Constructing the Moffat Route - A Quick DNW&P History

In 1902, the city of Denver was well connected into the rail network, with one exception. Any westbound traffic either went north via the Union Pacific to Wyoming and then over the Continental Divide, or went south via the Denver & Rio Grande to Pueblo, where it passed west either via Marshall Pass and the narrow gauge, or up and over Tennessee Pass on the standard gauge. The missing link was a line straight west from Denver and over the Divide to the communities of the western slope of the Rockies. In a way, the Denver, South Park, & Pacific had almost achieved this, passing west along the South Platte and reaching the west side at points such as Dillon, but the DSP&P wasn't exactly a serious competitor. First, it was narrow gauge, never designed for heavy tonnage nor to connect into the standard gauge network. Secondly, it crossed no less than three high mountain passes on its trip west - east to west: Kenosha, Boreas, Fremont, and then through the Collegiate Range via the Alpine Tunnel. It could barely be kept open in the winter, and terminated in the middle of nowhere - northwest of Gunnison, CO. Standard gauge traffic going via the Rio Grande had to travel at least 200 miles further than necessary as it was routed down to Pueblo and then via the Royal Gorge and Leadville (and Tennessee Pass, with its 10,500 ft. Divide crossing, was no joy to keep open in the winter, either). A better solution was needed.

Ever the Colorado railroad visionary, David Moffat proposed a Denver-Salt Lake mainline in 1902 that would pass directly west from Denver, through the main range of the Rockies in a great tunnel, and then west through Bond, Steamboat Springs, and Craig before heading through barren northeastern Utah into Salt Lake City. The road would be founded as the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railroad. The real challenge with this was how to get through the backbone of the mountains. West of Denver (elevation 5280 ft., roughly), the base of the main range was only 45 miles west and over 4000 feet higher. Assuming a straight shot, that's still a 1.7 percent grade, nearing the 2.0-2.2 percent considered a reasonable maximum for any mainline standard gauge railway. However, the rise along the line's path was far from linear.

The Flatirons - massive near-vertical, upthrust plates of rock forming the front of the Front Range - marked a significant challenge in maintaining the desired grade. Following the Leyden mesa up from downtown Denver, a reasonable grade could be maintained as far as the Flatirons (near what today is Rocky siding). At that point, two large, tight curves were needed to bring the line up out of the draw it had followed to the base of the great front of the Rockies. These, both being 10 degree curves, eventually became known as the Big 10 Curves that continue in service to this day.

From there, it was a battle for every vertical foot, and two different engineers came up with two different proposals. The original proposal, put together by Moffat's chief engineer from his narrow guage electric railroad TJ Milner, was to run up to the mouth of Coal Creek Canyon (probably somewhere around the current Colorado 72 bridge) and then bore a tunnel slightly over a mile long into South Boulder Canyon, bypassing the worst part of both canyons. Shortly afterwords, H.A. Sumner stepped in with a competing proposal - build up the Flatirons and follow Boulder Canyon the entire way. The route would provide the coveted 2 percent maximum grade, but would require around 30 small or medium-sized tunnels to bore through ridges in both the Flatirons and in South Boulder Canyon.

Sumner's route was eventually chosen due to its better grade as well as its less severe curvature. Ridgway, Moffat's chosen General Manager, apparently preferred Sumner's route because he felt that operations would be easier on a long, steady, mostly open grade rather than trying to run up an opposing grade and probably needing to use pushers out of Denver. In the age of steam, being in a tunnel was bad enough. Being in a pusher inside a lengthy bore was intolerable at best and potentially deadly if the train stalled out for any reason. The 6000 ft. bore proposed by Milner was patently impractical for the era.

Once the route was surveyed, grading, boring, and tracklaying proceeded quite quickly considering the terrain. At that point, the foot of the main range of mountains lay only a few miles to the west. At this point, the greatest challenge of them all sat ahead - how to breach the main range. Moffat's railroad had no real source of income in its current form - only the tourists who would pay for day trips out and back, which clearly would fall off in short order. It needed through the range, but due to sources of investment capital being turned off back east of Harriman's interests (in order kill off a potential competitor to his Union Pacific), Moffat had only enough money left to either complete the tunnel or to possibly (with a great amount of stretching) get the rails to a potential source of paying carloads - the resort at Hot Sulphur Springs and the coal mines near Phippsburg. Without additional investment, one or the other could be completed, but not both.

Even if the so-called Main Range Tunnel was not prohibitively expensive, it would take at least several years to complete. For a railroad with no real revenue source, a couple of years is a very long time to be drilling an incredibly expensive tunnel. Even the shortest (and by Moffat's surveys, the only seriously considered) proposed Main Range bore was still 2.6 miles, and that was at an elevation just a hair under 10,000 ft - starting just west of Ladora. The decision was made to build a cheap and quick branch from Ladora over Rollins Pass, cresting at 11,660 feet. The line would not be built to DNW&P mainline standards, because it wasn't the mainline and it was only temporary. Four percent grades and sharp curvature were not only allowed, but in fact the norm on this temporary diversion.

Even while the problems with the Main Range bore and the diversion over Rollins were being decided, surveying was continuing along the proposed route further west. Sumner and crew were working through the next major challenge along the route - Gore Canyon, between Kremmling and what is now Bond. Steep, unstable, and unforgiving terrain was surveyed in the Winter of 1903 - a nearly insane feat, but a testiment to the devotion to get the line pushed through to a stable source of freight.

