Sunday, March 8, 2020

Rio Grande on the Moffat Route

What can you say about the Denver and Rio Grande Western that hasn’t already been said?  What can you write about the Moffat Route that hasn’t already been written?  After Beethoven’s Ninth, and Mahler’s, no wonder Ravel and Debussy refused to compose symphonies.

I am about to tread where Ravel and Debussy dared not:

“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.”  Charlie Chaplin

“Before a man speaks it is always safe to assume that he is a fool. After he speaks, it is seldom necessary to assume it.”  H. L. Mencken

The Front Range

The Front Range rises like a fence out of the High Plains of Colorado -- the first mountain range you see as you drive west along Interstate 70.  Approaching the Front Range by automobile is like riding a cog railway.  One minute you are trundling pleasantly along level ground, and the next you are pointed into the air, as though your destination might be the clouds. 

Denver to the Gangplank

As the aerial image above demonstrates, from the Wyoming/Colorado border north about 30 miles, in some places as narrow as five miles, the Front Range more or less disappears, replaced by a long, gradual incline from east to west, like a wheel chair ramp, that geologists have christened the “Gangplank,” the remains of the detritus of the ancestral Rocky Mountains that rose and eroded over a hundred fifty million years ago.  For some unknown reason, this detritus eroded to the north and south, but remained in this narrow patch of southern Wyoming.  Thus, when the current Rocky Mountains rose in the more recent past, their tallest peaks did not push above ground southwest of Cheyenne.  The gangplank was the route chosen by the Union Pacific, a still formidable crossing that eventually necessitated construction of UP’s “Big Boy” articulated, steam locomotives, gigantic beasts designed to haul freight traffic up and down the slopes of Sherman Hill.  For a more complete discussion of the Gangplank, see my post at:

The climb west of Denver, however, offered no comparable break.  The Front Range presents a solid wall from the Wyoming border to Pueblo, where the Arkansas River spills onto the High Plains.  The original mainline of the Denver and Rio Grande followed that river west to the Royal Gorge, reaching the Western Continental Divide at Tennessee Pass in 1880.  For more on Tennessee Pass, see my post at:

Eventually, after a series of acquisitions and mergers, the Denver and Rio Grande (via Pueblo) reached Salt Lake City.  But this line did not go through Denver, a city which, because of the Front Range, appeared destined to be forever cut off from direct western rail traffic.

David Moffat, a Denver industrialist and financier, thought otherwise and used his considerable fortune to construct the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railway, designed to plow due west from Denver through the heart of the Front Range with a goal of also reaching Salt Lake City.  The “Moffat Route” was incredibly expensive, about $75,000.00 per mile in 1880, the equivalent of about two million dollars per mile in 2020 dollars.  Moffat’s dream was never fulfilled.  The line reached Craig, Colorado, then stopped.  Moffat was dead, and his railroad was broke.

In 1931, the Denver and Rio Grande Western, the successor company now operating the Tennessee Pass line, gained control of the Moffat Route, and in 1934 a line connecting the two roads was completed, running from Dotsero (“point zero” in Spanish) on the D&RGW to Orestod (Dotsero spelled backwards) on the Moffat Route, creating the modern railroad that operated until 1988, when it purchased the Southern Pacific Railroad and adopted the latter’s name.  In 1996, the railroad was swallowed by Union Pacific.  

Front Range Geology

Current geological theory tells us that there have been two separate mountain ranges west of present-day Denver.  The first was created by faulting in the earth’s crust about three hundred million years ago.  This orogeny (mountain building) continued for approximately 150 million years.  Eventually, the uplift ceased.  Then the ancestral Rocky Mountains began to erode.

Wind, rain, snow, snow melt and the simple pull of gravity caused these ancient mountains to wear down and eventually disappear under their own sediment, which today is called the Fountain Formation.  Probably their most noteworthy evidence can be found in the Garden of the Gods west of Colorado Springs.

