Rabbitbrush Rambler: D&RG to the mines

When mines began to open in the San Juan Mountains, the narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railway was between a rock and a hard place. Rail fans riding on today’s Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad have only a scant notion of how hard the place and the rock were in the 1870s, and future years not easier.

The “hard place” was the lack of money that was being sought on the East Coast and even in England, and there never was enough of it for the needs of a railroad even built on a small scale. The “rock” was the Rocky Mountains with the Continental Divide to be crossed.

In addition to the steep, twisting, vertical geography that the little locomotives would have to surmount in the mountains, the first impediment after reaching Colorado Springs and Pueblo from Denver was economic. General William Jackson Palmer’s fledgling corporation was ensnared in a nation-wide financial panic, which lasted from 1873 for a few years.

By 1874, mining was causing lots of excitement in the San Juans, though, and soon in 1877 Leadville’s mines also opened with even greater fanfare. Palmer’s original goals of Santa Fe and the silver mines in Mexico were forgotten, but his need for capital was not.

Adding to the urgency was the approach of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway that was steaming from Kansas to Pueblo as rapidly as possible. An epic contest to reach Leadville by way of the Royal Gorge was sure to ensue, and it did, for two years.

This part of the saga saw opposing armed gangs, including a role played by Bat Masterson it is said, who built forts and manned them west of Cañon City. A district judge helped the D&RG by invalidating some AT&SF’s leases. The judge just happened to be Thomas M. Bowen, who just happened to have local mining interests in the San Juans around the San Luis Valley. He soon afterward became a U.S. senator from Colorado. The D&RG got the Royal Gorge, and the AT&SF got Raton Pass.

When the struggling D&RG began to lay track from Walsenburg into the mountains in 1876, the climb over the Sangre de Cristos was accomplished in early 1877 and then started west across the San Luis Valley toward a major impediment — the Rio Grande River. The tracks crossed the river into the new town of Alamosa in time for a grand celebration on July 4, 1878, but there it had to stop to gather steam and funds for the mighty task ahead. Meanwhile, the corporation was reorganized as the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and General Palmer was out of office as president.

Stalemated by its funding needs, the D&RG waited at Alamosa, which was becoming a rough supply center for goods and people and for ore wagons from the mines. By 1880 at last the rails were on their way down to Antonito and across the Continental Divide to the mines in the San Juans, across the Valley to Summitville’s access at Del Norte, down a risky right-of-way to Embudo and Santa Fe, and over Marshall Pass to Gunnison by way of the hard-won Royal Gorge. Construction put thousands of men, horses, and mules to work for decades to come.

On the San Juan Extension to Durango, the first few easy miles out of Antonito give today’s tourists on the C&TSRR some inkling of what lay ahead. To climb onto the mesa, a switchback was needed, with the tiny locomotives using water to make the steam to keep the wheels turning, so a drink was needed at Lava Tank, only 11 miles from Antonito.

Not only did the Lava Tank have to be erected, but water to fill it had to be pumped up to the tank from Los Pinos Creek. Friends of the C&TSRR have been restoring the pump house during their vacation time. (My son Tom is one of these volunteers who come from all over the country to work on such projects. The large pump itself now sits on the lawn near the Conejos County Library near La Jara.) Later, larger steam locomotives could carry more water and required fewer stops.

The original Lava Tank burned and was replaced. At this location, there once also were a section house and a coal house, giving some notion of how much was involved in building and operating this railroad, even one on a tinker-toy scale. On a sunny morning, sharp-eyed travelers on U.S. 285 may glimpse the Lava Tank still shining in the distance on the mesa.

The little steam locomotives then contained enough water to make it all the way from Lava to Sublette, only about 14 miles farther on.  A cut for tracks was needed at Toltec Gorge on the way to Osier and Cumbres Pass at its 10,022-foot elevation, and another cut was made on the west side at Windy Gap, not to mention the route’s need for a tunnel and assorted trestles along the way. But the line steamed into Durango in 1881, and then headed to Silverton.

To be continued. . . .