|Burlington Northern 5050 Hauls Empty Coal Train Toward Horseshoe Curve at Walsenburg, With Spanish Peaks and Caboose in Background
My wife Alexis is not a railfan, but she knows a little about railroads. The first time we drove from Trinidad, Colorado, to Walsenburg, also in Colorado, she looked at the Burlington Northern tracks and the coal train climbing the grade beneath the Spanish Peaks and said, "Someone built a railroad through here?"
In southern Colorado, the High Plains at the base of the Front Range are anything but flat. The land see-saws up and down in all directions, and both north and southbound trains attack a series of one-percent-plus grades that, even for empty coal trains, require significant motive power.
This was a lightly used secondary main of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy until the United States made the jump to clean-burning, low-sulphur coal in the 1970's. At that point, mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming began producing coal for power plants across the country, particularly in Texas and other destinations South, and the tracks from Denver to Forth Worth became a major conduit.
|Southbound Loaded Coal Train with Greenhorn Mountain in Background -- December 1982
|Northbound Empty Coal Train at Winter Dusk, With Flat-Topped Fisher's Peak in Background
|Southbound Loaded Coal Train at Same Location
I have also read that "Uncle Dick" Wooton accompanied Fischer on the climb. Wooton owned a ranch on the north side of the pass and charged wagons a toll to pass. Supposedly, years later, Wooton admitted that he and Fischer had not climbed to the top but instead had sat in the shade.
I'm guessing none of the above is true, but it makes a good story. Besides, I can find no other source for the name of Fisher's Peak.
|Another Empty Coal Train Crossing the High Plains North of Trinidad
During the Burlington Northern years, the town saw reasonably heavy coal traffic in both directions, as well as grain trains, merchandise freights and occasional intermodal traffic. The town sits in a bowl. Railroad traffic in all directions out of town must climb substantial grades.
South of town, the Santa Fe climbed a ruling grade of three percent to the tunnel at Raton Pass. The Santa Fe's climb northeast toward La Junta, Colorado was much easier, though still pronounced, especially once the tracks left the valley of the Purgatoire River.
Southeast of Trinidad, the Burlington Northern slowly climbed the north face of Fisher's Peak Mesa to the hamlet of Branson, Colorado. Slightly beyond Branson, to the south, was the mesa's summit, with a ruling grade of approximately 1.5 percent.
North of town, the Burlington Northern tracks traversed some of wildest territory imaginable. Though not technically a mountain railroad, the line climbed numerous grades in both directions along the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
|Northbound BN Merchandise Freight Climbing Grade Toward Walsenburg, Colorado, With Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Background
|Northbound Empty Coal Train Beneath Sangre de Cristos
|Loaded Southbound Coal Train Climbing One of the Numerous Grades between Walsenburg and Trinidad, With Tallest Peaks of Sangre de Cristos in Background
Spanish explorer Antonio Valverde y Cosio named the mountains after the blood of Christ, supposedly because he was impressed by the reddish hue of the peaks at sunrise. To name a mountain range after an historical event of such momentous suffering, however, to say nothing of an event that has provided hope to millions upon millions of Christians throughout history, conveys to me a sense of how the Spanish saw their mission in the new world. Now I have no desire to defend Spanish conduct. Far from it. But it takes a strong religious fervor to name a mountain range after a seminal religious event. Can you imagine anyone from Spain, or any other western European country, doing something comparable in the 21st century?
|Southbound Merchandise Freight With SP Power on Point and Trailers, Climbing Grade Beneath Sangre de Cristos
|Southbound Coal Train Beside Spanish Peaks, With Sangre de Cristos in Background
|Northbound Grain Train Beneath Spanish Peaks
|Southbound Loaded Coal Drag Beneath Spanish Peaks
The timberline is highest in the tropics and descends in elevation as one moves north. For example, the timberline on Mount McKinley in Alaska is about 2,500 feet. On the Spanish Peaks, the timberline is about 11,500 feet (on the southern face where the snow melts faster and more sunlight is received). On Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the timberline is 13,000 feet. The highest timberline in the world occurs in the Bolivian Andes on the slopes of Sajama Volcano -- 17,000 feet, or approximately one mile higher than the timberline of the Spanish Peaks.