UP's Harriman, unable to keep Moffat from building by denying him investors, took to a new tactic. The entire Gore Canyon area was claimed by the New Century Light and Power Company (a shill company of Harriman's), which intended to dam it for hydroelectric purposes. This would submerge the proposed right of way under potentially a hundred feet of water or more, leaving Moffat's road to either throw in the towel or build over yet another summit in the Gore Mountains on the north side of the canyon. Fortunately, the Burlington had surveyed a potential route through the canyon years earlier in the 1880s as part of the Colorado Railroad project, and still had the deed from that experiment. Even this did not solve the issue, and the matter dragged on through the courts.

On 23-Jun-1904, a little under two years after the incorporation of the DNW&P, rails had reached a point designated as Mammoth, where modern day Tolland sits. By 2-Sep-1904, locomotive 300 and three passenger coaches crested the Divide on the Rollins Pass diversion to a location now known as Corona, aka "Top of the World". By 28-Sep-1904, the rails had reached Arrowhead on the west side of the Divide, and with it the first regular revenue freight trains were run. Reports are that 185 cars of cattle and six cars of lumber came out of Arrowhead, partially helped by a road the railroad had built from Arrow down into settlements in the Fraser Valley below.

Only a month later, the DNW&P got its first taste of what winter could do on Rollins. On 19-Oct-1904, a passenger train became stuck in a 20 ft. drift for over a full day. Snowsheds were under construction, but they were not completed in time for the early arrival of winter at these elevations. The DNW&P didn't even have a snowplow yet in 1904 - a borrowed Colorado Midland plow was used to reopen the line during that first winter of operations. Their first plow, a 36-ft rotary built by ALCO, arrived in early January of 1905. Even it could not deal with the severity of the Pass, though, as its mechanism was torn to shreds upon hitting a rocky avalanche on its first trip up the hill. It was hauled back to Denver and rebuilt with a stronger mechanism and heavier blades, but winter continued to plague the new railroad, shutting down the Rollins Pass line at every possible opportunity.

By August of 1905, rails had reached Hot Sulphur Springs, CO, 110 miles from Denver proper. On the twenty first of that month, Moffat himself rolled into town on board a special train, along with a few prominent guests. Winter hit the pass in September, but due to luck and better preparedness, the DNW&P kept the line open. It was reliable enough that by November, they had tri-weekly trains running from Denver to Hot Sulphur Springs.

The resolution to the Gore Canyon issue started to take hold over a year later, in April of 1905 when Pres. Teddy Roosevelt, on a hunting trip to Colorado, was informed of the problem. Moffat and most of the backers of the Moffat Road were prominent Republicans, and let it be known at a Denver fundraiser that they'd like the Department of the Interior to back off on the dam issue. With this pressure from his Republican base, the President put an end to the problem for good on 9-October-1905, when the Dept. of the Interior was told in no uncertain terms to drop the proposal. Thus Moffat had won the battle, and it was said he kept a statue of Roosevelt on his desk from that day forward. With the rails already pushing through Byers Canyon west of Hot Sulphur, Gore Canyon was quickly becoming an issue. With the rights resolved, the grade was complete partway through Gore by the close of 1905.

By the close of 1906, the Moffat Road had only a bit over 100 miles of trackage to show for its four years of existance, pathetically little business, and was financially destitute. In addition, while it had many miles of quality mainline, it had the hideously expensive Rollins Pass to operate, which regularly drained off any meager profits that the railroad might accumulate during the more temperate months. Moffat himself, having pumped his personal fortune into the line upon being unable to find investors, was nearly broke as well. By 1907, the rails had only reached Yarmony, far short of any of the natural resources (coal, oil, gilsonite) that were projected as stable revenue sources.

Thanks in no small part to a group of investors, lead by David Dodge, finances were provided to continue the line. In September of 1908, rails finally reached the first online resource - the coal fields near Oak Creek and Yampa. By January 1909, the railway had progressed to Steamboat Springs, but shortly after that, the line was once again out of money.

Little more of note happened on the DNW&P until one fateful day in 1911. On 18-Mar-1911, David Moffat unexpectedly passed on, leaving the railroad without its visionary. His vice president, William Evans, quickly stepped forth into the leadership role, but one of Colorado's railroading leaders was gone regardless. Despite the dark hour, an odd stroke of fortune landed in the railroad's direction when Colorado Rep. Gaines Allen proposed a bill to have the State of Colorado construct a five mile Main Range tunnel, on the condition that the railroad sign a long term lease. Unfortunately, the governor at the time, a gentleman named Shafroth, failed to sign the bill, which automatically made the issue a public referendum. In the election of September 1912, the bill failed miserably, and the railroad's hopes of eliminating Rollins Pass were dashed.

Earlier that year, on 1-May-1912, another horrible blow befell the line. Unable to service its debt, the line was thrown into receivership under David Dodge, and Pres. Evans was replaced with Newman Erb from Minnesota. The investors realized that the only way to possibly salvage their investment was to continue Moffat's vision. In early December 1912, a contract was let to extend the railroad from Steamboat to Craig in order to tap many of the coal fields along the route. However, in January 1913, the railroad underwent yet another reorganization, at least on paper, due to the more delinquent debt payments. By April 30, 1913, the reorganization had completed, and the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific lapsed into history. From that point forward, the line would be the Denver & Salt Lake Railroad, reflecting the original ambitions of David Moffat carried forward.

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  Last modified on January 24, 2006, at 08:03 PM
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