End of the line
August 6, 2006
The spikes have been pulled, the rails are lined up, the ties are stacked, the plates are heaped, and the Denver & Rio Grande Western rail bed is bare for the first time in 120 years. It’s the end of the line for Aspen’s first railroad.The line truly ceased in the 1960s when the last train chugged down the valley, announcing the end of Aspen’s industrial era. The shrill scream of steam whistles and the chugging of coal-fired trains are long gone, but their echoes reverberate into the present.The D&RGW was Aspen’s first railroad, winning a race against the upstart Colorado Midland as competing railroad crews laid track on either side of the Roaring Fork River in a contest to become Aspen’s premiere conduit to the outside world.The Rio Grande, a narrow gauge, took a circuitous route from Leadville via Minturn, Glenwood Canyon, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. The magnitude of human labor required to drive that road bed around mountains, across canyons, over rivers and through tunnels staggers the imagination.The Midland, a standard gauge, had it harder still by taking a more direct route. It pushed uphill from Leadville past Turquoise Lake, looped around huge switchbacks and over long wooden trestles to the Great Divide, bored the Hagerman Tunnel through solid rock to Ivanhoe Lake, traversed perilous Hell Gate, then skirted the Fryingpan River to Basalt.The D&RGW arrived in Aspen late in 1887, followed two months later by the Midland in early 1888. Aspen, which had previously been served by freight wagons over the high passes, was suddenly a two-railroad town. Commerce streamed in while silver ore streamed out. Today, Highway 82 follows the Midland route across the 120-year-old Maroon Creek bridge. The Rio Grande carries cyclists and hikers on a 25-mile-long trail to Carbondale. The Midland pulled up its tracks in 1921, leaving the Rio Grande as the last vestige of rail in a valley that once depended for its prosperity on trains.The rails being torn out today from the lower Rio Grande are being sold for scrap, an act of finality marking the end of rail in the Roaring Fork Valley. Some call this madness given the urban levels of traffic congesting the valley. Others say that rail is a bygone technology, a false panacea for today’s dominant car culture.The Midland is overlaid by a state highway, but the Rio Grande continues to prod a transportation debate. The hue and cry over the widened trail on the Aspen end is a response to the acceleration of development. How fitting that as the Midland road grows into a four-lane highway, the Rio Grande gets super-sized.On the Rio Grande’s contested midvalley section along Hooks Spur, where the old rail line hugs the hillside past Rock Bottom Ranch, another hue and cry warns of incursions from a paved trail through a wild tangle of shrubs and brush that has become a haven for wildlife.Here the historic use of the trail as a transportation corridor is at odds with the now-fallow ground it traverses. The rewilding of the D&RGW, which railroad crews fought for decades, will once again be tamed, this time for recreational and commuter uses.The early railroad builders might guffaw if they knew that their “road” was now a hotly contested bike trail, or perhaps they would be chagrined that their extraordinary labor is belittled by pedal power rather than being honored for the industrial advances of a century ago.Time has a way of twisting intentions and events into irreconcilable and confounding paradoxes. The difference in perspective between a cyclist and a locomotive engineer reminds us that history marks dramatic shifts in the human experience.As the debates go on, futurists ponder whether some new and unforeseen use will one day be applied to a rail bed that was willfully driven into the valley with the sweat and blood of an anonymous army of laborers when the Roaring Fork Valley was still young. Paul Andersen hopes they’re on the right track. His column appears on Mondays.