Friday, June 24, 2016

Burlington Northern: Trinidad to Walsenburg (Someone Built a Railroad Through Here?)

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
The first time I saw this portion of the massive Burlington Northern system was when my wife and I drove to San Francisco to attend an American Bar Association convention.  We came up from the south across Raton Pass and entered Trinidad -- at the base of Fisher's Peak, the most distinctive geologic formation of the area.
Northbound Empty Coal Train at Winter Dusk, With Flat-Topped Fisher's Peak in Background
Fisher's Peak is not a mountain but rather a basalt-capped mesa rising over 9,600 feet above sea level.  Believe it or not, the mesa (the breadth of which is shown in the image above) was likely created by a gigantic lava flow from a now-dormant volcano field to the south and west -- remnants of which are still visible today, most notably at Mount Capulin.  Imagine the amount of lava required to form such a gigantic mesa, and you will have some idea of the enormous eruptions that took place millions of years ago in northeastern New Mexico.
Southbound Loaded Coal Train at Same Location
The sources I have found indicate that Fisher's Peak was named after Captain Waldemar Fischer, a cavalry office who led troops through Raton Pass on their way to Santa Fe.  Supposedly, Fischer became lost and decided to climb the mesa to get his bearings.  I find this a little hard to believe, since from the north there is only one way across Raton Pass -- the old wagon road that eventually formed the route of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.  

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
Trinidad, Colorado sits approximately 6,000 feet above sea level and about 1,800 feet below Raton Pass.  A stop on the Santa Fe Trail, Trinidad was originally founded as a mining community but blossomed after construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1878.

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
The tallest mountain in the Sangre de Cristos is Blanca Peak at 14,345 feet, flanked by three other "fourteeners":  Little Bear Peak, Mount Lindsey and Ellingwood Point.  Other than the Collegiate Range near Tennessee Pass, the Sangre de Cristos may present the most magnificent views of extended mountain scenery in Colorado.
Southbound Coal Train Beside Spanish Peaks, With Sangre de Cristos in Background
From Trinidad to Walsenburg, the most notable landmarks are the Spanish Peaks, which are what geologists call "stocks," large  masses of molten rock which bubbled up from below ground, interlaced with sedimentary rock which was created on the surface by an ancient sea.  The East Peak is a nearly circular intrusion about 5 and 1/2 miles long by 3 miles wide, while the West Peak is about 2 and 3/4 miles long by about 1 and 3/4 miles wide.
Northbound Grain Train Beneath Spanish Peaks
For millions of years, inland seas washed the areas that today form the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, and thousands of feet of mud, sand and the shells of marine animals were deposited on the bottom.  As the seas receded, these deposits emerged from the waters as sedimentary rock, of which limestone is the classic example.  Over many more millions of years, the sediment began to crack like dry skin, and molten rock from below began to bubble upwards.  The molten rock squeezed between the cracks like mud through an open palm, eventually hardening as it reached the surface.  The Spanish Peaks are this combination of molten and sedimentary rock.
Southbound Loaded Coal Drag Beneath Spanish Peaks
The Spanish Peaks also clearly demonstrate the concept of "timberline" -- the elevation above which, at a given latitude, trees will not grow.  Although the timberline seems abrupt from a distance, one observes on a mountainside a gradual change from tall to stumpy trees.  At the timberline, trees look more like bushes, because small trees need less oxygen and moisture.  Trees grow shorter and shorter until the weather is too harsh for any trees to grow.  

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 rises from 7,600 to almost 12,400 feet.  About two-thirds of the mountain is forested.  As you hike, you pass from dry oakbrush, ponderosa pine and pinion-juniper through aspen, fir, spruce and finally onto alpine tundra above the timberline.

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
In the 1980's when these images were taken, my wife and I had friends living in Colorado City, a tiny hamlet just north of Greenhorn Mountain, elevation about 5,500 feet, with a growing season of only about 90 - 100 days.  The last frost would usually occur in mid to late May, and the first frost would follow sometime in September.  Yet, even with such a short season, majestic cottonwoods in the valleys were over one hundred feet tall.

