Press "Enter" to skip to content

Nostalgia, Stories and Maybe Trains Again?

By Forrest Whitman

Folks who live along what was once the mainline of the Denver Rio Grande and Western Railroad often wax nostalgic. They remember hearing a freight grinding up to Tennessee Pass late at night. For places like Salida, Pleasant Valley and Leadville, the railroad was a source of identity. They felt at home beside the “main line through the mountains.”

It’s not all nostalgia. Many of us would love to take the slow train to Denver or Pueblo instead of risking life and limb on U.S. Hwy. 285 or 24. The 1960s were good years for rail passengers. You could read the paper and maybe a book before detraining at Union Station. The morning train even had a fairly decent diner and a club car. It was heaven.

It’s still possible to follow the D.&R.G.W. tracks, though the weeds are thick. Those rails are technically just “out of service,” but there are some fairly reliable rumors that those rusty tracks may still come to life. Not long ago, a state legislator, Jim Wilson, talked of what it would mean for the Union Pacific Railroad to rejuvenate those rusty rails. As he said, “Expensive, but not that expensive.” The crowd breathed a sigh of appreciation.

The rails (now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad) are in great shape as far as Parkdale (the uphill exit from the Royal Gorge). The gravel mines there export more product than any other producer west of the Mississippi. We can only ask, “Why not put those rails back in service all the way to Minturn?”

A railroad often means a sense of place for residents. Railroad stories seem to come up when I chat with locals in Central Colorado.

One favorite story is “The big last trip.” It was taken by almost the entire student body of Cotopaxi School in 1967. Apparently the superintendent of schools cut a deal with the D.&R.G.W.R.R. to take all the kids on a “last run.” They set out with fifty-plus kids on board at Cotopaxi. Their lunches were packed and excitement was high.

Alas, the train broke down near Texas Creek. Undeterred, they did make the trip at a later date. It’s still talked about in the valley.

Mule stories abound, too. My favorite concerns a Coaldale mule. Each day this jenny waited alone for the morning train. The baggage man put something in the mule’s saddle bag and gave her a treat. Some say she carried packages. She then slowly walked back up the hill to the kilns near the present Coaldale school house, a quarter-mile trek. There she got another treat and went home to wait for the train the next morning.

I’ve heard variations of the tale, but they all feature this loveable mule “package delivery service.” The published kids stories about “Trouble the Mule” from Nancy Oswald may be based on this historical critter.

Some of the current rumors of “the trains coming back,” point to the mineral wealth of the Pleasant Valley. At one time or another some 60 kilns were in use. Some of them were used to process limestone. Others were fired up to make coke from coal.

Calcite and limestone have the same chemical nature. Both are CaCO3. But the processing of those minerals yields different commercial products. One calcium product, still produced at the Salida plant, uses limestone mined at Monarch Pass. That product is used mainly to line mining ponds.

Much of the processed limestone from the Howard area was used as flux in steel making. Flux is added to liquid molten iron ore. The flux takes the impurities to the top of the kettle and is skimmed off.

Gypsum is another product of the valley. The gypsum mines still are very much in production. They ship 16 highway trucks a day to the Florence cement plant. Gypsum is essential to cement making even though it amounts to only three to five percent of the cement mix.

Many wish the railroad still shipped that gypsum. The same is true of the fertilizer plant in Swissvale. The weed-grown siding there seems to still wait for hopper cars. And, if molybdenum becomes an important mineral again, why not ship from Leadville by rail?

Other stories are all about why the rails are still there. One story is that when the Union Pacific asked to abandon the line, they were denied because it had “defense value.”

It is true that Tennessee Pass has a three percent grade as opposed to the Moffat tunnel line at 2.2 percent. That tale went on to say that heavy artillery and tanks were too wide to go though the Moffat Tunnel. The old Rio Grande mainline to Tennessee Pass had to be kept for possible future defense use.

At one time, I served on the executive committee of the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority (since merged with the CDOT Division of Transit and Rail). I checked out those stories. There is simply no record of such a “defense strategic” plan. It’s a good story though.

Another story is that when Phillip Anschutz came to own the Rio Grande and the Southern Pacific, he promised not to kill the railroad and its good jobs. Rio Grande had 2,200 employees in 1988 and the Southern Pacific 25,390. In fact, employment quickly shrank. Instead, the new owner sold off real estate and used the right-of-way mainly to install fiber optic lines.

No stories about the main line would be complete without those of the famous railroad war between the Rio Grande and the Santa Fe. Myth is piled on myth about that battle. Even though the Santa Fe Railroad had rights to build through the Royal Gorge, the Rio Grande had the rights from Spikebuck to Leadville.

Each time the Santa Fe tried to build “up creek” they had labor trouble with the D&RG. Labor was hard to find, and some locals worked for the one railroad during the day and the other railroad under the moonlight.

Eventually the court battles escalated and the Rio Grande built at least one “fort” to keep the Santa Fe bottled in. The one photo I’ve seen of a fort at Spikebuck doesn’t show much of an affair. The dispute was resolved in court and Santa Fe lost Leadville, but gained California and Mexico. Not a bad deal for both.

One war story is true. Bat Masterson worked for the Santa Fe doing security. He and his toughs attempted to take over the Pueblo roundhouse, but were stopped by the local sheriff. One security man was killed as he fled through a back window. Another man was listed as a casualty by the Pueblo newspaper. The next day he walked into the Chieftain office to dispute the reporting. The retraction called him a “lively corpse.”

So, what are the possibilities of trains along the old mainline? I recently interviewed David Krutsinger, the genial director of the Colorado Dept. of Transportation Division of Transit and Rail, for my KHEN radio rail show.

He points out that the Rail Commission (officially the Southwest Chief and Front Range Rail Commission) has around $4.5 million to study the rail picture. Things are shaking and who can say where that will go?

There is plenty of positive news. The Winter Park express train was a hit and takes many an auto off I-70. One industry source tells me that the U.P. Is definitely “scoping out” the old rails. For the first time in years, the possibility of hearing an early morning train coming up valley may be there. In the meantime, we have some great rail stories to tell.

Forrest Whitman warns that if you’ve got a good railroad yarn, it will end up on the air (On the Rails, 106.9) and in this very column. He wants yours.