An astonishing feat
Aspen Times Weekly
In 1890, Jack Demsey gave a boxing exhibit in Aspen. A mine tram began operating from town to Tourtolotte Park. The Pitkin County Courthouse opened its doors to a growing population approaching 10,000. With all that excitement, it is not surprising that one of the most historically astonishing accomplishments of that year received only passing comment in Aspen’s two newspapers.
During its first decade, Aspen’s growth and prosperity were barely noticeable. Remotely located, plagued by bitter mining claim lawsuits and far from silver smelters, Aspen struggled to attract investors and residents. All of that changed in 1887. Railroads reached city limits and a compromise was reached in the mineral ownership battle between David Hyman and D.R.C. Brown/Jerome Wheeler/Elmer Butler. By 1888 ore shipped to the smelter in Leadville and Aspen’s population doubled in two years.
Two railroads competed for business. The standard gauge Colorado Midland was constructed from Colorado Springs directly to Aspen’s mines. The Denver and Rio Grande, an existing narrow gauge railroad, quickly completed a spur line from Glenwood before the Midland could complete its trestle over Maroon Creek, securing many early contracts.
The D and R G struggled through the last half of the 1880s. After reorganizing from bankruptcy in 1886, it made connections with other lines to Colorado: the Missouri Pacific and the Rock Island. During that period, railroads switched from narrow gauge to standard gauge. Standard gauge allowed larger loads to be transported at less cost; narrow gauge companies like the D and R G lost business. Economics forced the D and R G to convert quickly across the state. Compatibility with its connections to the two coasts required further conversions.
The D and R G ordered new equipment in September 1890: engines from the Baldwin Locomotive Co., freight cars from the Peninsular Car Co. in Detroit and passenger cars from the Pullman Palace Car Co. They also acquired snowplows, cabooses, a derrick car and other standard gauge equipment to service Aspen.
By November, the D and R G began spreading their tracks across the state. Converting gauges consisted of pulling the spikes that hold track to railroad ties, moving the track, then pounding the spikes back in. Railroad ties that were not wide enough to accommodate the new spread were replaced or repositioned. Astonishingly, the tracks were moved without disrupting service. On Nov. 12 1890, all of the narrow gauge rolling stock left Aspen for Glenwood, including 75 freight cars, 28 of which were loaded with ore. Work began early on the 13th. Nine hundred men spread 40 miles of rails by late that night. On the 14th, the same crew spread the rails from Glenwood to Leadville, finishing at 2:00 in the afternoon. The passenger train from Denver left at 7:30 p.m., headed for Aspen on new rails.
If you have ever walked along railroad tracks, you recognize what a monumental muscle job pulling up spikes and moving the heavy rails would be. Imagine the number of railroad ties between Aspen and Glenwood! Forty miles of track with ties spread about 18 inches apart includes about 14,000 spikes.
While the news of the conversion made the front page of the papers, it did not figure as a big story. This astonishing feat was pronounced as if it were an ordinary event. I guess that in a town where men moved the insides of mountains every day, moving miles of rail seemed easy enough.
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Oral family history provides context that textbooks lack. Tying personal experience to collective events renders them relevant. Most of us have family oral history going back only a few generations, but that spans more history than you might think.