Willoughby: Long and winding railroads made mining profitable in Aspen, elsewhere
Legends & Legacies
Mountain residents know better than to measure their travel “as the crow flies.”
While a crow may fly 20 miles, we may start at the same point and drive 100 miles to reach the same destination. Rail travel consumes even more miles from point to point because it requires a lower grade than does travel by automobile. To connect Colorado’s towns, 19th-century railroads laid uncounted miles of switchbacks through the mountains and over passes.
During the infancy of Aspen’s development, much of the nation’s trains ran on a standard gauge of 4 feet, 8 inches. But Colorado’s railroads, like the city, were still taking baby steps. Because movement through mountains required sharp turns and steep grades, a challenge for standard gauge, mountain tracks measured only 3 feet wide, a narrow gauge.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, commonly called D&RG, tied a couple of mountain towns together first. In 1883, one of their profitable lines connected Leadville mines to a smelter in Pueblo. A branch line joined at Salida and continued to Montrose and Grand Junction. These developments opened travel from Colorado’s Front Range toward the state’s western boundary. A short branch reached Crested Butte. Another route ran south of Pueblo to the town of Cuchara, then extended westward to Silverton and Durango, San Juan mining districts. Another branch ran farther south to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
A D&RG line, now known as the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, still runs from Antonito to Chama in the southern part of the state. Tourists ride into the mountains and return by motor coach. The 71/2-hour experience resembles a trip through time and history.
During the early 1880s, coast-to-coast travelers had to transfer from standard gauge to narrow in order to traverse the central Rockies. To avoid the transition, many people detoured way north through Cheyenne, Wyoming. To solve the problem, a new railroad company formed, The Colorado Midland. The company laid a standard gauge line clear through the highest mountains of Colorado.
Rapid expansion of Aspen’s mines offered sufficient motivation for both the D&RG and the Midland to build lines to the city. In a locally famous race, both lines arrived in Aspen in 1887.
By then, the railroad magnate Jay Gould owned most of the D&RG, with its Colorado center located in Denver. The Midland centered on Colorado Springs for its city hub. From there, it connected to mines in Cripple Creek and Leadville. Then it turned west and crossed through the highest mountains. A tunnel gave passage to the Fryingpan Valley, and the train chugged onward to Basalt and Aspen. Later the route extended down the Roaring Fork to Glenwood, and connected to coal mines in Cardiff and New Castle.
You may have read Jules Verne’s novel, “Around The World in Eighty Days,” published in 1873. Correspondent Nellie Bly attempted that journey in 1889 and completed the trip in 72 days. On the final leg of her trip, Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World newspaper, chartered a private train to whisk her from San Francisco back to New Jersey. The same year, the Union Pacific began direct daily railroad service between Chicago and San Francisco, for anyone who could afford a ticket.
In 1889, you could not ride directly from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction. Rather, you would mount the D&RG from Glenwood to Leadville, continue to Salida, ride west to Gunnison, and then continue to Montrose and Grand Junction. A straight-flying crow would cut two-thirds of the distance off that trip.
Passenger travel absorbed time like a sponge. You could jump on the Colorado Midland in Aspen, endure a rickety ride, and wind up in Colorado Springs nine hours later. Transporting tons of silver soaked up even more time. Although crows may fly faster, railroads carried heavy ore to the point where it was processed. And that service, though slow, made mining profitable.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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