Note: I'm going to do a lot more editorializing here than I normally do. Normally trip reports stick to history and my experiences, but here I feel compelled to discuss the current mess the Loop is in, including the departure of the current operator. Much of this will paint the current Colorado Historical Society in a rather negative manner. I'll both present facts that have shown up in local newspapers and the railfan press, as well as put my opinion on them. If anyone sees factual errors and can substantiate their claims, corrections will gladly be made and credited. However, my commentary on the situation is, while vitriolic in spots, supported by the facts I've seen, and it likely will not be swayed unless you can present some serious, independently-verifiable facts to the contrary. Remember, in the end, it's my opinion. Everybody should make their own judgement based on all the facts of the situation they can find.
The history of the modern Georgetown area begins with the town's namesake, George Griffith, in the summer of 1859. Drawn from their homes in Kansas by news of gold strikes in Idaho Springs / Central City area, George and his brother David headed west, only to have their hopes dashed like so many others that found all the good areas already claimed when they arrived. Moving up Clear Creek Canyon from the previous mining boomtowns, George happened across a rich vein of gold ore in the area of obviously what we now call Georgetown. Unfortunately, mining the the immediate Georgetown area didn't pan out so well (no pun intended), but five years later and a few miles west, prospectors unearthed bountiful supplies of a metal almost as valuable in that day - silver. The place? Silver Plume, of course, officially incorporated in 1870.
With the new silver strikes occurring at a frantic pace, Georgetown quickly became the booming hub of the Argentine Mining District. Like all mining booms in early Colorado history, one of the core problems to be overcome was transportation of supplies in and ore out. The answer, as again with most early mining towns, was to try to attract a railroad. Tucked far up in fairly inhospitable terrain, Georgetown (at 8500 feet) would be difficult enough to reach by rail, but in 1869, the Colorado Central (under the control of Jay Gould's Union Pacific, and under the direction of Edward Berthoud and William Loveland) began to build west out of Golden (the end of the standard gauge) through Clear Creek Canyon. Predating the start of the mighty Rio Grande system by a short time, the CC probably qualifies as one of Colorado's first great experiments in three-foot gauge.
Even with grand backing and ambition, the railroad took nearly three years to get its first train into Blackhawk, CO, arriving in 1872. Blackhawk was the closest of the mining towns for the CC, and after connecting one and establishing a source of revenue, it began to look westward towards the Idaho Springs and Georgetown areas. Trackwork was completed to just outside Idaho Springs by 1873, and it would stay there for nearly four years due mainly to an economic downturn. Then, in June of 1877, with the backing of Union Pacific, the railroad finally started service into Idaho Springs proper. That left only 12 miles into Georgetown.
Business-savvy UP didn't let the line languish at Idaho, knowing more freight potential lay immediately to the west. In only two months, the line was completed into Georgetown. However, the real traffic (mining-related) was still two miles further at Silver Plume. Silver Plume, however, was at 9100 feet and, as mentioned, only about 2 miles west - a grade of 6% from Georgetown, straight shot, far too steep for any significant main or branchline railroad. Oddly enough, it was not the Silver Plume traffic that eventually spurred construction.
In 1879, the large Leadville mining strikes were starting to occur, and UP, still under Gould, had the idea that they could be the first-mover in this new market. Their line at Georgetown could conceivably be extended west, under the Continental Divide near Loveland Pass, and then tap Leadville - probably via Dillon and then Independence Pass. Construction was begun immediately an an elaborate plan, dreamed up by UP Chief Engineer Jacob Blickenderfer, to connect Georgetown with Silver Plume.
That elaborate scheme was a line twisting, winding, and looping over itself in Clear Creek Canyon - what today we know as the Georgetown Loop. This plan essentially amounted to winding some 4.5 miles of trackage into a 2 mile linear space, mainly by looping back over itself. This is what leads us to the centerpiece of the Georgetown Loop - the Devil's Gate viaduct, a tall, curved, spindly iron trestle built over Clear Creek and the track below at a narrow point in the canyon (Devil's Gate). The bridge is 95 feet off the creek below, and is some 300 feet long, forming an 18.5 degree curve. The bridge arrived in pieces in September of 1883, and was up by November of that same year. However, due to incorrect assembly (two bents were reversed) as well as substandard rivetting, the bridge wasn't capable of service until February 1884.