About ten million years ago, another fault, or faults, occurred along the present-day Front Range.  To the west, the land began to rise, while to the east, the land remained steady or even in some places subsided.  This process was both gradual and abrupt.  The western land would rise a few inches each year but from time to time would rise suddenly (in some instances, thirty or more feet at once) due to tectonic shifts in the crust, which we call earthquakes.

The uplift exhumed granite and gneiss from deep in the earth, overlain by sediment that once had been hundreds or even thousands of feet lower.  East of the uplift, the sedimentary layers were rolled forward and down by what is called “fault drag,” creating the long, sausage-like lumps (hogbacks) prominent along the Front Range.

As this process continued, the resistant granite in the heart of the mountains eroded slowly, while the weaker sediments above it quickly (in geologic time) washed away. In the past 15,000 years, streams and glaciers completely cut away the sediment, exposing the granite peaks we see today. 

Route to the Continental Divide

Unlike the Truckee River, which the Central Pacific followed west of Reno to Donner Summit, or the Arkansas River to Pueblo, no river came down to Denver.  All Chief Engineer H.A. Sumner found were hogbacks and sheets of granite protruding from the crust at 30 to 45 degree angles.  Many said a railroad could not be constructed through such terrain.

The only potential route westward was located north of Denver about 40 miles, where South Boulder Canyon opened onto the high plains.  South Boulder Creek originates at Rogers Pass on the Continental Divide and flows 40 miles through Rollinsville, Gross Reservoir and Eldorado Canyon before spilling onto the grasslands below.  Unfortunately, this stream at its mouth was not particularly suitable for railroad construction because of an extremely steep grade, so Sumner determined to enter the stream well back into the mountains, where the slope was manageable.  

To accomplish this, the railroad climbed a steady (never greater than two percent) grade northwest out of Denver until reaching the hogbacks.  The tracks then turned due west, then 90 degrees to the south (at Little Ten Loop) through the middle of a hogback, then another 90 degrees to the east, then a 180-degrees loop (at Big Ten Loop) back to the west, then north, beginning the ascent of the first of the granite peaks, in effect climbing sideways up the mountains.  (The reference to “ten” in both Little Ten and Big Ten Loops is to the degrees of curvature of the tracks.) 

The image below illustrates the two loops, the hogbacks and the convoluted route of the railroad as it slowly climbs the Front Range.  The most difficult terrain lay ahead. 

Big Ten and Little Ten

Past the loops, the tracks continued climbing north by northwest until they reached the mouth of Coal Creek.  Today, Colorado State Highway 72 follows Coal Creek into the heart of the Front Range.  The gradient here, however, is far too steep for a railroad, so the tracks made a huge horseshoe curve from the south side of Coal Creek Canyon to the north, then entered Tunnel No. 1, the first of 33 tunnels required to reach the Continental Divide.

Coal Creek Horseshoe and Tunnel 1

Coming out of Tunnel No. 1, a train would once again view the High Plains below as it continued to climb the side of the granite extrusions.  Soon Plainview Siding would be reached, and then the tracks would enter Tunnel No. 2, followed rapidly by six more tunnels as the line, still ascending, wound around El Dorado Mountain.  Tunnel No. 8 executed a 90 degree turn back to the southwest.  The tracks were now perched high in a narrow mountain valley.  South Boulder Creek was nowhere in sight.

Tunnels 2-8

I do not know how this route was discovered, but the territory is too rugged for horses.  I assume that the mountains were scouted on foot, and that the least restrictive path was chosen.  That is saying a lot, because this segment of the line ploughs brazenly through gigantic granite outcroppings and Ponderosa Pines, as though the locating engineers got lost and just kept blasting tunnels and laying track until they found a recognizable landmark.

If you think that I am exaggerating, which I have been known to do, take a look at the following image:

Tunnels 8-12

Tunnel No. 9, running northeast to southwest, is about 600 yards long, followed immediately by Tunnels No. 10 and 11.  Between them is a deep, daylighted cut.  Both are less than 300 feet, as is Tunnel 12.  This railroad really does go where no one has gone before.  It is difficult to imagine the obstacles faced by the surveying party as they climbed one ridge, then descended, then climbed another, then descended, then climbed again, and all this through an unforgiving Ponderosa Pine forest.

