Aspen Branch Facts
The Aspen Branch was constructed in 1886-1887 as the narrow gauge tail end of a new extension on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad?'s Tennessee Pass line. The route had already reached Rock Creek, approximately two miles north of Red Cliff, by 1882. An 1886 silver boom near Aspen, CO?, triggered a race between the D&RG and the Colorado Midland to see who could reach the new mining region first. For the Rio Grande, an extension of the Tennessee Pass line down the Grand River to Glenwood Springs, CO?, and then up the Roaring Fork River to Aspen was the easiest alignment. All 104 miles were completed by November 1887, beating the Colorado Midland to Aspen by nearly three months.
In only three short years, the Aspen Branch would truly be a branch, and the 41 mile tail end from Glenwood Springs, CO?, to Aspen, CO?, would fall significantly in importance. Realizing that standard gauge would be the way forward, the route over Tennessee Pass was chosen to be converted into the D&RG's new standard gauge route across the mountains. By late 1890, the entire route, including the Aspen Branch, was widened to standard gauge, and through trains continued west from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction and Salt Lake on the new Rio Grande Junction Railway.
The branch did a booming business for the first five years, until the Silver Panic of 1893 did in most of the precious metals mining. Some small scale mining did continue through the first two decades of the twentieth century, but nowhere near what the railroads had anticipated. The branch continued on, carrying local freight all the way to Aspen until 1968, when the the branch was cut back to an iron ore loadout at Woody Creek, CO?. Ore shipments ceased around 1986-1987, and the service on the line was cut back again to the Mid-Continent Resources(formerly Mid-Continent Coal & Coke) coal loadout at Carbondale, CO?.
The last significant operation on the branch ended in January 1991, when Geneva Steel-bound coal trains stopped loading at Carbondale, CO?. Infrequent operation continued to Orrison Distributing, a beer distributor about five miles south of the wye at Glenwood, and periodically to deliver a car of magnesium chloride for the Colorado Department of Transportation at Carbondale. By 1995, the railroad had convinced all customers to switch to trucks except for Orrison Distributing, often transloading cargo at Glenwood Springs.
Beyond the Rio Grande
On 30-Jun-1997, the Southern Pacific? (successor to the Rio Grande) sold the branch for $8.3 million to the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority (RFRHA). Their purpose was to maintain the corridor for future commuter rail and trail use. They even went as far as demonstrating commuter rail with a Siemens RegioSprinter making a handful of runs from Glenwood Springs to Carbondale in 1996.
The RFRHA was folded into the Roaring Fork Transit Authority in 2001. Further talk of commuter rail was virtually non-existent, despite continually worsening traffic conditions on parallel Colorado Highway 82. Instead, in 2004 the RFTA committed to completing a trail from Emma (south of Carbondale) to Glenwood Springs by 2010. As they had insufficient funding to complete the trail, particularly with the added cost of building it while preserving the railway, the RFTA set their sights on abandonment, removal of the existing rail elements, and conversion of the actual rail grade into the trail.
Due to public pressure against scrapping, the RFTA put out one final RFP for potential operators on 31-Jan-2005. There was one response - Iowa Pacific Holdings (parent company to the San Luis & Rio Grande, which did not exist at the time of the RFP response) submitted a proposal to create the "Glenwood Carbondale & Rio Grande". They wanted to lease the railroad between Glenwood and Carbondale to operate a year-round tourist line, as well as to handle any freight traffic that might arise. However, on 14-Apr-2005, the RFTA voted to reject the proposal outright, without any response.
Salvage of the section between Orrison Distributing and the end of track at Woody Creek was started in late May 2006 by Tie Yard of Omaha, NE. The RFTA was paid $1.6 million for the remains of the branch. By late summer 1996, all but the first few miles of the Aspen Branch passed into history, and contrary to continued statements about corridor preservation, will likely never again see rail traffic.
(Personal note: In light of how well Iowa Pacific Holdings has done with their tourist operations on the San Luis & Rio Grande, it's a shame their proposal wasn't given serious consideration by the RFTA.)
Aspen Branch Map
See a map of the Aspen Branch and associated railroads.