Another peak soaring above the timberline in Southern Colorado is Greenhorn Mountain:
|Northbound Grain Train Beneath Greenhorn Mountain
Greenhorn Mountain is, in geological terms, an uplifted anticline -- which occurs in a fault zone when uplifting occurs due to continental crust meeting continental crust. One crust goes down, the other goes up. An anticline is arch-shaped with the oldest beds at the core:
As the illustration shows, when you walk across an anticline, you move horizontally from bed to bed, from era to era, which is why, on Greenhorn Mountain, one finds marine fossils -- because at several ages past, southern Colorado was covered by inland seas, the remains of which have been pushed into the air as part of the anticline.
|Northbound Manifest Below Greenhorn Mountain
|Southbound Loaded Grainer Approaching Greenhorn Mountain from North
|Caboose of Same Train
Think how short the growing season was up on Greenhorn Mountain, and yet at elevations over 10,000 feet, aspen, spruce and fir had managed to take root and grow over the years. I remember summers in which trees at the higher elevations were still snow covered in July! So when did the trees find time to grow?
|Loaded Coal Drag South of Greenhorn Mountain, Accelerating Upgrade After Coming Downgrade in Background
|AT&SF Power Leads a Northbound Empty on the East Side of Greenhorn Mountain
|North of Greenhorn Mountain
|South of Greenhorn Mountain
|Southbound Coal Load Beneath Greenhorn Mountain and Walsenburg
The area's first coal mine opened in 1876, and the town was a mining community for the next century. There is a dirt road south of town that leads to some beautiful railroad photographs. On top of the hill after the road leaves town sits a tiny cemetery with a few trees providing shade. If you linger there in the afternoon, as I did one day, you will notice that about half the names on the tombstones are Spanish, the other half Polish, giving a good cross section of the miners who dug coal in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The infamous Ludlow massacre occurred about 20 miles south of Walsenburg along what was then the Colorado and Southern. Women and children were murdered during an attempt to break a miners' strike. Today, Ludlow is a ghost town, with only the foundations of a few buildings remaining. The United Mine Workers maintains a memorial just off the interstate. I have stopped there several times but have never seen another soul, except for one representative of the UMW who was watering the shrubbery.
The coal mines in the area "played out" in the 1960's and '70's. Today, there are no active coal mines in southern Colorado. If you drive the back roads up into the hills west of Ludlow, you will find the remnants of the last operating strip mines, open wounds still bearing coal and the rusted remains of shovels and trucks that were apparently left in place when the mines closed. Walking through the detritus one afternoon, I looked down and found a golf ball resting on a pile of coal that had never been shoveled. How in the world did a golf ball end up in an abandoned coal mine? Is this a great country or what?
|Southbound Loaded Coal Train Beneath Ridge Where Coal Was Mined in 19th and 20th Centuries
|A Burlington Northern Merchandise Freight Runs Along the Base of Igneous Extrusions Through the Sedimentary Beds of the Raton Basin
|A Northbound Empty Coal Train Runs Along the Edge of Raton Basin
Although coal mining in southern Colorado is dead, the production of methane gas from coal deposits is alive and well. The first wells producing coalbed methane were drilled in the early 1980's. Since that time, thousands of wells have successfully extracted coalbed methane from a field that straddles the Colorado/New Mexico border.
|Burlington Northern Manifest Along Eastern Boundary of Raton Basin
East of the Raton Basin lie the High Plains of eastern Colorado, one of the most sparsely populated areas in the continental United States. It is astounding to me that beyond the Raton Basin to the east, all ancient geologic activity seems to have ceased, as though some early court of appeals declared that nothing of interest would occur beyond the Rocky Mountains.
That last sentence is too harsh. Those of us who know the High Plains realize their uniqueness and diversity. And the railroad line from Trinidad to Walsenburg in some ways provides the dividing line between the plains and the mountains, as though the locating engineers were attempting to establish markers for subsequent geologists.
|A Burlington Northern Work Train on the High Plains East of the Raton Basin
|A Loaded Coal Train Climbs the High Plains
|Where the High Plains End
|Loaded Coal on Roller-Coaster North of Trinidad
|Southbound Intermodal Beneath Weathered Sedimentary and Igneous Rock
This diagram shows the likely location of one of the ancient inland seas and indicates that the railroad line from Trinidad to Walsenburg runs roughly along the shore, with the sedimentary beds, hills and mountains to the west, and the Las Animas Arch to the east. (The diagram also shows oil and gas plays in the center.)
|Two Coal Trains Meeting on Las Animas Arch
|Coal Load Coming Coming off Raton Basin into Trinidad
|BN 7224 South Beneath Peaks of Sangre de Cristo Mountains
|Along Las Animas Arch
I find myself looking back even further, however, to the era when the volcano field in northeast New Mexico was active, or back to another time when central Colorado was covered by an inland sea and possessed no mountains at all. In those days, the land must have looked like Florida with heavy vegetation along the shoreline and elsewhere, giving rise millions of years in the future to the coal deposits that were mined and played out in about one century.
|BN Manifest Along the Shore of Ancient Inland Sea
|Empty Coal Train Beneath Sangre de Cristos
|Loaded Coal Struggling South
To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.