Tunnels 13 and 14 run south.  Next comes Tunnel 15 – in the middle of a horseshoe curve that bends the tracks back to the north, followed by approximately one-half mile of running through a large cut and narrow mountain valley.

Tunnels 12-15

After Tunnels 16 and 17, the tracks wind through numerous narrow cuts before opening onto the passing siding at Crescent, a mountain meadow surrounded by tall granite peaks.  Seven tunnels later, after the tracks have continued twisting and turning through the mountains like blood seeping from a wound, the railroad finally arrives at South Boulder Creek, which it then follows approximately another 15 miles to Rollinsville and then to the east portal of Moffat Tunnel.

The original line did not burrow beneath the Continental Divide but instead climbed the side of an almost vertical peak to the summit of Rollins Pass.  Topping out at 11,680 feet, it was the highest railroad line in North America.  Originally, the Ute Indians had established a foot trail over the pass from South Boulder Creek to Middle Park.  In August 1862, a company of American soldiers under Captain John Bonesteel crossed the pass, and in 1865 a wagon train of Mormons traveled over the mountain.

The railroad followed the old wagon road from South Boulder Creek to Jenny Creek, then took a longer but “gentler” route the rest of the way to the summit.  I put “gentler” in quotation marks, because the ruling grade of the Rollins Pass line was four percent! Major landmarks included Yankee Doodle Lake, which the railroad looped around to make a 180 degree turn; Needle’s Eye Tunnel and the Devil’s Slide Twin Trestles above the South Fork of Middle Boulder Creek. On the western side of the divide, the railroad descended via switchbacks (looping under itself at one point) to reach the Berthoud Pass wagon road on the valley floor.

Moffat Tunnel

The Rollins Pass line proved an operational and maintenance nightmare, especially in winter when snow drifts could reach thirty feet.  Running trains over the top of the Western Continental Divide at this location was like climbing a tall tree with a 50-pound suitcase in one hand – theoretically possible but subject to repeated disasters.  The image below shows the eastern slope of the original route, now a Jeep trail passible in spots but closed at the summit above the tree line, where maintenance in the winter was and still is impossible.

East Slope of Rollins Pass
It quickly became apparent that the railroad would not survive running trains over Rollins Pass. 

David Moffat had originally planned to tunnel beneath the Western Continental Divide, and although fantastically wealthy, even he did not possess enough funds to finance such a monstrous project.  Nor could he convince East Coast money to invest.  When he died in 1911, he believed that his dream had passed with him.

But Denver did not give up.  City fathers repeatedly petitioned the Colorado legislature for construction funds.  Their requests were just as repeatedly blocked by representatives from southern Colorado, most notably Pueblo, who feared (correctly, as it turned out) that tunnel construction would make Denver the premier city in the state.

In 1922, however, the Arkansas River east of the Front Range flooded disastrously, and Pueblo was lain waste.  When southern legislators requested emergency restoration funds, their Denver counterparts suggested a deal:  money for Pueblo in return for financing the tunnel.  The remainder of the state agreed, if Denver would contribute to the cost.  The city agreed, provided the tunnel include a pipeline to bring water to Denver from west of the divide.  The state then sold bonds to finance the project. Thus does progress inch forward like a banana slug.

As with most major construction financed by the government, cost estimates proved ridiculously low.  Originally projected to cost $6.62 million, the final price tag turned out to be $23,972,843.00, which equals $355,434,267.39 in 2020 dollars.

On February 18, 1926, the twin construction crews met underneath the mountain, but it took two additional years, until mid-winter 1928, before the first train passed through the 6.21 mile bore.  Part of that time was taken in drilling ventilation holes and installing electric fans to rid the tunnel of smoke.  Construction took 28 lives. 

