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Rail Excursions along the Arkansas

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Transportation – August 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

EVEN THOUGH freight service between Cañon City and Leadville appears to have ended, two passenger excursion lines are maintaining the region’s railroading tradition.

The Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad Company and the Cañon City & Royal Gorge Railroad — the state’s only standard-gauge excursion lines — are wholly separate enterprises linked by the same natural feature: the Arkansas River.

While the Leadville, Colorado & Southern treats passengers to lofty views of the river’s headwaters, the Cañon City & Royal Gorge shows off the river’s most spectacular creation, the 1,000-foot-deep Royal Gorge.

The May, 1999, debut of the CC&RG marked the first time in 32 years that passenger trains have rumbled through this magnificent canyon. Powered by two 1,500-horsepower, F-7 diesel-electric “Streamline” locomotives, the CC&RG follows a 24-mile route along the Arkansas River from Cañon City to Parkdale and back.

Salmon, sand, and ebony-hued rock walls close in as the CC&RG locomotives, painted the traditional orange, silver and black of the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, enter the Royal Gorge. Carved over millions of years by the erosive action of water on granite, the gorge today is a deep, craggy canyon sheltering hawks, herons, mule deer, and mountain lions.

Locomotive whistle wailing, the CC&RG rounds a bend as the Royal Gorge Bridge, the world’s highest suspension bridge, appears overhead, shimmering in the cloudless blue sky like an immense silver ribbon. On the canyon floor 1,053 feet below, the train stops on a no-less-remarkable engineering feat: the renowned Hanging Bridge.

Hanging, as its name implies, above the river along the gorge’s north side, this 175-foot-long plate girder bridge is held in place by A-frame girders spanning the river and anchored to the rock walls. Built in 1879 by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé Railroad for the then-princely sum of $11,759, the Hanging Bridge has served a main rail line for the past 120 years.

Unfortunately, the Santa Fé never got much use out of this unique structure. That happens when you lose a war, which the Santa Fé did when it forfeited control of the Royal Gorge right-of-way to the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in the aftermath of the infamous “Royal Gorge War.”

The battle lines were drawn in April, 1878, when both railroads began laying rail in the narrow gorge, ignoring the fact that there was room for only one track.

Competing crews regularly sabotaged each others’ work, dynamiting by night rail that their rivals had spiked down by day. Each railroad hired armed guards and built stone forts, the remains of which can be seen today along the CC&RG route. Shots were fired, although no fatalities were reported.

The battle was also waged in the courts, which periodically transferred control of the route from one railroad to the other before finally awarding it to the D&RG in March, 1880. But the Santa Fé didn’t walk away empty-handed: The settlement also ordered the D&RG to reimburse the Santa Fé $1.8 million for its previously completed construction.

WHY ALL THE FUSS to begin with? In a word: silver. A huge silver strike in Leadville in 1877 spurred both railroads to secure sole access to the highly-profitable Royal Gorge line, the most direct southerly route to Leadville’s mineral riches.

When the D&RG finally laid rail into Leadville in July, 1880, it immediately plunged into another conflict.

Pushing north along the Arkansas River past the wild, rough mining town, the D&RG arrived at the summit of 11,318-foot Fremont Pass, dubbed “Climax.” Continuing east toward Denver, the D&RG secured all the best rights-of-way through the precipitous mountain passageways.

Meanwhile, the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railway built west from South Park, laying rail along the only remaining Leadville/Climax right-of-way — a perilous route beneath steep cliffs and across jumbled talus slopes and narrow ledges that became known as the “High Line.”

Winter snow slides and regular derailments notwithstanding, the High Line proved a shorter, more economical Leadville-to-Denver route for both ore and passengers, eventually forcing the D&RG to abandon its own Leadville/Climax line.

By the early 20th century, the Colorado & Southern Railroad had acquired the High Line. While still transporting Leadville’s ore and its residents, the Climax Molybdenum Company Mine atop Frémont Pass soon became the C&S’s main customer.

For decades, Climax reigned as both the world’s largest molybdenum mine, and the largest underground mine of any kind. But foreign competition and plummeting molybdenum prices shut the mine down in the early 1980s. The Burlington Northern Railroad, the High Line’s last freight operator, then abandoned the line, plunging Leadville even deeper into the “bust” end of mining’s cyclical “boom and bust” roller coaster.

Seeing an opportunity to help Leadville regain its economic footing, longtime residents Ken and Stephanie Olsen became the stuff of local legend by purchasing 13 miles of track, a roundhouse, and some older rolling stock from the Burlington Northern — for the token sum of $10.

“We knew we wanted to do something to move Leadville forward again,” Stephanie explains. “What we didn’t know back then was anything about running or maintaining a railroad.

“Fortunately, though,” she grins, “we’re fast learners.”

WITH KEN, an accountant by trade, focusing on the track and Stephanie, an attorney, diesel-engine mechanic, and former truck driver, taking on the locomotives, the couple and their crew repaired the track and transformed the rolling stock — two 1,750-horsepower, GP-9 diesel-electric locomotives, a hopper car and several boxcars, flatcars, and cabooses — into the highest standard-gauge railroad in North America. They also refurbished the dilapidated 1884 depot, once frequented by the likes of Doc Holliday and the “unsinkable” Molly Brown, and today the boarding point for the LC&S’s 21-mile round trip.

For the past 11 years, the LC&S has carried passengers through the uppermost reaches of the scenic Upper Arkansas Valley, with its breathtaking views of the towering Sawatch and Mosquito ranges and seasonal panoramas of multicolored wild flowers and golden aspens.

Hugging the cliffs above 10,152-foot Leadville, the gleaming buff, burgundy and forest green train climbs more than 1,000 feet to the 11,200-foot high point of its High Line route, a scree field below the Climax mine site called Devil’s Tail Tangent.

When the LC&S train stops along the way at the imposing, frontier-era water tower marking French Gulch, passengers may gaze into the valley below and marvel at the shining headwaters of the Arkansas River that will soon converge into a rushing torrent capable of carving a Royal Gorge from solid stone.

The Leadville, Colorado & Southern and the Cañon City & Royal Gorge railroads run this year through October 3 and October 17, respectively. For schedules, ticket prices, reservations, and general information, contact: Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad Company, 719-486-3936 (, or Cañon City & Royal Gorge Railroad, 888-724-5748 (

Lynda La Rocca enjoys riding trains when she’s not writing articles at her home near Leadville.