New battle looms for the Royal Gorge

Article by Central Staff

Transportation – June 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

A new battle in the Royal Gorge War

Regional history offers the Royal Gorge War of 1877, but it may soon be known as the First Royal Gorge War, with the Second Royal Gorge War now underway.

The first one was a battle, conducted both in the courtroom and with imported gunmen, between two railroads: the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé. Both wanted the narrow canyon as a rail route from Cañon City to Leadville, and there was barely room enough in the gorge for one set of tracks.

Like the first Royal Gorge War, today’s conflict is connected with railroads.

Recall that the D&RGW, winner of the Royal Gorge War, was merged into the Southern Pacific system about a decade ago. The SP was then swallowed by the Union Pacific in 1996, and the UP decided it didn’t need the Royal Gorge and Tennessee Pass any more.

It stopped train service and agreed to sell the Royal Gorge tracks to a company called Rock and Rail. Its freight operation would haul gravel from a planned quarry on the west side of the Royal Gorge, and the Cañon City & Royal Gorge Railway offers passenger excursions through the Gorge.

(The UP has since withdrawn its application to abandon Tennessee Pass, and it did maintain “overhead rights” through the Royal Gorge, which gives it the right to operate through trains but not to serve any customers along that stretch. But UP isn’t operating any trains west of Cañon City at the moment.)

Back to the tracks in the Gorge. Their owner, a 42-year-old Pennsylvania gravel miner named Bill Fehr, discovered something interesting in the deed that he got from the UP.

Railroads have something called “air rights” — if you want to build something over their tracks, they have to approve (lest a poorly designed bridge fall down and wreck a train) and they can charge you rent.

For the past 70 years, the Royal Gorge Bridge Co. had been paying the railroad $200 a year for air rights over the Royal Gorge tracks. The land atop the gorge is owned by Cañon City, which leases it to a concessionaire and collects more than $1 million a year to help run the city government — which gives Cañon the lowest property taxes in Colorado.

Fehr, after observing the generally tacky nature of the Royal Gorge Bridge area and associated amuse-park attractions, decided he could do a better job when the current concession company’s lease runs out in 2001.

And just to make sure the city gave his offer due consideration, he proposed raising the “air rights” rent from $200 a year to $750,000 a year.

Cañon City has responded by proposing condemnation proceedings against Fehr’s railroad air rights. Fehr’s lawyer responded that “The $100,000 you have budgeted for this will not scratch the surface.”

And to answer a question we sometimes get asked — no, the Royal Gorge Bridge doesn’t really go anywhere. It was built in 1929 strictly as a tourist attraction.

The only time we can recall that it functioned otherwise was in about 1985, when the Parkdale bridge was destroyed by a truck accident. Then traffic from Cañon to Westcliffe actually used the bridge for transportation, and the bridge company cut the toll to only $2 a car.