I have visited Colorado's railroads many times over the years, as several articles in this blog demonstrate:
In the 21st century, however, when I think of Colorado railroads, I turn into an old man complaining that everything has gone to hell. The many lines in my face slowly turn downward like a mudslide. My eyes narrow; my hands clench. My voice rises.
You see, I remember when the Denver and Rio Grade Western was king, when Tennessee Pass was crawling with trains, when Big Ten Loop was not surrounded by houses and traffic. I remember when Colorado was the quintessential Western state -- lightly populated, semi-arid, mountainous, beautiful. I remember when Denver's airport was close to downtown. I remember when you could follow trains along the Arkansas River for over 100 miles under clear blue skies.
So I complain and moan, and then I try to analyze my behavior, and I realize that old men become grouchy not because the world is changing (and it certainly is) but because they are. Aging is a practical joke. One can be either offended or else laugh out loud. I have decided, after minimal thought, to laugh.
For years, I have steadfastly resisted returning to Colorado, because rail traffic in the state has been reduced to a trickle -- where lines such as Tennessee Pass have not been outright abandoned. It is now possible, in 2022, to explore along the Moffat Route all day and not see anything other than Amtrak. On the Craig Branch, the occasional train often runs at night. All coal mines save one are closed. The coal-fired generating plant at Craig is being shuttered in phases (unless someone somewhere comes to his senses).
But the world keeps turning, and as Ray Price sang, "There's no need to watch the bridges that we're burning." (Kris Kristofferson wrote the song.) So in November 2021, I made a return trip to Colorado.
I drove north from Oklahoma to York, Nebraska, then turned west on Interstate 80. I generally avoid interstates, preferring the backroads where you can see something other than trucks and exhaust, but I overslept and needed to make time, and you can't make time across Nebraska on the old Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30), though the road closely follows the original transcontinental railroad as it slowly climbs the High Plains toward Sherman Hill.
Highway and railroad -- as well as the interstate -- all navigate along the Platte River, a lush and fertile valley that makes western Nebraska seem as verdant as Ireland, but this is an illusion. The river irrigates the valley and adjoining corn fields much as the Nile irrigates the Egyptian desert, but drive out of the Nebraska flood plain into the surrounding hills, and the world quickly turns brown and barren -- not quite a desert but dry enough to support short grass and nothing more.
I spent the night in Ogallala, which has given its name to the gigantic aquifer that allows portions of the High Plains to grow wheat, corn and soy beans, and I was reminded of Bertrand Russell. This likely seems a non-sequitur, so allow me to explain. A few years ago, I watched a filmed interview (from 1950, the year of my birth) in which he lamented the changes in England after the Great War.
"If you were not alive before," he said, "you have no idea how radically different the world has become." His tone was not sorrowful. He sounded rather perplexed, as though he could not understand the context of his own life.
In Ogallala, your author felt the same way. Here was a small town that was a place, not a franchise controlled in California or New York. People lived and worked here, procreated here, raised families, died, buried their dead, repeating the cycles that have defined human existence since, well, humans existed. Nothing was phony, artificial, processed, syndicated, homogenized. This was just a place, with people. Unless you are old enough to have grown up in a place like this (and I am and did), or unless you are fortunate enough to live today in the middle of nowhere (which I do), you have no idea how radically different the world has become. No idea.
Of course, every generation suffers this experience. No one is immune. Such repetition, however, generation upon generation, does not make the encounter less traumatic. I know what the world was once. I know what I was once. I know what the world is now. I know what I am now. I know. I know. Things are not the same. They aren't. They aren't. Those sentences are as timeless and as universal as starlight.
So I was prepared for the worst, but I did have a plan. A railfan friend can access the UP Network and search for trains. He was kind enough every morning to send me information about what, if anything, might be running on the Moffat Route. Most days there wasn't much. Most days, there was more BNSF traffic (on trackage rights) than UP. Some days, I saw only a single BNSF freight and the westbound Amtrak No. 5. I therefore relied on the time-honored technique of photographing a line with minimal traffic. I chased trains from point A to point B. Chasing trains in the Rocky Mountains presents many challenges, especially for someone as old as I am, with bad eyes, ears and reflexes. But I am game, if nothing else.
