Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Denver & Rio Grande

We recently finished fieldwork for a wind farm project in south-central Colorado, Huerfano County to be exact. We found quite a few prehistoric sites, that I'll talk about in another post, but perhaps the most significant historic thing we found was an abandoned grade of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.

The D&RG was founded in Denver in 1870, and its principal director was General William Jackson Palmer. At that time, most of the major railroads and the minds of the American public were focused on the big east-west transcontinental routes, the first of which had only been completed the previous year. Palmer's strategic vision was different, and he wanted a north-south oriented railroad that would link Denver with the unserved markets in New Mexico and Mexico. Once that was accomplished, the D&RG would swing west to the Pacific.

Palmer also took a unique approach to the equipment he wanted to use to build and operate the railroad. At that time there was no agreement on a universal railroad gauge - the distance between the rails. In the US the most common gauge was 4 feet - 8 1/2 inches, that later became known as "standard gauge" but it was hardly standard at the time. There had been experiments in Europe with the use of a narrow gauge, 3 feet, and some felt that it was more efficient for hauling freight than wider gauges. At any event, narrow gauge was much cheaper to build, and that helped Palmer to decide on its use.

The D&RG starting building south from Denver and reached Colorado Springs in 1871. The line was completed to Pueblo in 1872, and later reached our project area in 1876. Narrow gauge never proved to be as efficient as standard gauge and this portion of the line was converted to standard gauge in 1890. It was eventually abandoned in 1932 for a right of way closer to the foothills that is still in use.

The picture above shows a wooden trestle still standing nearly 80 years after the route was abandoned.

We also saw a number of these sandstone culvert structures that were part of the original 1876 construction. Those are the Spanish Peaks off on the horizon.

This close-up shows the ceramic culvert pipes that were housed under the sandstone. We used to really know how to build things in this country.

Here's view looking northwards along the top of the grade from atop one of the culverts.

Our work was met with skeptical looks from the locals.


Dennis said...

This abandoned railroad is similar to what’s left of the spur north of Magdalena, NM.

Steve Bodio said...

More east (though it bends north), as it goes to Socorro, but yes!

It was last running in the sixties-- Floyd Mansell came here on it-- but then we still had cattle drives that late,too.

Reid Farmer said...

I'll have to take a look next time we're down to visit