Wednesday, November 8, 2023

My Favorite Western Grades: Part One


Curtis Hill, Oklahoma.

At first glance, you might think that this article involves either (1) reviews of Western movies or (2) my report cards from primary school.  Instead, we are here to discuss some of the areas in the western United States and Canada where railroads, which normally seek the path of least resistance, are forced by geography to climb gradients that bring even the most powerful engines to a crawl.  

Not every grade covered here involves mountains, though many do.  Some of the best railroad climbs in the West are out of deep river valleys -- Curtis Hill and Sierra Blanca, for example, both of which are found below.  And Nebraska's Crawford Hill involves the ascent not of a mountain but rather of a modest escarpment that nonetheless presents a massive obstacle to loaded eastbound coal trains.

For me, the quintessence of railroading entails heavy trains on steep grades, the pounding of twelve cylinder diesel engines, the deep whine of electric traction motors, the shaking ground, the feeling that at any moment something may give, the train may break apart.  And from time to time something does, but that only adds to the intrigue, the excitement, though I am reasonably certain that train crews will choose different nouns.

Not every Western grade is covered, because (1) I have not photgraphed every Western grade, (2) I have chosen only my favorites among the ones I have visited and (3) this is only Part One -- Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.  Remaining Western states and provinces are covered in Part Two.

If I live long enough, I hope to see them all (Western grades, that is).  Until then, these are my favorites.

Curtis Hill, Oklahoma

I start with Curtis Hill because it lies closest to my front porch.  The grade is for westbounds only as they climb out of the valley of the Cimarron River.  This country is remote, and when you stand on one of the bluffs overlooking the wide valley, you sometimes feel as though the whole world belongs to you.

Cimarron River valley.  Behind the train rise the sand dunes of the Little Sahara state park.

A struggling grainer is being overtaken by a fast Z.

Eastbound trailers race down the hill, while a westbound Q-train struggles to make 25 mph.  In the days of steam, Curtis Hill was a helper district.

Crawford Hill, Nebraska

The Pine Ridge, an escarpment on the edge of the High Plains, runs northeast to southwest about 100 miles across northwestern Nebraska, also extending into South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation and the northern edge of Wyoming's Niobrara River watershed. Its distance across varies from 4 miles to 20 miles and presents a significant obstacle to eastbound coal trains from the Powder River Basin.  I have chosen images from the Burlington Northern days, because that is how I remember this beautiful location.

A loaded coal train, with Santa Fe power assisting, attacks the eastbound grade of the Pine Ridge.

A loaded coal train in the horseshoe at Crawford Hill.

Same train.

Aiken Hill, Kansas

In northeastern Kansas, the Union Pacific line to Kansas City crosses the edge of the Flint Hills.  The grade is relatively mild by Western standards but still steep enough to challenge heavy manifests and loaded coal trains.  The scene is bucolic and quiet until the faint sound of an approaching train breeches the silence.  The reverberation grows louder, the train passes, the silence returns.

Eastbound loaded coal.


Auto loads from Kansas City pass more coal headed east.

Carrizo Pass, Texas

This little-known grade in west Texas can be found at Van Horn on the old Texas and Pacific line from Dallas.  The westbound grade (approximately five miles) starts in town and is longer than the east (about two), but both are steep enough to slow even the hotest trains.  Interstate 10 runs south of the railroad, but the tracks are often hidden.  Photography requires a fair amount of hiking.

Westbound stacks climbing through the Carrizo Mountains.

This westbound has just crested the summit.


Sierra Blanca, Texas

Sierra Blanca is a grass covered mountain that towers over the valley of the Rio Grande about 90 miles southeast of El Paso, where the old Southern Pacific Sunset Route climbs eastbound out of the river valley to the desert above.  The original gradient was filled with narrow curves like a worm on hot concrete, including a horseshoe still visible in satellite images.  The tracks were later realigned in a broad, multi-mile eastbound curve in which trains climb over 1000 feet.

Eastbound stacks struggling into the grade.  Because the climb is so long, about 18 miles, one can hear trains attacking the hill 30 minutes or more before they appear.

An eastbound manifest below Sierra Blanca.


Stein's Pass

Located a few miles east of the Arizona-New Mexico Border, Stein's (pronounced "Steens") Pass is the route through the Peloncillo Mountains.  Union Pacific tracks and Interstate 10 run almost side-by-side in an area almost bereft of humans, animals and plants.  If one wished to find the most inhospitable location in North America, one might choose this place.

With the 50th anniversary unit on point, eastbound Amtrak approaches the summit.

Westbound stacks roll downgrade toward Arizona.

Eastbound stacks climb the grade from Arizona to the summit of Stein's Pass.

Tularosa Hill, New Mexico

Approximately 5,000 years ago, Little Black Peak in southeastern New Mexico erupted and filled the Tularosa Basin with molten rock 44 miles north to south, 4 to 6 miles east to west, and 160 feet deep.  The resulting Malpais Lava Flow is arguably the youngest in North America.  