My first day in Denver, the only thing running besides the morning Amtrak westbound was the daily BNSF manifest from Ogden to Denver. It was east of Bond when my friend's email arrived, and I calculated (correctly) that I would not have time to beat it to Moffat Tunnel, so I photographed Amtrak No. 5 at Big Ten Loop, then waited along Colorado Highway 72 for the manifest to appear beyond Tunnel 1.
BNSF slowly meandered down the Front Range, while I closed my eyes and tried not to fall asleep. I heard the train whistle at the isolated grade crossing near Tunnel 2. Soon enough came the familiar sound of steel wheels on steel rails, coasting downgrade, like the rush of falling water, and below that the deep growl of traction motors in dynamic braking. Piloting a loaded freight down the Front Range must be an experience that never grows old. At least that is what my friend has told me, leaving me envious.
|This eastbound BNSF manifest is coasting out of Tunnel 1.|
|Same train in Big Ten Loop. This image shows how Denver's sprawl has almost reached the tracks.|
|For comparison, here is Big Ten in 1988.|
|Rear of BNSF exiting Little Ten Loop in November 2021.|
|Here is the school house in 1984, paired with a Rio Grande caboose. The school house looks as good in the 21st century as it did then. Unfortunately, the caboose and the Rio Grande are gone.|
|This aerial image shows the glaciated hollow at Tolland bracketed on east and west by narrow V-shaped valleys. Highway 117 follows the original Moffat Route up Rollins Pass but is closed short of the summit.|
|After abandonment of the Yankee Doodle tunnel, the surveyors plotted a horseshoe around the lake and a climb above the approximately 11,000 feet timber line to another horseshoe leading to Needles Eye Tunnel. This image, from The World's Work, Volume XI, November 1905 - April 1906: A History of Our Time (https://books.google.com/books?id=bn8chfRnjScC&pg=PA6859#v=onepage&q&f=false) shows a train approaching Needles Eye, with the lake and horseshoe over 1,000 feet below -- one of the most amazing train photos your author has ever seen. The photographer must have been quite the mountaineer to reach this vista.|
If you look carefully on the right side of the horseshoe, you can see the tailings from the abandoned tunnel extruding into the lake.
|A short drive up the last ridge above the High Plains presented this image of Big Ten.|
|Amtrak No. 5 has just rounded Big Ten Loop and is climbing toward the Coal Creek horseshoe.|
|No. 5 approaches Tunnel 1.|
|No. 5 in Big Ten Loop.|
|Climbing the Front Range. (Your author would love to own one of the houses on the ridge. He would also like to be Emperor of the Known Universe.)|
|Rounding the horseshoe to State Bridge.|
|At State Bridge, the Rocky Mountaineer is rolling east to Denver.|
|Along the Colorado River.|
Toward the middle of the week, clouds rolled in like bowling balls, thick and dark. The temperature dropped; snow seemed imminent. But as Don Hendley put it: "The sky won't snow and the sun won't shine. It's hard to tell the nighttime from the day." Your author spent several afternoons driving back and forth along the west side of the Continental Divide in a futile effort to find sunlight.
The only break in the clouds within reasonable driving distance lay over far western Colorado and far eastern Utah, west of Grand Junction, where traffic on the old Rio Grande is almost non-existent. The alternative to sunlight and little traffic, however, was clouds and little traffic, so your intrepid author rose early the next morning (at least early for your intrepid author) and headed west on I-70.
From Denver to Utah, the interstate is as magnificent and breathtaking as the railroad, and for the same reason. The territory traversed seems impassible to the casual observer. The highway takes a different route than the railroad, mostly because the ruling grades on I-70 are seven percent, as opposed to two percent on the Moffat Route. The Continental Divide is crossed at the Eisenhower Tunnels, named in honor of the President whose vision of a national system of military roads ignited the construction frenzy in the mid-twentieth century that created the world in which we live today (March 2022).
