Black Cyn Route Facts
After crossing Marshall Pass, the goal of the Denver & Rio Grande was still to stretch westward to Grand Junction and eventually connect on to Salt Lake. Fortunately, after reaching Gunnison, CO, all that was necessary was to follow the Gunnison River west to where it meets the Colorado River (or as it was called at that time, the Grand River). As the construction crews started west in August of 1881, the first few miles were relatively easy going.
However, about 25 miles beyond Gunnison, the South Fork of the Gunnison River plunges into a deep chasm in the earth, ominously known as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison due to its steep sides that deny light to the bottom. If the river could be followed, it would lead to a much shorter route to Grand Junction. However, much past the side canyon where Crystal (aka Cimarron) Creek pours into the river, the canyon became too rough for nearly everything, especially railroad building. Despite Palmer's desire to follow the Black Canyon of the Gunnison through its entire length, the men on the scene were certain that anything below Crystal Creek would be incredibly difficult and costly to construct, so the grade diverged and followed the creek out of the gorge.
Cutting around the deep chasm wasn't simple, either. Crystal Creek climbs away from the river in a narrow side canyon, leading up to a fairly large valley. To the east lay nearly impassible mesas and minor summits, successfully avoided by the railroad thus far. However, to the west lay just one more before Montrose - the 8660 ft. Cerro Summit. It was at this brief point of rest in the line that the town of Cimarron was created. In the narrow gauge era, acted as a helper terminal at the eastern base of Cerro, as well as providing stock loading facilities for local cattle ranchers and shepherds.
After leaving Cimarron, the line needed to climb a reasonably short but sustained 4% grade over Cerro Summit. Really, Cerro Summit is nothing more than a high, treeless ridge, not at all spectacular by D&RG standards.
This section would be the first part the narrow gauge main to be broken. Other parts had been standard gauged with 3' service discontinued, but the route itself was intact all the way from Denver. In 1949, with track conditions nearly impassible, the route over Cerro Summit east as far as Sapinero was abandoned. The stub on the Montrose end, from Montrose to the western base of Cerro, converted into the narrow gauge Cedar Creek Branch (last used in Nov 1952 and abandoned in 1953). Only four years later in 1953, the rest of the former narrow gauge main east of Sapinero would be officially approved for abandonment and pulled two years after that.
Exploring the Line Today
The Canyon is now nothing like it was in Rio Grande days. Two dams now flood most of the canyon that the D&RG/D&RGW passed through. Blue Mesa Dam, located about a mile below old Sapinero and completed in 1966, floods the canyon nearly all the way back to Gunnison when the reservoir is full, covering both the main and the lower Lake City Branch. Further down, the Morrow Point Dam (completed 1968) floods everything from just above the Crystal Creek exit back to to Blue Mesa Dam. This was the most scenic section, including such features as the Curecanti Needle, and looks much different today with the water level several hundred feet higher.
The Crystal Creek Bridge and part of the Cimarron facilities have been preserved by the National Park Service as part of the Black Canyon National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area. In addition, some rolling stock and the stock pens have been preserved at Cimarron. To the west, the grade over Cerro Summit can be seen pretty well from US 50.
Black Canyon / Cerro Summit Route Timetable