The old Southern Pacific line from Santa Rosa, New Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, runs along the edge of this flow before climbing compass north (railroad east) out of the basin to higher ground.  Union Pacific freights struggle at the remarkably slow speeds (10 mph and less) allowed by alternating current traction motors.  Watching these incredibly heavy and lengthy trains, you will swear that they will stall at any moment.  But they never do.

Eastbound stacks climb the grade, with the Malpais Lava Flow in the background.

More stacks climb the grade beside Carizzo Mountain.

Stacks meet at Coyote Siding, the top of the hill.

Abo Canyon

When the Santa Fe decided to bypass Raton and Glorietta Passes, it chose a route that ran south of the Manzano Mountains through a narrow canyon leading to the Rio Grande.  There is a slight westbound grade.  The eastbound grade, climbing from the river valley, is another matter.  Trains struggle mightily all the way to Mountainair, a climb from Belen of almost 50 miles.

The original line was single track.  In the early 21st century, BNSF completed a second track through the bottleneck and now guards the line with zealous ferocity.  The days when you could hike into the canyon have disappeared along with pay telephones and typewriters.

An eastbound manifest emerges from Abo Canyon on the original line. 

An eastbound warbonnet leads stacks through Abo Canyon

Westbound warbonnets emerge from Abo Canyon, with the Los Pinos Mountains in the background.

Raton Pass

Located on the border of Colorado and New Mexico, Raton Pass was the route of the original Santa Fe transcontinental line to California.  The ruling grades for both railroad eastbound (compass north) and westbound (compass south) were three percent and created major bottlenecks for the railroad.  Construction of the Belen Cut-off in the early 20th century reduced Raton to a secondary main used by (1) passenger trains and (2) occasional freights to relieve pressure off the mainline west.  Today (November 2023) only Amtrak runs trains across this scenic location.

Eastbound trailers have crested the summit and are rolling downgrade to Colorado.  In the background, a work train follows on the secondary track.

At Wooten Curve, this westbound Amtrak needed Santa Fe help to reach the summit.

Westbound on a cold day in January.

Trinchera Pass
In far northeastern New Mexico, the old Colorado and Southern crosses the Raton-Clayton Volcano Field, also crossed by the old Santa Fe further west at Raton Pass.  There are two separate grades in this crossinig.  The first occurs for eastbounds at a horseshoe curve north of Des Moines, New Mexico; the second in both diretions at the Colorado-New Mexico border further north.  Originally lightly traveled, this line blossomed when Burlington Northern began running coal trains between Texas and the Powder River Basin.  In the 21st century, BNSF runs loaded coal trains over the Boise City Subdivision, bypassing the steep grades of Trinchera.  Only coal empties now cross the volcano field.
Pushers on loaded coal train in the horseshoe.

Loaded coal climbing toward the summit at the Colorado-New Mexico border.

The summit.

Tennessee Pass

Trains have not crossed Tennesse Pass since the late 20th century.  Nonetheless, it is still my favorite Western grade, because nothing (and I repeat nothing) will ever compare to the sound and feel of a loaded coal train attacking the three percent from Pando to the summit, shaking the ground like a small earthquake.  As of November 2023, the rails are still in place, and if you are old enough, you can stand beside them on a calm fall afternoon and believe you hear a train starting the climb from Minturn.  

Pushers at Pando.

Climbing the eastbound grade.


Big Ten Loop
Big Ten Loop is part of the westbound grade from Denver to Moffat Tunnel.  I have chosen this location because it is one of the most interesting pieces of railroad on one of the most interesting lines in North America.  Each year Metropolitan Denver grows a little closer.  There is a good chance that, within my lifetime, Big Ten will be surrounded.
Big Ten Loop in the days of the Rio Grande.

BNSF (on trackage rights) in the loop in 2021.  Metropolitan Denver is getting closer.

Rio Grande in the loop.

Moffat Tunnel
Rollins Pass was once the most amazing grade in Colorado, in North America, perhaps even the world.  Because of Moffat Tunnel, many forget that trains still struggle for many miles in both diretions.  Westbounds out of Denver are already straining even before reaching Big Ten Loop, and the Tunnel District lies ahead.  Eastbounds at Tabernash begin a harsh climb through the Fraser River Valley before turning sharply to enter the Tunnel at Winter Park.  Although traffic is not heavy on this line in the era of Union Pacific, it is still heavy enough to excite anyone passionate about trains.
Moffat Tunnel -- West Portal.

Westbound approaching east portal of Moffat Tunnel.

Eastbound climbing to Moffat Tunnel.

Palmer Lake, Colorado

Palmer Lake Colorado lies south of Denver and north of the Air Force Academy.  Years ago, the southbound grade was surrounded by mountains and pine trees.  Today (November 2023), though the immediate grade is still bucolic, civilization encroaches from all sides.  The following images are from the Burlington Northern.

A northbound empty coal train is coasting downgrade on the Burlington Northern.  The line in the foreground was operated by the Denver and Rio Grande Western at the time (1983).  The southbound grade for loaded coal trains required helper units, and the tracks were easily accessible for photography.

A southbound coal train struggles into the grade.  In the mid-1980's, it was not unusual to see MKT run-through power on Power River Basin coal trains.

