Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Return to Colorado


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.

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.

One of my goals was to catch an eastbound in morning light, exiting Moffat Tunnel.  So I was thrilled on the second day when I learned that a BNSF eastbound grainer was scheduled to hit the tunnel mid-morning.  The drive from Denver to the Continental Divide at East Portal is slow but spectacular, especially slow in a Jeep Wrangler that handles like a brick on wheels through narrow mountains roads, winding, twisting, up and down.  But this was the only freight running in the daylight; I had plenty of time.

The weather was beautiful and warm, no clouds, no breeze.  The state has constructed a parking lot within sight of the portal, filled this morning with various four-wheel-drive vehicles and hikers and cyclists.  Your humble author was the only railfan, but no one seemed to care.  The light on the open bore was warm, perfect, the scene of a lifetime.  I set up my tripod and waited.

And waited.

In late November, the sun hangs low in the southern sky, moving lightly across the top of the mountain ridge overlooking the tracks.  As the sun moved west, it began to skim the trees at the top of the ridge.  Shadows formed on the opposite side of the narrow valley.  More vehicles pulled into the parking lot.  The sun moved along the ridge.  Shadows grew longer.  The sun began to dip behind the ridge.

I waited.

I sat on the front bumper of the Jeep and watched shadows crawl like vipers across the tunnel's mouth.  The shadows grew longer, then longer still until they covered the tracks all the way to the parking lot.  When they reached my Jeep, the block signal in front of the bore for westbound traffic turned red.

I drove down the gravel road to the sunlight and caught the grainer at Tolland.  

The cross section of a valley shows whether it has been carved by running water alone or modified by ice. A few miles east of Toland, the valley is narrow and V-shaped.  Toland itself sits in a broad, flat hollow that looks out of place so close to the Continental Divide (snow-covered in this image).  The change from V shape to U shape marks the farthest eastward advance of the last ice-age glacier.  Notice also the V-shaped water gap above BNSF 8240.  This is the western edge of the glacier.  From this gap westward to the tunnel's mouth is a narrow chasm cut by water alone.  The valley between was filled with ice to a thousand feet.  When the ice melted, the glacier's sediment (called "terminal moraine") was swept away, leaving this bucolic setting. 


Originally called Mammoth Gulch, Tolland was a mining community and stage coach stop in the late 19th century.  In 1893, Charles Hanson Toll purchased the village, and in 1904 his widow renamed it Tolland, after both her husband and her ancestral home in England. Mount Toll, one of the peaks surrounding this tranquil valley, carries the family name.

Near the tracks sits a small clapboard building, painted bright yellow, as stark as a prairie fire, that served as a one-room school until 1959.  A few hardy souls still live here in the twenty-first century, and some have lovingly preserved this building, which looks as fresh as the day it opened in 1902.

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.

This map shows the route of the original line across Rollins Pass.  The old roadbed is now passable from the east as far as Needle's Eye Tunnel.  The ruling grade on this line was four percent!

The railroad originally planned to construct a tunnel at Yankee Doodle Lake beneath the Continental Divide.  However, after construction began, engineers discovered that the rock was not stable, and drilling stopped after a few hundred feet.  The abandoned bore still exists and can be explored by anyone brave enough to drive up the old roadbed.

With tunnels no longer an option, a new route across the top of the mountain was surveyed at Corona, Spanish for "crown."  Upon completion of the line, the railroad called the location "Top of the World" -- a place of perpetual winter.  Supposedly, a tourist once got off the train at Corona and asked a prospector who lived in a nearby cabin how long the winter lasted.  "I don't know," the old man said.  "I've only been here nine years."   

Above the timber line sit several frozen lakes.  In a huge crevice called "The Devil's Arm Chair," snow lies many feet deep year around -- the remains of a once huge glacier that carved wide valleys around the mountain peaks, including the valley at Tolland.  According to records maintained by the station operator before the opening of Moffat Tunnel,, snow fell at the summit every July. 

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=falseshows 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.

From Tolland, your intrepid author, not up to climbing above the timber line, drove back down the Front Range just in time to catch the grainer coming out of the Coal Creek horseshoe.

A short drive up the last ridge above the High Plains presented this image of Big Ten.

