction (milepost 149.9) where the track crosses Little Evans Gulch, about three-quarters of a mile north of the roundhouse. At this junction was a 530-car side track. In addition, a .65 mile spur south to the Penrose Mine was built onto the end of the mainline of the DL&G under the LMB charter.

The LMB also connected with DL&G and CM trackage at several points around the city. Loaded narrow-gauge cars left Leadville over the DL&G (DSP&P or UPD&G, later C&S) while standard-gauge cars left via the Colorado Midland, and the D&RG could handle either.

In a talk given at the Leadville Public Library in April 1969, George Mitchell referred to the Ibex Branch of the D&RG Railway as the “mineral belt,” but that is the only instance of such usage I’ve found.

Ordinarily, the designation of Mineral Belt Railway is reserved for the line which was built by, leased back to, and then absorbed by the Colorado & Southern.

Because rail transportation was critical for supplying the mines, as well as delivering ore to both local and outside markets, the Denver & Rio Grande and the Colorado Midland — the other two rail lines to build into Lake County — also laid tracks to mines in Leadville’s “Mineral Belt.”

In mountainous, mineral-rich Colorado in the late nineteenth century much debate was held concerning the merits of narrow- versus standard-gauge railways. And the C&S, being an amalgamation of over thirty predecessors, inherited lines and equipment for both.

With only three feet between the inside faces of the rails, narrow-gauge must have seemed ideal for mountain settings with its cheaper building cost and ability to negotiate tighter curves. Of necessity, however, the grades were often steep (as much as 5%), there was less lateral stability, and the smaller, lighter engines had reduced power.

Standard-gauge railways were more expensive to build, but with 4 feet 8½ inches between the rails, they had more stability and could accommodate larger locomotives with more pulling power.

To facilitate the loading of ore no matter what the gauge of the car being used, the Leadville Mineral Belt (LMB) was built with three rails. Although derailments were more probable on dual-gauge trackage because of the “ease” of using the wrong gauge, a narrow-gauge engine did the switching on the LMB.

Idler cars (flat cars used between other cars with especially lengthy cargo) were equipped with three-way couplers to facilitate linking with both standard-and narrow-gauge cars. In Leadville a flanger (type of snow plow) also served as a three-way coupler or idler car.

When both narrow- and standard-gauge cars were wooden, and there was only a slight difference in weight between them, track accommodations could also be made by changing the cars’ trucks (the wheel assembly). However, as standard-gauge cars became steel framed and heavier, the lighter, wooden narrow-gauge cars sometimes collapsed under the additional strain.

As of June 1917, the C&S had 322.722 miles of narrow-gauge main track and 53.694 miles of narrow-gauge yard track and sidings in the state. Nearly 36 miles of main track, .906 miles of second main track and 50.9 miles of yard track and sidings were equipped with a third rail (dual-gauge). Narrow-gauge equipment included 30 steam locomotives, 1079 freight cars, 7 passenger cars, and 57 pieces of work equipment. Undoubtedly some of this operated on the LMB.

A number of features distinguished C&S equipment from that of competing narrow-gauge lines. The locomotives were often squat-boilered 2-8-0s (referring to wheel placement) with Ridgway Spark Arresters as smoke stacks. Also known popularly as “Bear Trap Stacks,” the spark arresters/cinder catchers were in use sometime before July 1918 in coal burning locomotives to cut down on sparks (which often caused track-side blazes, especially in areas where trains had to pull especially hard up steep grades). Other unique features included boiler-mounted air tanks, butterfly snowplows, and four-wheel cabooses.

By 1908, the Colorado & Southern became a subsidiary of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) and narrow-gauge railways began to disappear. With the economic slowdown of the Depression in the 1930s — and the Postal Service’s decision to send mail from Denver by truck — rail service to Leadville dwindled. The last C&S passenger train left Leadville for Denver on April 4, 1937.

[The Matchless Mine]

The narrow-gauge line continued to serve Climax until August 25, 1943 when the last narrow-gauge steam train — pulled behind former Denver, Boulder & Western 2-8-0 #76 — left the station and the line was standard-gauged. With lessening mine production, the C&S (now a swallowed subsidiary of Burlington Northern Santa Fé) made its last Climax run in October 1986.

The 2.4 miles of dual-gauge tracks from the Leadville Mineral Belt Junction to the Blind Tom Mine were abandoned in 1937 as was the 0.8 mile of narrow-gauge track from the junction, south to the end of the track. The rails came out the next year.

Now, those with perceptive eyes can still make out rotting ties embedded in the soil, hillside cuts that once sported rails, and rail ballast obscured by persistent vegetation.

Today the C&S heritage lives again in the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad, a summer tourist operation headquartered at the 1893 DSP&P red brick depot built at the corner of East 7th and Hazel Streets, and in the Mineral Belt Trail, a ten-mile plus paved recreational trail following the abandoned rail lines of Leadville’s three main railways, including the Leadville Mineral Belt. Check them both out for an authentic taste of Leadville’s railroad and mining history.

Sharon Chickering lives almost within spitting distance of the new Leadville Mineral Belt Trail.