In the process of building this ambitious extension, Union Pacific reorganized its narrow gauge system under a new name - the Georgetown, Breckenridge, and Leadville Railroad - and proceeded at once with survey and construction work. Even with the furious race to reach Leadville first, construction of the Loop took time. Due to various problems that are not fully understood, along with the significant construction problems with the bridge mentioned above, the first train didn't reach Silver Plume until March of 1884. The line was extended as far west as modern-day Bakerville in mid-1884 when the news hit - General Palmer's Rio Grande narrow gauge system was just about to tap Leadville, leaving UP's GB&L as at best the second railroad into town, or more likely the third. The Rio Grande's route, while longer (south from Leadville to Salida, then east along the Arkansas, through the Royal Gorge, and north from Pueblo to Denver) was nearly all water-level grade. Much straighter, fuel efficient, and faster than the GB&L ever could be, Palmer's route was superior in most ways. Also, another narrow gauge railroad from Denver - the Denver, South Park, and Pacific - would reach Leadville in 1887 via the South Platte Canyon and South Park. With this news, the impetus for extending the GB&L was lost, and so was interest in the project. Bakerville would forever be the end of the GB&L system.
As things would come out, there was no reason to cross the Divide. In 1890, both the GB&L through Georgetown and the Denver, South Park, and Pacific line to Leadville (and beyond) would be merged together into the Union Pacific, Denver, and Gulf. Even that was a stopgap for these small, failing railroads, and by 1899, UP was out of the narrow gauge business in Colorado. Control of the entire system passed to the Colorado & Southern.
The idea of the tourist dollar was never lost on UP nor on the new owner, the C&S. Both used the Devil's Gate bridge as a scenic cornerstone in advertising the line, and the C&S went as far as constructing tourist facilities in Silver Plume in the early 1900s, and connecting tramways provided an additional draw for tourists. While this succeeded for a while, by the late 1920s, passenger service was down to just a car or two on the regular mixed freight. The end of the route was closing in - by 30-Jan-1939, abandonment was official, and the line between Idaho Springs and Bakerville was ripped out that summer. Included in that was the scrapping of the original Devil's Gate bridge in June of 1939, and was actually one of the last things pulled up. By 1941, the entire former GB&L/CC system was gone - clipped back to the end of the standard gauge at Golden, with the final train running 4-May-1941.
Today, much what was the CC grade between Golden, CO, and the fork between the Blackhawk and Georgetown lines (near the junction of US 6 and Colorado 119 today) is buried under US Highway 6, or was obliterated in the highway's construction. Much of what existed between the fork and Georgetown is under I-70, buildings, or other side roads. The site of the proposed Continental Divide tunnel was very near what now is the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel on I-70. Leadville's mines are shut down, and it no longer has active rail service to the outside world (though a former C&S branch survives as the successful Leadville, Colorado & Southern tourist line). Everyone believed that the era of narrow gauge in the Clear Creek Canyon had passed into the archives of history, never to be revisited. However, I told you this was an odd little railroad...
The Colorado Historical Society and other interested parties began working to preserve the mining heritage of the Argentine District sometime in 1959, starting with the donation of some 100 acres around the site. Over the next decade, the CHS worked to acquire most of the old right-of-way and space necessary to rebuild the railroad. Finally, in 1972, five people (or at least the five that are often credited) - Lindsey and Rosa Ashby, Don Grace, Dick Huckeby and Dave Ropchan - started to seriously put together a plan to rebuild the line. By 1973, the two groups began working together, and the resources started to come together. UP, BN, and the Great Western all contributed materials to the project. The original Silver Plume depot was donated back to the Society and placed near its original location in south Silver Plume (Photo #2). The US Navy contributed labor, by way of training camps for their Mobile Construction Batallion (otherwise known as CBs, or SeaBees), who worked to install track and bridges. By 1975, the railroad had acquired various equipment and made its first revenue run down a mile and a half or so of track. In 1979, the line could go no further, having reached the south abutment of the chasm formerly spanned by the viaduct. At this point, it was time to figure out how to reconstruct the centerpiece of this line - the Loop bridge itself.
Thanks to hard work by individuals and the CHS, a million-dollar grant was made from the Boettcher Foundation for completing the line. Along with other grants, this gave just the funding needed to complete the loop project. In what has to be one of the oddest turns of events in narrow gauge railroading, the spectacular bridge was rebuilt true to the original (Photo #3) - started in June of 1983, and by 1-Jun-1984, the first train rolled across it. Within a few months, the railroad was complete to how it is today. This is the model on which the railroad is built - the property is owned by the Colorado Historical Society as part of their historic district, and the trains and operations are subcontracted out to another firm - the Georgetown Loop Railroad, a company put together by Mr. Ashby and his associates. Both parties have worked together since the beginning to make it the tremendous success it was. Remember that, it's important in part 2.
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This work is copyright 2004 by Nathan D. Holmes (firstname.lastname@example.org), but licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This allows and encourages others to copy, modify, use, and distribute my work, without the hassle of asking me for explicit permission or fear of copyright violation. I encourage others to consider CC or other Open Content-style licensing of their original works.
All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 10D with a Canon 28-105mm USM, a Canon 100-300mm USM, or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.