Sidebar by Kym O’Connell-Todd
Transportation History – July 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine
Enthusiasm was high — the tension even greater — during the rail race of 1879.
Two narrow-gauge railroad companies, the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) Railroad and the Denver South Park and Pacific Railroad (DSP&P), fought neck to neck to reach the prosperous mining town of Gunnison first. Even though both companies faced the formidable Continental Divide, each chose to approach the engineering problem in radically different ways.
The D&RG decided to go over the mountain barriers. The DSP&P intended to tunnel through the Rockies.
Confident from the successful construction through the difficult Platte Cañon gorge at the east edge of South Park, the DSP&P requested bids for an 1,800-foot tunnel to be excavated 13 miles northeast of Pitkin at nearly 12.000 feet in elevation.
A bore under Altman Pass would ultimately prove the shortest route to connect the Arkansas and Gunnison valleys, and the railroad awarded the job to M. Cummins & Co. on Nov. 25, 1879.
The contractor chose the dead of winter to start digging through Altman Pass. In January 1880, he started work on the tunnel, stationing workers at opposite ends. Two groups, 250 men altogether, dug at the same time with plans to meet in the middle. But for some reason, the contractor forgot to consider the weather.
Snow quickly accumulated on the pass. For the men to get to work, the company had to clear the roads at a cost of $75 per day. Cold and wind prevailed, freezing work clothes and threatening lives.
The book The Gunnison Country by Duane Vandenbush states that in varying shifts, 10,000 laborers worked on the tunnel at various times, though few worked for more than a few days.
A 1879 DSP&P construction manager’s report cited in the book Historical Sketches of Early Gunnison states: “… our company has advanced the fares of 200 men brought from Canada, 250 from St. Louis, 300 from Chicago, 1,000 from Kansas, the laborers in each case agreeing to refund the amount when earned in our service. In nearly all cases, the men deserted; many went to the mines, a few returned to their homes and the Lord probably knows where the rest are.”
The crew managed to bore their way into the sides of Alpine Pass at an average of 2.58 inches per day, according to M.C. Poor, the author of Denver, South Park & Pacific.
Records exist of two incidents involving death or injury during the construction. On Sept. 25, 1880, gang foreman Joseph Riley died in an accident, and on Feb. 8, 1881, Michael Welch lost both hands when blasting caps unexpectedly exploded inside the tunnel.
Beyond history, the tunnel’s construction also inspired at least one novel, The Way Through the Mountains by the late Steve Frazee, who put a noted gunslinger in the construction camp as an “enforcer” to prevent disgruntled workers from leaving.
Construction cost $300,000 just for the tunnel, about one third of a mile. West of that, they had to build great rock retaining walls built west of the tunnel to support the tracks along the cliffs. One was 2 feet thick, 33 feet high and 452 feet long.
The engineering of the project was so exact that construction workers found themselves only of a foot off when they met midway through the tunnel.
Mark W. Hemphill, author of The Alpine Tunnel, reports that construction on the west side exceeded $100,000 per mile between the tunnel and the townsite of Woodstock, which was later wiped out by a snowslide. He concludes that the stretch is “the most expensive piece of narrow-gauge construction in Colorado and Utah.”
Those expenses to keep the tunnel open would continue to plague the railroad for the next 30 years, with cave-ins delaying train schedules and costing lives — some of the victims are buried in the St. Elmo Cemetery.
The first DSP&P train finally pulled into Gunnison on Sept. 2, 1882. The engine announced itself by three joyous blasts from the whistle. But the D&RG had already beaten it by more than a year.