Ridin the rails
When the Denver & Rio Grand Western Railroad pushed its road into the Roaring Fork Valley over a century ago, it wasnt intended for recreation, but rather for industry. Todays bike trail, which follows the Rio Grande, reveals the dramatic economic and technological shift that has occurred in the last 120 years.The original railroad line was a valley-wide amenity, and it is such today as a trail. I have ridden it from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and last Sunday shared it with hundreds of people enjoying this non-motorized, valley-wide link.The original railroad made a much greater impact to the valley than the trail when the last spike was hammered home in 1887. That was the first time the Roaring Fork Valley was connected to the outside world by steam power and steel technology, and it made this pastoral valley and its many mining properties viable.The Rio Grande was not alone. Competing with it was the Colorado Midland Railroad, which pushed its road into the valley from Leadville over the Continental Divide in the upper Frying Pan Valley.The two railroad companies had a pitched competition, sometimes side-by-side, as they built track, trestles and bridges with teams of Herculean immigrant laborers. The Rio Grande won the competition by only two months, steaming into Aspen late in 1887; the Midland arrived in early 1888.Aspens mining industry and the valleys farms and ranches were abruptly linked to distant markets by modern transportation. Instead of horse-drawn freight wagons laboring over the high passes, silver ore, coal, and farm produce were shipped out by rail in huge quantities, while consumer goods flooded back in.The Midland route was short-lived and overlaid by Highway 82 and the Frying Pan Road. The tunnels above Ivanhoe Lake are flooded, ice-blocked, and collapsed. The once remarkable wooden trestles are obscure ruins. The Midland, for all the effort and expense required to build it, ran for only 20 years.The Rio Grande served Aspen into the 1960s, carried freight and iron ore from Woody Creek through the 1970s, and hauled coal from Mid-Continent in Carbondale through the 1980s. Its rails were torn up for the current trail in only the last few years.The Rio Grande route is intact, making it an interesting bike ride. While pedaling along, you can picture the train chugging along, spouting a plume of black coal smoke, hauling everything from passengers to potatoes.Some bemoan the current trail because it has opened an isolated corridor between Hook Spur and the Catharine Store Bridge. This wild section of trail bisects the river and the wild lands rising up toward the Crown. A seasonal closure at sensitive times of the year protects species that inhabit this area.Others bemoan the trail because of what it could have been a valley-wide light rail system. Instead of rail, we have RFTA buses and congested Highway 82. The debate over the use of the Rio Grande corridor may crop up again with peak oil.For now, the industrious bike rider can roll from one end of the valley to the other, feeling each rise and drop of the old rail bed, getting a sense for what it was like riding the steam train a century ago, at least from a scenic perspective.As a nationwide rails-to-trails effort converts miles and miles of abandoned tracks to designated bike routes, the Rio Grande Trail ranks among the top. The route is scenic, accessible, historic, and serves growing ranks of cycling commuters.Given the uncertainties of oil and the unpredictable future of local economies, one day the trail could be displaced by rails to again serve a steam train fueled by Carbondale coal. History has a way of repeating itself, so enjoy the ride while you can.Paul Andersens column appears on Mondays.