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!)
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).
- 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.↑
- Construction site and future East tunnel portal can be seen in the lower right corner of the postcard on top!↑
- 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.)↑
- 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).↑
- 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:
- (Premiere/ modern Austrian trains & locos)
- Fast Steam
- Heavy Haul