A Trip Down the Royal Gorge Route

by Tara Becker

Since 1879, travelers from around the world have made the journey to Cañon City, Colorado to experience the train that follows the rails on a 24-mile roundtrip through the spectacular Royal Gorge. More than 100,000 passengers experience the natural beauty of the Royal Gorge each year aboard Colorado’s finest scenic railroad while enjoying the comfort and charm of the carefully restored Historic Royal Gorge Route Railroad cars.

I had the distinct pleasure of experiencing the glass-topped vista dome car complete with wine and gourmet dinner (they offer lunch, too) as the perfect way to  enjoy the charm of classic train travel and dramatic views of the Royal Gorge.  The 1.5-hour train-ride begins at the Historic Santa Fe Depot located in Cañon City and travels along the Arkansas River through the rugged, 1,000-foot deep Royal Gorge and back.

Here's a brief history of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad:
It was in the late 1870s that miners descended on the upper Arkansas valley of Colorado in search of carbonate ores rich in lead and silver. The feverish mining activity in what would become the Leadville district attracted the attention of the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) and the Santa Fe railroads, each already having tracks in the Arkansas valley. For two railroads to occupy a river valley ordinarily was not a problem, but west of Canon City was an incredible obstacle - an obstacle that would result in a war between the railroads in the race to the new bonanza.

On April 19, 1878, a hastily assembled construction crew from the Santa Fe began grading for a railroad just west of Canon City in the mouth of the gorge. The D&RG whose end of track was less than a mile from Canon City raced crews to the same area, but were blocked by the Santa Fe graders in the narrow canyon. In just a few hours, they had lost the first round in what became a struggle between the two railroads that would be known as the Royal Gorge War.

After a long legal battle that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, on April 21, 1879, the D&RG was granted the primary right to build through the gorge that in places was wide enough at best for only one railroad.  However, it wasn't until March 27, 1880 that the two railroads signed what was called the "Treaty of Boston" which settled all litigation, and gave the D&RG back its railroad. The D&RG paid the Santa Fe $1.8 million for the railroad it had built in the gorge, the grading it had completed, materials on hand and interest. The Royal Gorge War was over. D&RG construction resumed, and rails reached Leadville on July 20, 1880.

An interesting part of the Santa Fe construction through the gorge is the hanging bridge at a point where the gorge narrows to 30 feet. Here the railroad had to be suspended over the river along the north side of the gorge as shear rock walls go right down into the river on both sides. C. Shallor Smith, a Kansas engineer, designed a 175-ft plate girder suspended on one side by "A" frame girders spanning the river and anchored to the rock walls. The bridge cost $11,759 in 1879, a princely sum in those days. Although it has been strengthened over the years, this unique structure has served on a main rail line for over 118 years.

The first passenger train arrived at Salida in 1880. In 1882, the Royal Gorge route became a transcontinental rail link between Denver and Salt Lake. The Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River, known as the Royal Gorge, was one of the highlights on the route through the Rockies.

During the 1890's, four transcontinental passenger trains a day passed through the Royal Gorge. The original route between Denver and Salt Lake went over Marshall Pass, through Gunnison, Montrose, and Grand Junction. With the opening of the Moffat Tunnel in 1928, passengers could go either way to Salt Lake. If they chose the Royal Gorge route, they would leave early in the morning arriving at Grand Junction in time for their train to be combined with the overnight Prospector for the run into Salt Lake. Planes, with their faster schedules, automobiles, for the independent traveler, and buses, were the downfall of the Royal Gorge, as passengers took to other forms of transportation.

The last segment of this famous train was between Denver and Salida. The crowning blow came when the U.S. Post Office Department cancelled the mail contract on this train, leaving the Rio Grande with empty head-end cars and coaches.  The handwriting was on the wall. Authority was soon forthcoming for discontinuance of the Royal Gorge trains.

It wasn't until the fall of 1998 that the Royal Gorge Route Railroad was reestablished and has become a premier destination attraction through the Royal Gorge each year combining the spectacular scenery of the Royal Gorge, the nostalgia of 1950’s train travel, with unique dining options and exceptional service. Riding the rails through the Royal Gorge and spotting Big Horn Sheep, Blue Heron, Bald Eagles, and enjoying the tumbling Arkansas River with your family or special someone is a very unique experience. The Royal Gorge Route is just one way to preserve this breathtaking canyon and ensure a vital part of Colorado history will be passed along to the next generation.

For information on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, go to www.royalgorgeroute.com.

 

 

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