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
Although the High Plains beneath Greenhorn Mountain are semi-arid, as the vegetation in these images demonstrates, the area receives much snow.  Colorado City, for example, receives an historical average of 69 inches per year -- almost six feet!  By comparison, Buffalo, New York, one of America's snowiest cities, receives an average of 76.1 inches.  Thus, in the 1980's I was able to obtain a number of snow shots, even during short days with sporadic traffic.  
AT&SF Power Leads a Northbound Empty on the East Side of Greenhorn Mountain
North of Greenhorn Mountain

South of Greenhorn Mountain
On the south side of Greenhorn Mountain sits the small community of Walsenburg, which is almost 1,000 feet higher than Colorado City and averages about 78 inches of snow per year.  That is a lot of snow!  

Southbound Coal Load Beneath Greenhorn Mountain and Walsenburg
According to the town's website:  "Walsenburg is the county seat of Herfano County, located in Southern Colorado.  Incorporated on June 16, 1873, Walsenburg was the first statutory city and seventh incorporated municipality in the Territory of Colorado.  Mother Jones, the internal Workers of the World (Wobblies), Robert Ford (who killed Jesse James), founder Don Miguel Antonio Leon and namesake Fred Walsen all hung out in 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
From Trinidad north to Walsenburg, the Burlington Northern line, now BNSF, runs through the Raton Basin, an area 50 miles east to west, and about 90 miles north to south.  The main feature of the basin are sedimentary beds from the inland seas that covered southern Colorado in times past.  As discussed above, in some places, molten rock from deep within the Earth extruded to create the Spanish Peaks.  South of those peaks, however, the extrusions  are much less dramatic and form smaller hills and mesas.
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
This original route was chosen to tap the coal fields in southern Colorado, but the route's price was the severe topography along the edge of the mountains.  In the 1930's, the AT&SF built a line from the Colorado High Plains south through Boise City, Oklahoma, to Amarillo, Texas, which avoided the roller-coaster ride from Trinidad to Walsenburg.  Today, BNSF's Boise City Subdivision carries all loaded coal trains headed south to Texas, and only empty coal traverses the grades through Walsenburg.  The High Plains are perfect for hauling commodities, but the Colorado and Southern chose the coal fields, and a good thing, too.  Otherwise, these photographs would not exist.

Loaded Coal on Roller-Coaster North of Trinidad
Southbound Intermodal Beneath Weathered Sedimentary and Igneous Rock
 The area east of Raton Basin is called the Las Animas Arch and produces significant quantities of oil and gas.  An arch forms along a coastline as wave erosion cuts through a headland.  Thus, in a sense, the Las Animas Arch generally formed along the eastern boundary of the inland seas discussed above: 

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
If I were to live in this area, I would choose Trinidad, mostly because it receives by far the least average snowfall -- about 30 inches per year.  That is still a lot compared to the five inches per year on average I see in Edmond, Oklahoma.  (Last winter of 2015-2016, I didn't see any.)  Also, Trinidad still sees two daily Amtrak trains to Chicago and Los Angeles, though I wonder how much longer Colorado and New Mexico can afford to operate the tracks over Raton Pass.  The town itself is picturesque, sitting below the red mesa that rises like a fence and shuts off passage to New Mexico.  At night when the air is cool and crisp, even in summer, one can hear BNSF trains rolling into and out of town.

BN 7224 South Beneath Peaks of Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Along Las Animas Arch
Railroads are great ambassadors for geology, because they run, especially in the west, through territory mostly unspoiled by civilization.  In the images in this post, you will see I-25 from time to time, and occasionally the county road that more or less follows the tracks.  And of course the ubiquitous power lines.  But the ground is unchanged from what it must have looked like a thousand years ago.

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.

Such ruminations inevitably lead to the thought that our time our earth is very short.  In geologic time, a human life is like the blink of a eye -- so brief that it does not even register.  Is that a depressing thought?  On the contrary, it is liberating.  Everything that seems so important to us is ephemeral, like this blog.  All will disappear, and all traces will be erased in the eons to follow.  Nothing we do will survive.  So take a deep breath, exhale and relax.
BN Manifest Along the Shore of Ancient Inland Sea
Empty Coal Train Beneath Sangre de Cristos
Loaded Coal Struggling South

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  1. This display of the BNSF, is very good and interesting to anyone with geographic knowledge. Wonderful display.