The construction of I-70 also instituted the current age of opposition to highways and railroads. In the twenty-first century, it is unlikely that the interstate highway system could be constructed. The same is true for the railroads that link the country.
The E. Lionel Pavlo Engineering Company of New York surveyed I-70's route across the Continental Divide and concluded that any road usable year-round and containing no grades greater than seven percent would require tunnels. The company's report identified seven potential routes, assessing only two in detail: one along US 40 (with a tunnel under the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass) and another along US 6 with a tunnel under the Divide at Loveland Pass. (U.S. 40 and 6 crossed the Divide at grades over 11,000 feet and were often closed during winter.)
Because of lower costs due mostly to a straighter route, the Colorado Division of Highways eventually selected the proposed alignment following U.S. 6.
West of Silverthorne, however, state engineers decided to diverge from US 6 across a new route through the Eagles Nest Primitive Area, requiring a major tunnel under Red Buffalo Pass. (U.S. 6 ran well to the south, then made a huge horseshoe back to the north.) Below is a map showing the proposed "Red Buffalo" route and the path of I-70 as eventually constructed (which followed the route of U.S. 6.)
The highway’s potential impact upon this wilderness produced an outcry like none heard before, like the shriek of a wild beast in agony, but the Colorado Division of Highways held firm on the Red Buffalo plan, which was many miles shorter than the alternative route. In the "old days," the shorter route would have won the day.
Prior to the 1960s, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) and state highway departments gave little if any consideration to the impact of highway locations and designs. Roads were built in the cheapest distance possible. If the state already owned a park, highway engineers would route construction through the park to save the cost of acquiring private property. A lake would be drained because that was cheaper than building a bridge. In the case of I-70 west of Silverthorne, the cheapest route would have been due west across Red Buffaloe Pass. At one time, engineers even considered blasting mountains away in the Mojave Desert with atomic bombs. Seriously. If you don't believe me, see https://www.wearethemighty.com/articles/california-almost-used-nukes-to-bypass-route-66/.
The interstate highway system, and particularly I-70 in Colorado, changed everything. Multi-lane freeways generally provide rapid transit, except during accidents or maintenance, which demonstrates the principle that the more complicated the system, the easier it is to jam it. Those same roads, however, unlike the narrow, two-lane highways that preceded them, confiscate acres upon acres that, no matter the efforts of road builders, will never look like anything other than rivers of concrete and asphalt, radiating heat like kilns.
Once people realized the destruction involved with multi-lane highways, realized that in many cases the harm outweighed the benefit, they complained. And although our government moves with the rapidity of a banana slug, it does occasionally move. In 1963, the BPR required states to consider impacts of highways on fish and wildlife. In 1966, Congress created the U.S. Department of Transportation, transferring responsibilities from the BPR, including a landmark environmental regulation, Section 4(f), requiring state highway departments to avoid construction in public parks, recreation areas, wildlife refuges and historic sites unless there was “no feasible and prudent alternative.”
In response, environmentalists and other concerned citizens voiced opposition to the Red Buffalo route, eventually forming the Colorado Open Space Coordinating Council, which ultimately prevailed when Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman denied the Colorado Highway Department an easement through the Eagles Nest Primitive Area.
So the proposed route was changed to follow US 6 to the south, the road I followed to Glenwood Canyon. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was the first passage through the canyon other than water. After building across Tennessee Pass, the company (by means of Mexican and Chinese laborers) blasted sections of the canyon’s south walls to make room for the tracks, plus three tunnels totaling 1,700 feet. The roadbed was formed with crushed rock from the blasting, laid along the south side of the river. Italian stonemasons built multiple retaining walls under and adjacent to the tracks throughout the canyon, and the first train arrived in Glenwood Springs October 5, 1887.