It is sometimes hard to remember the days before DPU's, when a caboose punctuated the end of every train.  In this image from 1983, no less than six crewmen would have been in charge of this coal train -- two in the lead units, two in the helper set and two in the caboose.  Communications from the head-end crew to the helpers was by radio, and it took skill to keep the train from breaking apart.  Today, two crewmen would operate such a train.

Craig Branch, Colorado

When David Moffat's line west from Denver reached what is now Bond, Colorado, construction crews turned north and began a torturous climb from the valley of the Colorado River toward the coal fields that Moffat believed would provide enough revenue to sustain construction into Utah.  He was wrong, and the railroad died at Craig -- died suddenly though not unexpectedly like an old man taken off life support.  Though the best years of what became a major branch line are past, some coal traffic still makes the climb in both directions to the summit at Toponas.  The Crater Loops make this grade among the most amazing you will ever see.

Crater Loops.

A loaded Rio Grande coal train is climbing toward the Toponas summit.

Another load.

Trinidad to Walsenburg, Colorado

In addition to the grades at Trinchera Pass, the old Colorado and Southern rode a roller coaster between Trinidad and Walsenburg in southern Colorado --  one climb after another in both directions.  There is very little "flat running" in this country.  Instead, trains roll up and down, and up and down again, gaining speed on each descent for the next climb.  I imagine that the engineers on this line are among the most skillful, though I also imagine that those who once ran downgrade on the western slope of Tennessee Pass might claim priority. 

In the Burlington Northern days, loaded coal is coming down off one incline and beginning the pull up another.

Coal loads struggling upgrade to Trinidad.  Today (November 2023) coal loads no longer run on this line, instead traveling across the Boise City Sub.  Only coal empties run between Trinidad and Walsenburg.

North from Trinidad.

Sherman Hill, Wyoming

When scouts were exploring potential routes for the first transcontinental railroad, the Rocky Mountains appeared to present an unbreachable barrier.  A route through Denver would have required almost vertical construction up an escarpment rising like a gigantic tombstone out of the High Plains, an escarpment that later bankrupted David Moffat.

Perseverance, however, has many rewards, and the Union Pacific eventually discovered an area, known to geologists as the "Gangplank," in southern Wyoming where mountain peaks vanish, giving way to a steep, though passable and relalively smooth incline rising over 8,000 feet to a treeless summit.

Called Sherman Hill, after the Union General who had ravaged the South only a few years before, this area today is reachable only on private roads that are closely guarded.  Tresspassers are quickly apprehended either by landowner employees or municipal authorities from Laramie.  My images from this area were all taken when one could roam freely over open ground.

Westbound grainer has crested the summit.

Another westbound grainer on the third main constructed in the early 20th century to lessen the grade.  The original tracks had previously been relocated near the summit for the same reason.

Eastbound stacks paralleling the third main.

Overthrust Belt, Wyoming

In far southwestern Wyoming, a north-south range of small mountains rises like a step ladder overlooking Utah.  Called the Overthrust Belt, this mostly treeless province is part of the larger Rocky Mountains and is theorized to have been created by the eastward movement of far western North America, causing western rocks to crawl over and above their eastern neighbors.

The original Union Pacific transcontinental line crosses the Overthrust Belt through two tunnels.  Aspen was the first.  When traffic became too heavy for a single track, Union Pacific constructed Altamont Tunnel -- at 6706 feet the UP's longest east of California, and at 7268 feet the second highest point on the transcontinental line after Sherman Hill.  This was the last part of the line to be double tracked. 

Pushers on a westbound manifest approaching Altamont Tunnel.

The hottest train on the railroad descends westbound across the Overthrust Belt.

Westbound stacks entering Altamont Tunnel.

Peru Hill, Wyoming.

At Peru Hill, a westbound grade, Union Pacific's original transcontinental line climbs out of the deep canyon of the Green River into the high desert country of southwestern Wyoming.  Ahead lies Granger, where the line to the Pacific Northwest splits from the route to Echo Canyon, the Great Salt Lake and California.  In the 21st century, this country is remote and desolate, not somewhere one would wish to run out of food and water.  The thought of settling this country in the 19th century is, to me at least, beyond comprehension.

Westbound stacks in the canyon of the Green River.

More westbound stacks climbing out of the canyon.

At the summit.


Page, Oklahoma

We end this article where we started in my home state of Oklahoma.  Page is where southbound Kansas City Southern freights begin the compass-east climb to the summit of Rich Mountain, Arkansas.  The entire grade is located within the Ouichita National Forest which contains the largest area of old growth timber in the United States outside of Alaska.  Loaded coal trains struggle into the grade in an area that averages about 60 inches of rain per year.

White Knights at Page, Oklahoma.

Gray Ghosts taking the siding at Page, Oklahoma.

Retro-Belles at Page, Oklahoma.

From the Overthrust Belt to Page, railroads climb some of the most spectacular geography you will ever see.  And the change in that geography from west to east is as extreme as the grades surmounted.  For me, nothing else is quite as amazing.

In Part Two we will examine the remainder of my favorite Western grades.

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