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Monday Train Blogging: Forgotten Colorado

by DoDo Mon Oct 24th, 2005 at 02:47:19 PM EST

The Swiss Alps are unique in railway geography: busy trans-European corridors pass it on spectacular lines, while a network of scenic narrow-gauge railways transport within it.

But, they weren't always unique: the Colorado Rockies used to have a similar infrastructure – only bigger & higher1. The 3–4 lines still used in revenue service and half a dozen tourist lines are but a faint reminder of what was. One of the two forgotten spectacles I'll focus on was the line across Hagerman Pass (photo from Denver Public Library):

(Editor's note: there'll be a couple of links below to earlier contributions of an ET commenter from Colorado we all know, who I hope can contribute even more and correct eventual errors. Others are welcome to 'comment' with any forgotten or mountain railway anywhere!)

Forgotten Transcontinentals

The USA was crossed by six "full" transcontinental railroads, but several other companies took part and fell short in the race to the Pacific – ending up as branch-lines or worse. Colorado had three of these, all climbing above 10,000 feet (and 3,000 m).

The least lucky of them was the Colorado Midland. Rivals having taken river valleys first, it had to climb three very high passes in succession (asdf showed us a bridge on the first climb) – then was forced to share tracks on the rest of the route to Salt Lake City...

The worst climb, up Hagerman Pass, was the third – crossed initially in the short Hagerman Tunnel at 11,528 feet (3,514 m), with switchbacks and loops on trestles on the ramp (see another old photo). Extreme snowfall and grades were battled 1887–1893, then the longer Busk–Ivanhoe Tunnel, built2 under incredible hardships, opened a safer route. In the winter of 1898/9, the old line was re-used during a financial dispute... This railroad struggled on until WWI, when the military was given control over railroads – and closed it.

Former Colorado Midland Railway tunnels bear Buena Vista, photo by Jerry Clark from The Narrow Gauge Circle

The two other failed trans-continentals (the still known Rio Grande, and the Denver & Salt Lake – the latter never reached the destination in its name) ended up in common ownership, and half of each was connected into a straight and better-built route still existing today3.

As a prelude to this upgrade, North America's highest railroad pass, the one-time D&SL route across Rollins Pass (ex Corona Pass, 11,671 feet/3,557.3 m, climbed with some spectacular 360-degree loops), was replaced in 1928 by the then longest (today still fourth longest) North American rail tunnel: the 6.21-mile (9,996 m) Moffat Tunnel (also see via asdf again).

Forgotten Narrow Gauge

What would have become the North American railroad reaching the highest altitude4 was the Argentine Central, west of Denver. Begun 100 years ago, it climbed up a steep mountainside with 7 switchbacks (first 2 above connecting railroad's double loop), but then construction ended half-way due to WWI. Tracks ended abruptly just below a nondescript bulge on a ridge – the 13,117 feet (3,998 m) Argentine Peak5 (photo from Denver Public Library; also compare with the postcard version to see how it was tampered with):

(The source site has a couple more B&W photos.) Before the line closed during the next World War, there were direct coaches from Denver – though, traversing tracks of three successive railroad companies, it had to be handed over twice... Nothing remains of either, but just below what was the Argentine Central, a spectacular section was rebuilt 1973–1984: the Georgetown Loop RR. (old postcard).

  1. To the Swiss railways' credit, tough Colorado's mountains and railways climb higher above sea level, relative differences are about the same. That is, surrounding areas are also higher: "mile-high city" Denver lies 1600 m ASL, Zürich only 400 m.
  2. Construction site and future East tunnel portal can be seen in the lower right corner of the postcard on top!
  3. The Rio Grande's clipped part passed through the Royal Gorge canyon of the Arkansas River, where a tourist train remains, which asdf mentioned when showing a bridge above.)
  4. Had it reached Gray's Peak, at 14,270 feet (4,349.5 m). The mark to exceed was the railway up Pikes Peak (14,110 feet/4,301 m), which still exists (and which asdf also posted on).
  5. The Mt. McClellan in the postcard's text is the largest hump along this ridge – but its peak is in the photographer's back. Imprecision for the sake of boasting on postcards was common practice at the time... In fact, all elevations in this article were checked against heights on an official USGS map.

Previous Monday Train Bloggings:

  1. (Premiere/ modern Austrian trains & locos)
  2. Adventure
  3. Fast Steam
  4. Heavy Haul

Posted as a diary to let the oil & human trafficking post have enough exposure (and because I'm going off-line).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Oct 24th, 2005 at 09:34:09 AM EST
Well Dodo, nice job of summarizing the Colorado mountain railways!

One point about the Colorado Midland was that it was a standard gauge line (4' 8.5" gauge) while the others were narrow gauge (mostly 3 foot). This made the problems for the CM particularly hard because standard gauge equipment is bigger and requires less sharp turns. The theory was that this would avoid the need to move goods from the mainline standard gauge cars in Denver to the narrow gauge cars. But all it really did was force the narrow gauge lines to upgrade their systems. For a long time there were three-rail tracks that could handle both kinds of equipment.

If you're interested in old railroads, the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden (just west of Denver) is worth a visit. http://www.crrm.org/ There are also several steam trains still running as tourist attractions, including the Durango-to-Silverton system http://www.durangotrain.com/index.htm

Golden also features the Coors beer factory, which is claimed to be the largest single-site brewery. One may argue whether American-style lager is the "right" sort of beer to drink, but in any case the factory tours (with free samples) are fun. Coors has its own small factory railroad.