Beyond the Tunnel

Past the divide, the railroad proceeded through relatively benign territory, at least compared to what had come before, following first the Fraser River to Granby, then traversing Byers Canyon, a small obstacle, short and shallow, then paralleling the Colorado River through aspen that turn bright yellow in September to Kremmling, where construction crews met Gore Canyon.

The only real way to see Gore Canyon is to raft through its Class V rapids, but the going is so treacherous that it should be attempted only by experts, who spend most of their time avoiding rocks, not looking at the drama above.  You can ride Amtrak along the Moffat Route, but even in the observation car, you cannot obtain a true sense of the immense depth of the canyon, over 1,000 feet, a classic “water gap.”  To the east, the Colorado River flows to the base of the Gore Mountains.  Then, miraculously, the mountains part in the shape of a gigantic “V” through which the waters roar.  About three miles later, the river emerges into a wide mountain valley.  No one know for certain how this water gap, or any other, was created.  Two theories currently compete for attention.

One holds that the river flowed along its present course before the mountains began to rise.  Once mountain building commenced, the water eroded the land faster than it rose.  Thus, century by century, for millions of years, the land rose while the river continued cutting a trench into the rock.  Today, the water is still at roughly the same level as millions of years ago.

The second theory posits that the mountains existed before the canyon, and that a gigantic lake formed behind the ridge.  Water pressure increased century by century until, eventually, the mountain gave way, and the raging water created the “gap” that we see in the twenty-first century.

The first theory seems more likely in the case of Gore Canyon, because no one has found any evidence of the water “ring” that a lake would have left in the valley east Kremmling.  Below is an image of the “ring” left by the Colorado River as Lake Mead has slowly descended in elevation over the past 70 years.

Lake Mead

Regardless of how the canyon formed, construction crews were confronted with an obstacle as profound as any in railroad history, because there was no way into the canyon except by water, and the walls were too sheer for construction.  So the workers started at the top of the mountain, then rappelled down the side of the canyon to a point where they inserted sticks of dynamite, then climbed back up before the blast.  In this incredible manner, a ledge was blasted into the sheer rock wall.  Below is a coal train on the man-made ledge.

Three BNSF DPU's on a loaded coal train in Gore Canyon.

Once out of Gore Canyon, the Moffat Road proceeded through a wide mountain valley for several miles, then entered Little Gore Canyon, where construction techniques were the same as with its bigger brother.  The tracks continued along the Colorado River to Red Gorge, another water gap, finally leaving the river valley at Bond, where they turned north and climbed the side of an ancient volcano, at one point ascending a steep ridge through a huge reverse S-curve, commonly called the Crater Loops.  The tracks also made a huge horseshoe curve in Rock Creek Canyon and continued climbing through Egeria Canyon before reaching a summit at Toponos, Colorado.  Then on to Steamboat Springs and eventually to the coal mines of Craig, where the company ran out of money and the tracks stopped.  After the takeover by the D&RGW, the portion of the Moffat Route north of Bond became a branch line to serve the coal mines.

Experiences at Big Ten

Many years ago I owned a small, four-door Fiat that leaked whenever it rained.  Water would drip beneath the dashboard and onto the feet of anyone sitting in the front passenger’s seat.  Also, the left rear door would not stay shut unless I tied a piece of rope to the handle and tied the other end to the handle on the right rear door, effectively preventing anyone from sitting in the back seat.

Carl Graves and I were photographing Tennessee Pass one summer when I owned that little car, and I had the bright idea to rise before dawn and drive like hell to Big Ten Loop.  The Fiat's tires were almost bald and squealed like mice as we roared around curve after curve in route to what we were certain would a wonderful day photographing the Rio Grande on the Moffat Route.

Two problems.  First, all rail traffic that morning (two trains) was running east to west, coming out of the sun.  Second, clouds began to form along the mountains about the time we arrived, and we spent most of our time moving slowly upgrade to escape the shadows.  The scenery was spectacular, but that was when we first learned that traffic on the Moffat Route could be sporadic.