The Moffat Route (named after David Moffat, who conceived and financed the project) commenced but did not complete a dream held by many -- a railroad west out of Denver to the Pacific.  Moffat's line was not the first attempt.  The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy had built a route to Denver and thereafter spent approximately one million dollars (the equivalent of $33,775,714.29 in 2022) surveying a potential line across the Rockies.  Concluding that such a project would be prohibitively expensive, the Burlington abandoned its dream.  When Moffat took up the gauntlet, he purchased all the Burlington's surveys.  

Which turned out to be useless, because the Burlington's surveys were all dead ends.  Each potential route led to hopelessness.  Moffat thus commissioned multiple new inspections of the mountains, looking for some semblance of a path leading to the Continental Divide.  Ultimately, two potential routes were plotted.  On the western side of Rollins Pass, 55 different routes were explored.  In the most difficult terrain (all terrain was difficult), four to seven alternative passages were often mapped.

The engineers stayed in the field until the winter snows made passage impossible.  Suspended by ropes over sheer canyon walls, creeping  along narrow wooden foot bridges over mountain streams, fighting  winds and temperatures far below freezing, snow-shoeing above the timber line -- the engineers trudged onward with the tools of their trade.

Another image from The World's Work.  Surveyors are suspended perilously on log walkways a few feet above the Colorado River in Gore Canyon, perhaps the most perilous portion of the entire Moffat Route.  (As crazy as these surveyors appear, the photographer was equally brazen!)

Below is a third image from the same volume, looking west through Gore Canyon before railroad construction.

The rapids here are considered among the most challenging and dangerous in North America, to be traversed only by the skilled.  The Forest Service has placed large signs at the eastern mouth of the canyon, warning would-be kayakers and rafters of the dangers ahead, similar to the signs placed at the trailhead leading down into the Grand Canyon.

When one looks into Gore Canyon, one is astounded that anyone thought a railroad could be constructed through the narrow defile.      

Another BNSF manifest is approaching Gore Canyon.  As was often the case during your author's visit, this was the only non-Amtrak movement during the day.  The photographer is looking west from the western mouth of the canyon, the same direction as in the image above which was taken from the eastern mouth.

In Gore Canyon -- DPU's of same train.

Same train at State Bridge.

Same DPU's.

Same train approaching State Bridge.

The one reliable train on the Moffat Route in the daylight during November 2021 was westbound Amtrak No. 5, which left Denver Union Station in the morning, always reaching Bond, significantly west of Moffat Tunnel, before noon.  The ride from Denver to Bond is the most spectacular stretch of railroad that your author has ever seen, surpassing anything else in the United States or Canada.  Kickinghorse Pass and the twin spiral tunnels on the Canadian Pacific are certainly impressive, but you cannot see the tunnels anymore from the highway, and that line contains nothing close to Big Ten Loop or Moffat Tunnel or Gore Canyon or Little Gore Canyon -- at least in your author's opinion.  Tehachapi Loop comes close, but the mountains aren't as spectacular.  If you include the Craig Branch as part of the Moffat Route (as it was originally), with Crater Loops, Oak Creek Canyon and Egeria Canyon, David Moffat's railroad stands alone, which is why no one else tried to build it.

That other railroads did not want to build west out of Denver, however, did not stop them from interfering with Moffat's dream, a strong indication that they were worried Moffat might succeed.  Before construction even began, representatives of the Union Pacific began a publicity campaign, claiming that while a UP engine could haul 650 tons across the Continental Divide, that same locomotive could not pull even half that tonnage across Moffat's line.  The Union Pacific also claimed (incorrectly) that the Wasatch Range in Utah would present as much of a construction challenge as the Front Range.

The UP also refused to grant Moffat trackage rights into Denver's Union Station.  Eventually, the new railroad was able to lease four miles of track from the CB&Q into the passenger terminal.  Competing railroads also filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuit, claiming that Moffat should be prohibited from building through Gore Canyon, because it might be needed someday for a water reservoir.

Today (March 2022) Amtrak's California Zephyr arrives and departs from Denver's newly remodeled Union Station.  The trials and tribulations of David Moffat are the dim echo of an ancient explosion, like the cosmic background radiation, remnant of the Big Bang.  Chances are good that the percentage of people in the United States familiar with David Moffat rounds to zero.

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.

Approaching Yarmony.

Gore Canyon.  Image taken from Inspiration Point.