When I-70 was constructed one hundred years later, environmental concerns were tantamount, and the road through Glenwood Canyon was designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, assuming that an interstate highway can be unobtrusive. The result was a road that has to be seen to be believed. Westbound lanes are often stacked on top of eastbound lanes. Portions of the road are actually suspended from canyon walls. Driving across this engineering marvel is something like walking into a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in which is it sometimes difficult to determine where the house ends and nature begins.
|I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. Although the road is a marvel, nothing beats the railroad for unobtrusiveness. Look closely, and you may be able to see it.|
Past Glenwood Canyon, clouds began to thin, and by the time I reached Grand Junction, at least half the sky was bright blue. My friend's email that morning did not indicate anything running this far west, but at least the sun was out -- and you never know -- so I continued into barren and yet spectacularly beautiful escarpments and canyons, like an old piece of wood traced by termite trails.
As the sun was setting, I headed back to Colorado and pulled off I-70 at Palisade to catch Amtrak No. 5, demonstrating to your author once again, if to no one else, that heading to the tracks is never a bad idea.
The next day, clouds once more congregated along the Continental Divide. The wind was light, the temperature cold. Not wanting to drive to Utah a second time, your author decided to visit Bond, where the Craig Branch diverges from the mainline and runs through the Crater Loops and Oak Creek and Egeria Canyons to Steamboat Springs and points west. This was the original route that David Moffat planned to build to Salt Lake City before he ran out of money. By tapping the local coal fields, however, he did insure his railroad's survival.
Colorado Highway 131 runs north off I-70 at Wolcott and climbs a narrow valley to the summit of one of the several ridges serrating this country like the folds of an accordion. The road then turns east down the side of an escarpment before winding north again into the valley of the Colorado River. Near the summit stand a small barn and large pen that your author (who has driven this route many times) has always assumed were constructed to hold cattle. Imagine my surprise then when I crested the hill and saw two cowboys on horses in the middle of the road, holding hands skyward, palms facing me, an obvious request to "please, stop now before something bad happens!"
Seeing the cowboys was not the surprise. I've seen cattle on that highway before. The surprise was behind the cowboys, a surging, writhing, wiggling, tumbling mass of sheep, white fleece darkened by the ferris oxide in that country's soil, herded across the highway by several dogs as intent on their task as Secret Service agents surrounding a presidential limousine. Your author is no canine expert, but I believe these were Australian Shepherds, clearly born and bred to funnel sheep into the pen across the highway. Each time a sheep would try to separate from the pack, a dog would immediately give chase and run him back. The sheep were as compliant as single-issue voters, though slightly more intelligent.
The surging throng took about ten minutes to cross the road. In that time, no other vehicle appeared either behind or in front of me. When the route was clear, the cowboys waved me forward. I waved back, and one tipped his hat as I began the downward trek to the river valley where, to my astonishment, the sun appeared briefly at Bond just as the Craig local rolled onto the mainline.
|Eastbound Craig local at Bond.|
From my friend's morning email, I knew that an empty coal train had crested the Continental Divide and was rolling downgrade. I drove to Inspiration Point, hoping to catch the movement in this most majestic of locations, but the tiny window in the clouds closed. The sky darkened. For the second time that week, snow seemed imminent. (Once again, it did not snow.)
The sky grew so dark that, although I was fortunate enough to catch the train in the canyon, I did not bother to take a photograph. Instead, I followed it slowly down the hill toward Bond when, again to my astonishment, the sun momentarily peeked through the purple clouds, allowing the following two images:
|Westbound empty coal approaching Bond.|
|KCS DPU on same train.|
|The loaded coal train is exiting Egeria Canyon by making a 180 degrees curve along the side of the ancient volcano. The passing siding on this ridge bears the same name -- Volcano.|
|The coal train is rolling in dynamic brakes off the plateau toward Bond and the valley of the Colorado River. This image clearly shows the two percent grade.|
|Behind and below the lead units are the mainline and the Colorado River. The rear DPUs are visible in the cut on the mountainside.|
Clouds were thickening rapidly, and as I followed the train east, the sky was soon overcast. I checked the satellite photo and saw nothing but low clouds as far west as Utah. I searched along the tracks the remainder of that day, but saw no more sunlight and no more trains.
Before leaving for home the next morning, I caught another loaded coal train at Big Ten Loop, the images of which conclude this article, showing the train coming down the mountain.
My trip to Colorado was surprisingly rewarding. I think I'll go back.
To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.
To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.
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