On another trip, we drove down from Wyoming where we had been photographing Sherman Hill – back when you would not be arresting for walking near the tracks.  I no longer drove the Fiat.  I was now out of law school and making some money as a practicing attorney.  I had saved my money and purchased a Cadillac Cimarron, which was not as fancy as it sounds.  The Cimarron was a small vehicle, exactly the same model as the Chevy Cavalier, except with leather seats and darker plastic.  Somewhere in Wyoming, the engine began to sputter, causing us to leave earlier than anticipated.  By the time we reached Denver, the engine was running smoothly again, so we decided to head to Big Ten Loop, which is where the engine starting chugging again.  We turned and drove home, which was a good idea, because the car died a short time later.

On a third trip to Big Ten Loop, I hiked along the tracks and thought I could get some good shots by climbing a barbed-wire fence up a steep hill.  I was about fifteen yards past the fence when I saw a bull standing in the tall grass, looking at me quizzically, as though he could not decide whether to be angry or laugh.  I do not know what he finally decided, because I quickly and quietly made my way back to the fence, climbed over and contented myself with shots along the tracks.

My trips to the Moffat Route in Rio Grande days were thus sporadic and slip-shod, but I did manage to acquire some images worthy of public display.  What follows is not a complete survey of the route but rather images that I obtained in the days when I was much younger.  The photographs start east of Big Ten Loop and go all the way, in geographical order, to Phippsburg, Colorado, where a D&RGW yard serviced the coal mines.

DPU's on a loaded coal train that has just come down off the Front Range.  Image was taken in 1996, when the railroad was operating under the name "Southern Pacific" and shortly before the takeover by Union Pacific.  In that last year, shiny new AC4400CWs appeared on the property, a welcome relief from the miserably dirty SP power that had dominated in the early 1990's.

The hotshot trailer-train from Salt Lake City to Denver has just exited Little Ten Loop.

The power of an eastbound manifest has just navigated through Little Ten Loop.

An empty westbound coal train grinds upgrade through Little Ten Loop.

Another Salt Lake City to Denver hotshot is halfway between Big Ten and Little Ten Loops.  The tracks to the Continental Divide are directly above the train.

A loaded coal train is coming down off Big Ten Loop.

Westbound manifest climbing toward Big Ten.  It will soon be on the track above.

Trailers and autos descending Big Ten.

A short manifest exits Big Ten Loop.

A mixed freight in Big Ten Loop.  The Denver skyline is just visible in the upper right corner.

Big Ten.

Salt Lake City to Denver trailers are rounding Big Ten Loop.

Big Ten Above Denver.

Eastbound loaded coal coming down the mountain toward Big Ten.

Trailers in dynamics.

Eastbound manifest coming out of the Coal Creek horseshoe.

Another eastbound manifest exiting same horseshoe.

Eastbound manifest exiting Tunnel 1.

Westbound empty coal approaches Tunnel 2 at the end of Plainview Siding.

Eastbound loaded coal exits Tunnel 3.  This image shows one of the many granite outcroppings encountered on the way to the Continental Divide.  It also shows the approximately 45 degree uplift caused by the slippage along the fault block.

Westbound Amtrak #5 has just passed Tunnel 3.  In the upper left center is the Gross Reservoir Dam, and behind it a water supply lake for Denver.  The dam runs across South Boulder Creek.

Eastbound manifest at Crescent siding.

Four engines, two cars and a caboose, all headed east.  The tracks have now reached South Boulder Creek.  

Light engines along South Boulder Creek.

Caboose on a westbound manifest approaching Moffat Tunnel.  The head end of the train is already past the east portal.

Amtrak #5 prepares to enter Moffat Tunnel, with a private car on the rear.  Rail Ventures was a small private company out of San Francisco that, for a substantial fee, would provide charter service anywhere in the United States and Canada served by Amtrak or VIA.  I don't know if the company still operates today (March 2020).  This image was taken in 1988.