There was--and still is--considerable admiration for Europe in Colorado. Towns like Manitou Springs (in the 1900s) and Telluride (today) were specifically set up to compete with Alpine resorts, complete with Spas at hot springs, casinos, and "European" restaurants. Many of the original Colorado settlers came directly from Europe, either as wealthy aristocrats (many with Tuberculosis) or as mine workers (Germans and Cornish in particular).

by asdf on Mon Oct 24th, 2005 at 01:40:51 PM EST
There was--and still is--considerable admiration for Europe in Colorado. Towns like Manitou Springs (in the 1900s) and Telluride (today) were specifically set up to compete with Alpine resorts, complete with Spas at hot springs, casinos, and "European" restaurants.

Indeed, the first time I came across a photo of the Argentine Central was the scanned-in version of some 70-year-old tourism brochure (which I failed to locate now) comparing the sights of Colorado with that of Switzerland. Now I know Switzerland, first-hand, yet I tended to agree, at least on potential if developed like the Swiss equivalents have been.

This was after, a decade ago, I saw a travel-o-documentary about the Rio Grande line across Moffat Tunnel, which impressed me, but compared to the lost stuff I found later on all the B&W photographs on the web (say the ghostdepot.com site), it's just dime-a-dozen... Now, if only...

...a mountain ressort/observation dome had been built atop Argentine Peak, some switchbacks had been replaced with spiral tunnels and direct trains from Denver had been arranged...

...the Rio Grande narrow-gauge system had been taken over by the state of Colorado and strategically maintained...

...the Denver, South Park & Pacific had electrified its mainline...

...the Rio Grande Southern had built panoramic cars...

...then the Jungfraubahn, the Rhätische Bahn, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn or the Montreaux-Oberland Bernois would be looking with envy today, I think.

[Respectively: a half-finished mountain railway, a narrow gauge network consolidated by a canton, and two other busy narrow gauge railways making profit mostly with tourist transport.]

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Oct 24th, 2005 at 03:45:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Leaving Tokyo for Shimonoseki, the longest passenger haul then. The train was first introduced around 1905 and was expanded and upgraded, but still was running at max of 95 km/h. The place is "Yurakucho." The streets and the railway track are still there. The second car after the loco is a battery car, the third one a luggage/mail car.

For copyright reasons, I do not post images here, but see the link for pictures of trains passing the Usui Pass ca 1962.

I will become a patissier, God willing.

by tuasfait on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 09:30:00 AM EST
Holy cow!

Wonderful photos in that link! And is that line steep! If I see it right, the pushers are rack locomotives with third-rail supply, aint' they? I've never seen such a combination!

And those three and four locomotives after each other - are they permanently coupled?

As for the above photo: what is a battery car needed for behind an electric?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Oct 26th, 2005 at 07:32:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You caught that right. Yes, it was a third rack rail using special locos for that particular pass only. They call it the "apt"(sp) style. Two locos were permanently coupled as a basic unit.

A battery car is for the non-electric area. They changed the loco to a steam engine some 200 miles from Tokyo as the rest of the rail was not yet supplied with electricity.

It was a kind of mismanagement of resources, not unusual for a developing economy back then. For instance, we were able to build Zero fighters which dominated the air from 1940 to 1941. Nevertheless, its parts factories and assembly lines were not connected by paved motorways. They used horses and cows to haul the parts.

I will become a patissier, God willing.

by tuasfait on Thu Oct 27th, 2005 at 10:39:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They call it the "apt"(sp) style.

Must be system Abt - from the photos, hard to say, maybe a double Abt. Below, from left to right: rack for the Riggenbach, Strub, Abt (triple version), and Locher systems:

What I found very strange is an electric rack railway where electricity comes from a third rail on one side of the rails, rather than overhead wire.

A battery car is for the non-electric area... It was a kind of mismanagement of resources

Until recently, in Hungary, there were passenger trains pulled by Russian-built locomotives that lacked electric train-heating/board electricity generators - thus generator cars were used.

However, if the train first came from the capital Budapest pulled by an electric locomotive, and had to continue unelectrified, the generator car was only put on the train with the diesel (just this happens on the image above). Then again, I'm speculating, maybe the battery car on your train was charged from the overhead wire during the first 300 km?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Oct 28th, 2005 at 05:20:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I found this site on the Usui Pass line, from one photo it is clear it's a triple Abt. I see this line was converted to non-rack 42 years ago, then closed when the Shinkansen was built to Nagano - what a real shame! However, I also found a Japanese site, with a single line of English text, that suggested it'll be re-built by railfans! If I ever get to Japan, might definitely be worth a visit...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Oct 28th, 2005 at 05:39:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I went through the Usui pass only once in 1977, and there was no Abt rack anymore, only a powerful electric engine was added to the train to pull.

That pass is also very very beautiful when you drive.  Over the pass, there is a famous resort by the name of Karuizawa, which John Lennon and Yoko Ono loved.


I will become a patissier, God willing.

by tuasfait on Sat Oct 29th, 2005 at 09:37:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
DoDo, I may have made a mistake. The second car may be a "steam heater" car, as the electric locomotive then had no heating for passengers(whereas a steam engine definitely had enough steam to supply heating). If so, the second car was loaded with a steam generator. Sorry for the mistake, but my point of mismanagement of resources still stands... well, sort of.

I will become a patissier, God willing.
by tuasfait on Sat Oct 29th, 2005 at 09:17:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Having camped at Rollins Pass and Hagerman Pass your diary brought back fond memories.

However, there was another old narrow-guage line outside of Boulder that served the mining towns in the mountains known as The Switzerland Trail. I used to live just below the site of the train station in the "town" of Wall Street, so named for all the NY money invested in the local mines, and hiked the old train bed regularly. The train line ran to the numerous little towns and carried gold ore down to the processing plants and smelters in Boulder. While there are no tracks left, the trail is popular with hikers, four-wheelers and the like, sneaking into scenic parts of Boulder County.

by US Blues on Tue Oct 25th, 2005 at 11:36:23 AM EST

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