Yet another Royal Gorge war

Brief by Central Staff

Tourism – November 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

Generally, we think of the “Royal Gorge War” as something that happened a long time ago — specifically, in 1879 when two railroads were battling in court and on the ground for the right to lay tracks in “the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas,” a defile so narrow that there was room for only one set of tracks.

Those two contenders (Denver & Rio Grande, and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé) settled their differences, with the Rio Grande getting the Gorge and the Santa Fé getting Raton Pass.

Then the Rio Grande got merged into the Union Pacific in 1996, and the UP didn’t want to run trains through here any more. So the UP sold about 12 miles of Gorge tracks — the stretch from Canon City to Parkdale — to a partnership: Rock & Rail, a quarry freight operator, and the Cañon City & Royal Gorge Railroad, a tourist excursion operator.

They had their differences, partly on account of who should pay how much for track maintenance, and at one point, Rock & Rail was blocking CC&RG trains.

That seems to be settled, and now there’s a new dispute over the Royal Gorge. The land at the top is owned by the City of Cañon City, which leases it to a concessionaire who runs the famous suspension bridge, the gondola, and the rest of the amusement park.

The right-of-way at the bottom is owned by the Cañon City & Royal Gorge Railroad, which owns “air rights” above the tracks.

On the weekend of Oct. 4, the Royal Gorge concessionaire hosted “the World’s Most Extreme Event,” part of which involved parachute jumps from and around the bridge, which sits more than 1,000 feet over the tracks and river. The idea, according to the bridge company, was to promote the area as an extreme-sports venue.

Dwain Weston, an experienced jumper, died on Oct. 5 after striking the bridge after jumping from an airplane.

But were the jumpers trespassing, as well as risking their lives before a crowd of about 200 people?

Mark Greksa, owner of the CC&RG Railroad, says they were — that space is controlled by the railroad, which had not given permission. Further, it wouldn’t have if it had been asked.

“We will not allow this any more,” he said. “Our concern all along, which we voiced rather loudly, was that somebody was going to get hurt or get killed. Nobody would listen.”

He intends to use his property rights to stop future games, and notes that the bad publicity, as well as the prospect of future accidents, could hurt area tourism.

The bridge company, according to spokesman Mike Bandera, is working to stage more games next year. In his view, the event was like an air show or rodeo, where accidents happen, and “There is no one at fault.”