The reliability of Amtrak (insofar as it will almost always run on the scheduled day, if not the scheduled hour) is a small delight in a world of deteriorating pleasures.  Imagine my amazement and further delight when one afternoon, while waiting for an eastbound at Toland, the train below snuck up on me from Rollinsville.

When this image was taken, your author was not aware that the Rocky Mountaineer was running trains out of Denver -- over the old Rio Grande mainline, plus a branch currently serving a potash mine -- to Moab, Utah.  I had photographed the Rocky Mountaineer in British Columbia, but nothing like this had ever before graced my Nikon F5's viewfinder in the United States.  The units were obviously obtained from Union Pacific; the outline of eagle wings is still visible on the lead unit's nose.  The train was racing upgrade to Moffat Tunnel.  The front end crew gave me a quick toot as they rolled past.

Originally begun by VIA Rail on routes from Vancouver to Calgary and Jasper, running over both the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National, the Rocky Mountaineer and its name were sold to a private entity in Vancouver in 1990, which continued running trains on those routes through 2020, when the service was discontinued due to Covid 19.  Your author's understanding is that the company did not issue refunds, claiming what in the law is called a force majeure event; i.e., something beyond the company's control.  (The French term, along with many others, was introduced into English common law after the Norman invasion in the 11th century.  English immigrants to North American brought the common law and its terms with them.)  I do not know the outcome, but this maneuver by the company could not possibly have helped business.

In any event, trains were running through Colorado in November 2021.  One day along the tracks, I even met a former Norfolk Southern engineer who had been hired to run the new trains.  He was taking photographs along the Moffat Route and told me he had been in the cab and honked when I took the above image at Toland!  He did not have kind things to say about Norfolk Southern but did seem to enjoy his new employer.

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.

West of town the interstate and tracks run parallel for several miles, until the railroad ducks under the highway into the narrow valley of Salt Creek and enters the canyon of the Colorado River.  There are no roads into the canyon, but Jeep trails on the north and south rims provide excellent vistas on public land.  

These locations require some effort to enter, however, and since I did not know if I would see any trains, I decided to continue driving west along the interstate into Utah and eventually took the exit to state highway 128 leading back east to the ghost town of Cisco, once a water stop on the Rio Grande and a loading point for sheep raised in the area.  In the 1920's, there was a brief oil boom, though it quickly played out.  When I-70 bypassed the little village, all tourist traffic disappeared, as did the few remaining residents.

When your author drove through, "Buzzards Belly General Store" appeared to be the only inhabited structure, though I did not stop to find out if anyone actually lived or worked there.  The few other structures in town had all collapsed and lay in ruble lining the highway.

It was late in the day; the sun was low in the southwest.  I stopped the Jeep off the road at the top of a small hill, set up my tripod and waited, fully expecting to be disappointed.  Since I would rather be disappointed in sunlight than shadows, I did not feel too despondent.

Then, to my amazement, in the next 30 minutes the following two eastbound trains appeared:

This first train consisted of about 30 empty coal cars -- not a mainline train -- apparently being towed somewhere.  Whole strings of empty coal trains are stored on sidings throughout the Utah Desert, so it is possible that these cars were being taken off one of the sidings.

Not sure what this is -- a local, perhaps?


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.

No. 5.

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.

Austrialian Shepherds.

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 clouds then closed for good like a door, as though a higher authority were saying, "That's enough!"  Your humble author drove back to his hotel in Avon and spent the remainder of the day searching vainly for a promising weather forecast, not realizing that deer season opened the next morning.

Your author's railfan experiences during deer season have not all been positive.  He once inadvertently wandered onto land leased to several avid hunters who tracked him down and turned him over to a bemused game warden who allowed them to drive away, then said, "Now what am I supposed to do?"

"Don't worry," your humble author replied, "I won't bother them again."

On another occasion, I parked my Tahoe on the side of the road and hiked a few miles into the Little Canyon of the Arbuckles along the Washita River south of Davis, Oklahoma.  I took my last photograph at sundown and walked back in growing darkness.  As I approached my vehicle, I saw someone walking along the fence with a flashlight, hurriedly, as though greatly agitated.  Before I could take another step, he said, "You're supposed to wear orange!" -- the required color for deer hunters in Oklahoma.

"I'm not a hunter," I said.

"Then what were you doing on my property."

