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Walking among the Hagerman ghosts

Article by Sharon Chickering

Trails – September 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Ghosts aren’t hard to find. They join the squirrels chattering among the aspen, spruce, and fir, or echo with the rushing mountain streams which erode the long-abandoned bed of the Colorado Midland Railway above Leadville. As a hiking trail, the route now offers a chance to visit the phantom rail workers as they blast and pound rocky routes from the Rocky Mountains.

The Colorado Midland Railway, begun in 1883, was the first standard-gauge line over and through the Colorado Rockies. Never producing much in the way of profits, it died in 1921.

The main route extended from Colorado Springs over Ute Pass and across South Park, then over Trout Creek Pass and up the Arkansas to Leadville, where it turned west toward Aspen.

This segment climbs the eastern side of the Sawatch Range toward the Hagerman Tunnel, 11,530 feet above sea level.

As we proceed, my husband and I visit the site of Douglass City, where decaying log cabins, once homes to Italian tunnel workers, dot the autumn landscape. Each cabin seems large enough only for a single bed, small stove, chair, and perhaps a table — not very cozy with snow drifting in the cracks between the logs — only a place to collapse after a day of back-breaking labor.

Flattened tin cans and pieces of stove pipe lay strewn on the ground. One “triplex” — three connected rooms each opening to the outside — intrigues me. Perhaps ladies of the evening earned their keep there.

Even with all the bustle of the dance hall and eight saloons, Douglass City must have been a lonely place. In my imagination, I see men pause in their work as the work train sounds an echoing whistle and trails a long plume of black smoke.

Near the beginning of the trail, we stand on an embankment overlooking the gaping place which a 1,084-foot curved wooden trestle once spanned. Sites of other trestles are evident along our walk, but none is this impressive. Here and there, decaying wooden ties lay embedded in the soil, while large timbers from old snow sheds stand at odd angles. In protected areas, purple asters and yellow senecio still bloom; two honeybees, immobilized by the early morning cold, cling to blossoms as they wait for the sun.

At the top of the trail, the entrance to the 2,161-foot-long Hagerman Tunnel is almost hidden by massive rocks which have fallen. The opening, 16 feet high and 18 feet wide, is dark. A thick layer of ice covers the floor, and water drips from the ceiling into unseen pools.

Used only from 1887 to 1890, and again in 1898-88, the tunnel was named after Colorado Midland officer James John Hagerman. Visitors are cautioned not to enter.

The path loops around to the trailhead; we have taken four hours to walk the 5.5 miles. We haven’t really seen any ghosts, though some must have lurked behind the trees and rocks. As we emerge from the tree-lined rail bed, I look back, sensing a spectral locomotive somewhere behind me.

Sharon K. Chickering lives in Leadville, where she’s also a librarian. She may forgive Colorado Central for misspelling her name in the byline of a previous article.