Leadville Branch Facts
Mining in the Leadville area started in the late 1850s when a prospector named Abe Lee discovered gold flakes in California Gulch, a ravine on the south side of modern day Leadville. As word spread through the west, prospectors flooded in and founded Oro City up in the canyon. Mining mostly played out by the 1860s, though, due to low concentrations and a think, heavy mud that made placer mining difficult.
Everything changed in the mid-1870s, when it was determined that the mud was really cerussite, a lead ore that's also rich in silver. By 1877, the area was booming again, and in 1878, modern day Leadville was founded (though apparently briefly called Cloud City).
The Leadville Branch could be considered the original end of the Tennessee Pass line, if only for a brief time. In 1880, narrow gauge rails were extended from the gorge through Salida to Malta, where California Gulch opens out into the Arkansas River valley. At that point, the Rio Grande track crews headed northeast via Leadville towards Fremont Pass and the eventual endpoint of Robinson, on the other side of the Continental Divide. While the section beyond Leadville - to become known as the Blue River Branch - was a near complete failure, the Malta to Leadville segment (aka the Leadville Branch) would become an important source of traffic for the Grande for sixty years.
(It should be noted that in that same year - 1880 - the Rio Grande also extended another branch north of Malta to serve charcoal ovens at the eastern foot of Tennessee Pass. That line, however, was considered a branch at the time.)
The branch was converted to dual-gauge track in stages, and parts of it remained dual-gauged for years. The first converted was from Leadville to Eilers, where the smelter branches connected, in order to allow standard gauge Colorado Midland cars to reach the facility. 1 The rest was converted to dual-gauge in 1890, along with the Tennessee Pass line to which it connected.
Because the third rail was removed from Salida to Malta on the Tennessee Pass line in 1925, narrow gauge cars could no longer reach Malta from other parts of the Rio Grande system. Therefore, the third rail was pulled out from Malta to Eilers in 1925 as well. Dual-gauge capability remained from Eilers to Leadville, as Colorado & Southern narrow gauge cars were still interchanged at Leadville and brought down to the smelter. The Leadville-Eilers third rail was pulled up in 1940, when the C&S stopped interchanging ore. At that point, the last of the narrow gauge in central Colorado was gone, and the Leadville lines were all standard gauge.
(As a note, the C&S narrow gauge itself only lasted another three years. The line was standard gauged in August of 1943.)
The Leadville Branch Today
The branch continues to exist today, though in an idle, abbreviated form. The last 1.8 miles - from the former Leadville yard to near the old smelter site - was abandoned by Union Pacific in 19982. This severed the connection between Leadville, Colorado & Southern tourist line (operating the former Colorado & Southern line from Leadville to Climax) and the rest of the railroad system.
The remaining three miles from Malta to the smelter site continue to exist, though have not seen any traffic in many years.
The Ryan Cutoff
Once the Rio Grande had completed the Tennessee Pass line to the coal mines beyond Glenwood Springs, the branch was extended to form a loop. That way, eastbound coal loads bound for the mines and smelters of Leadville would not need to go all the way down to Malta and tackle the ascending grade of the branch. It also made passenger operations easier, as passenger trains could make a loop through
This extension was sometimes referred to as the Ryan Cutoff after an old D&RG station located near where it rejoined the main. The route started from the downtown Leadville yard, and ran nearly due west to a point that would become known as Leadville Junction. Due to its intended purpose, there was no wye at the mainline junction, as there was at Malta. The track curved around to join the main so that only eastbounds (geographic southbounds) on the main or westbounds coming off the branch could use it.
The line was built as narrow gauge in 1887, converted to standard gauge in 1890, and then abandoned in 1940 when mining in the Leadville district slowed and passenger trains no longer stopped in Leadville proper.
As with any mining district, the Leadville area was filled with branches - a virtual indecipherable rat's nest of steel and old grades. For the purposes of exploring the history of the Rio Grande in the area, there are four significant branches:
There are also numerous small spurs that extend off of all of the branches, as there were small loadouts throughout the area. There was also a significant amount of track at the Arkansas Valley Smelter site, located at the top of the grade from Malta.
Leadville Branch Map
At some point in the future, there'll be a map here.
1 LeMassena, Robert. Rio Grande ...to the Pacific!, p55