East Portal of Moffat Tunnel

An eastbound manifest approaches the west portal of Moffat Tunnel at Winter Park, Colorado.

Amtrak #5 meets an eastbound loaded coal train at Tabernash.

Right behind Amtrak #5, an empty coal train is headed west, passing the same coal load at Tabernash.

Eastbound hotshot in Byers Canyon.

Amtrak #5 in Byers Canyon.

Eastbound manifest approaching Byers Canyon.

Eastbound at Kremmling.

Eastbound mixed freight entering Gore Canyon.  The north cliff of the water gap can be seen about ten cars behind the power.  

Loaded coal entering Gore Canyon.

Loaded coal in Gore Canyon.

Westbound manifest exiting Gore Canyon.

An eastbound manifest is entering Gore Canyon.

Amtrak #5 is between Gore Canyon and Little Gore Canyon.

A westbound freight prepares to enter Little Gore Canyon.

Amtrak #5 prepares to enter Little Gore Canyon.

This westbound, empty coal train has exited Little Gore Canyon and is running beside the Colorado River on the way to Bond.

Amtrak beside the Colorado River.

This is Bond, Colorado, a crew change point, where the Moffat Route left the valley of the Colorado River and began its ascent up the side of an ancient volcano.  Bond is also the location where the Dotsero cut-off (constructed in the 1930's) continued running along the river until joining the original Denver and Rio Grande mainline.

A loaded coal train is in full dynamics as it coasts downgrade to Bond.

A loaded coal train has just come off the Crater Loops and is rolling downgrade toward Bond.

The same train in the bottom of the Crater Loops.

The same loaded coal train in the middle of the Crater Loops.

Coal empties grinding upgrade through the Crater Loops.

Downgrade, loaded coal in full dynamics, with new Southern Pacific power.

Downgrade load.

Mid-trains in the Crater Loops at sundown.

Loaded coal headed downgrade to Crater Loops.  Above the train is the same Moffat Route coming down the side of an ancient, extinct volcano.

Coal empties at the appropriately named Volcano Siding.

A loaded coal train is about to enter Egeria Canyon on its way to the Crater Loops.

Manned helpers on an empty coal train approaching the summit at Toponas, Colorado.  This set of helpers cut off from the train "on the fly."  The train has already passed Egeria Canyon, the extinct Volcano and the Crater Loops. 

Empty coal hoppers have passed the summit at Toponas and are headed downgrade toward the yard in Phippsburg.

On the original Moffat Route:  A loaded coal train passes Finger Rock in 1988.

A loaded coal train is passing Finger Rock in 1996.

Loaded coal train at Yampa, Colorado.

Loaded coal near Phippsburg, Colorado.

Coal empties leaving Phippsburg, headed to the mines.

The same train leaving Oak Creek Canyon.  In the left-center of the image is the detritus of an abandoned coal mine.

Oak Creek Canyon is as far as my Rio Grande photography took me.  At the time these images were taken (1988 - 1996), I believe there were at least six active coal mines further west.  As the previous images show, all traffic north of Bond (except the Craig local) was coal train after coal train -- and there were plenty of them.  But that has all changed.  The last time I checked in 2015, there was one mine open, and one coal train ran in and back per week.  Today (March 2020) I'm not sure any mines are open.

The line north of Bond was still quite active during the early years of Union Pacific operation, as is shown in the following post:

But no more.  That portion of the Moffat Route to Craig is now as dead as the Denver and Rio Grande Western.  It is interesting how rapidly things can change.  One minute your health is fine; the next you have vertigo and struggle to walk across a room.  One day the D&RGW is crawling with trains; the next, the railroad no longer exists.

"All our lives long, every day and every hour, we are engaged in the process of accommodating our changed and unchanged selves to changed and unchanged surroundings: living, in fact, is nothing else than this process of accommodation."  Samuel Butler -- The Way of All Flesh.

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