Rabbitbrush Rambler: Crossing Marshall Pass

With National Public Lands Day coming up on September 29, this weekend will be a good time to pause and appreciate our national forests along with our other public lands. I’m suggesting a drive across one of our high mountain passes to decompress from the world. This short trip across Marshall Pass (11,312 el.) travels through portions of Sangre de Cristo and Gunnison National Forests.

The turnoff to this pass is at Mears Junction, on the north side of Poncha Pass and south of Poncha Springs on U.S. 285. The junction is named for Saguache’s well-known toll road builder, Otto Mears, a man who rarely if ever missed a good opportunity.

The first American traveler known by name to have crossed Marshall Pass was Lieutenant William L Marshall, a member of the Wheeler Expedition. (Think Wheeler Geologic Area.)  Marshall was dealing with a serious personal problem in 1873 — specifically a tooth that was forcing him get to a dentist as expeditiously as possible from Silverton, so he was using this shortcut on an old Ute Indian trail. Probably the nearest qualified dentist at that time was in Cañon City.

Native Americans had been using this trail over the Continental Divide for centuries, and nearby mountains have been bestowed with the names of Ute Chief Ouray, his son Pahlone, and Ouray’s consort Chipeta. Since Ouray and Otto both spoke some Spanish, the two were able to share a mutually beneficial and apparently sincere friendship.

While the Denver & Rio Grande Railway was constructing its narrow-gauged line from Pueblo through Cañon City and the Royal Gorge to reach booming Leadville, the wily Otto got busy in 1878 and hacked out a toll road across Marshall Pass, linking his toll road in Poncha Pass to the mining areas of Gunnison County.

Sargents at the west end of the pass was a trading post and stage stop that belonged to rancher Joseph Sargent and now is a pit stop for travelers on U.S. 50. The total one-way mileage from Mears Junction to Sargents, as it was called by the railroad, is a little less than 22 miles.

One of the early Barlow and Sanderson stage coach passengers to Gunnison in 1880 was former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, enjoying a trip to see some mines. That same year Otto sold his Marshall Pass toll road to the D&RG for $40,000, and the stage road then became the D&RG’s railroad grade instead.

By 1880 the energetic owners of the D&RG were already building in several locations toward mining country on the Western Slope — across Cumbres Pass toward Durango, Tennessee Pass toward Aspen, and Marshall Pass toward Gunnison, reaching those goals the next year. Marshall was its highest pass and involved challenging curves and some grades with seven-percent gradient along the way.

Marshall Pass’s narrow-gauge construction required trestles, water tanks, coal bins, loading platforms, cuts, bridges, a turntable, and a long curving snow shed at the summit. There also was a small cluster of buildings for operations and crew’s housing, a post office, and a brick outhouse.

During its life, the route witnessed derailed equipment, wrecks, and deep snow that had to be bucked. One derailment near the summit resulted in a freight’s tumbling down the mountainside, but the worst wreck, caused by failed brakes near Mears Junction, resulted in the tragic deaths of five men.

Railroading like the D&RG’s needed strong locomotives, but the first were really minimalist. In the 1880s the line’s ownership began to add somewhat stouter equipment, two of the new locomotives being No.168 and No. 169. No. 168 saw duty on Marshall Pass, while No. 169 was over on Cumbres. The latter is the beauty in Alamosa’s park, while its sister has resided in a park in downtown Colorado Springs. No. 168, however, has recently been leased by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and the Narrow Gauge Preservation Foundation with plans for restoring the locomotive and returning it to service on the C&TSRR. 

With No. 168 pulling his train to Montrose, U.S. President William Howard Taft rode across Marshall Pass for the opening of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Gunnison Tunnel. His narrow-gauge car had originally been a private car, the ”Nomad,” that was used at times by the D&RG’s founder General Palmer. It had been rebuilt as a business car, but for Taft’s ride in 1909, further alteration was needed, as the door had to be widened to accommodate the president’s famous girth.

The western side of the pass was always a greater challenge for railroad maintenance, as it has continued to be at times after the rails were abandoned in 1953 and the roadbed was converted for motor vehicles. O’Haver Lake on the east side draws summer visitors for fishing and camping in summer, or for an alternate ride you can connect from the Shirley Switch site to mines at Shirley and Bonanza, using a road that was another of Mears’s numerous enterprises. 

Let’s hope that visitors stay on approved roads and carry all their trash out with them.