"I was on the tracks," I said.  "I'm a railroad photographer."

"Then why do you have a gun?"

"It's not a gun.  It's a tripod."  I took it off my shoulder and handed it to him.

He looked at the tripod as though it might be alive, then handed it back.  I opened my backpack, laid it on the ground, and he shined his flashlight on my cameras.

"Get out of here," he said.

I did.

None of that slows me down, in part because I do not have much else to do.  

I arose the next morning, expecting clouds, and was pleased to see significant, though not total, blue sky out my bedroom window.  The morning email indicated that a loaded coal train would be running from Phippsburg, once a common occurrence, now because of the war on coal reduced almost to a novelty.  Though I think of myself as mature, my heart did beat faster.  I dressed quickly and headed for the tracks.

I looked above and saw a mixture of clear sky like blue curtains; high, almost-motionless cirrus clouds like stringy cotton; and low, fast-moving cumulus clouds like cotton bolls.  I crossed the summit on 131 as fast as I thought prudent in a Jeep, then roared downgrade to the Colorado River, arriving just in time to photograph the UP manifest above, a train I had not expected to see.

Driving into Bond, I found two trains awaiting crews -- an eastbound grainer and westbound coal empty.  Again, this was once a common sight, but the days of heavy traffic on the Moffat Route are long gone.  I took the above image immediately before dark clouds descended over the valley.

Before heading up the Craig Branch toward Phippsburg, I heard a whistle along the river.  Another train?  I hadn't seen this much action in Colorado in 30 years.  I jumped in the Jeep, drove around the corner of the river and, as the sun appeared, photographed these light engines heading west to Utah.

It was now time to head up the Craig Branch, which from the Crater Loops through Egeria Canyon is, at least in your author's opinion, the most spectacular railroad in North America.  When the Rio Grande still ran this route, this incredible terrain was unoccupied except for an tourist ranch up the mountain.  Today, however, several houses and barns cover the plateau, and the once open land is now fenced.  The residents are mostly friendly to photographers and often, if you ask nicely, will allow you to hike up the hills to prime locations.

This day was different.  I saw it the moment I came in sight of the Crater Loops; several men in orange vests were riding ATVs up and down the gravel road.  Then it hit me:  deer season!  I stopped my Jeep and chatted with an older gentleman.  I say "older"; he was probably younger than my 71 years.  Already knowing the answer, I asked if I could hike above the Crater Loops for a photograph.  He shook his head and said, "Not today.  We had a fellow out this morning trying to shoot deer from the window of his pick-up.  We've got cattle out here.  These fools drive up from Denver and don't know 'sit down' from 'stand up.'  If they don't shoot my cattle, they're liable to shoot you."

I asked if I could drive up the hill and wait for the loaded coal train.  He said it was OK as long as I did not pull too far off the road.

I drove to a spot overlooking the remains of a long dormant cinder cone.  Over the last 100 years, the red lava has been so throughly mined that, without some knowledge of the area's geology, one probably would not realize that a volcano had once stood on this plateau.

Cumulus clouds were moving rapidly.  One moment the sun would shine brightly.  Then the sky would darken, dropping the exposure on my F5 by about three f-stops.  Then more sun.  Then clouds.

In the far distance from the north came the sound of a loaded coal train rolling downgrade, like rushing water, growing louder, then softer, then louder again, more or less in time with the passing clouds.  After about five minutes, the sound disappeared, and I knew the train had entered Egeria Canyon, located on private property and today virtually inaccessible, because the owner patrols his ground with closed circuit television cameras watched by a private security team.  If you so much as put a foot on the property, someone will soon be out to apprehend you -- much like Sherman Hill.  The odds of your author's ever obtaining an image in Egeria Canyon are thus apparently reduced to zero -- a tragedy.  But I am old enough now that I don't much care about anything.  On my next return, if I can verify a coal train on the Craig Branch, then by hook or crook, I'm going to find a way into the canyon.  But not this day.  Not during deer season.  

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 tracks run along the side of the volcano, turning slowly east, then head into the narrow confines of Oak Creek Canyon, where they make another horseshoe, then curve slowly downgrade to the south.  Here the coal train is running beside what is left of the cinder cone.  Above the mined terraces are the tracks where the above image was taken. 

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/.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for publishing this fantastic record.