A note: While I consider everything from the Cuchara Junction? (1876-1937) / Walsenburg? (1937-present) connection to the north-south line to logically be part of the La Veta Pass route, the Rio Grande didn't think like this. Instead, they considered La Veta the division point, with Pueblo-La Veta being Subdivision 8 and La Veta-Alamosa to be Subdivision 10. Walsenburg to Trinidad (via the C&S) was Subdivision 9. This worked from a crew planning and train perspective, but doesn't really work well when trying to geographically understand the system.
The route via La Veta had been considered since the earliest days of the Denver & Rio Grande. Palmer's primary objective, building south towards El Paso and the Mexican border, was to be reached via the line south to Trinidad and then up and over Raton Pass. However, this route wasn't assured - it was possible that the Santa Fe would build through the pass first, effectively blocking the Grande. So, Palmer decided to build westward as well in 1876. The line was both a feeder to tap the mineral and agricultural markets in the San Luis (and beyond) and a backup plan. Should the Raton Pass? crossing fail, the line would simply build southward from Alamosa, following the Rio Grande (river) all the way to the Mexican border and El Paso.
The original narrow gauge route departed the original D&RG north-south mainline at Cuchara Junction?, about six miles east of where Interstate 25 crosses over US 160 / Colorado Hwy 10 today. The line proceeded west along the Cuchara River, through Walsenburg? to the division point of La Veta, CO?, at the base of the mountains. From here, the narrow gauge went north, roughly following the current US 160 alignment, broke away from where the modern road is about a mile short of the summit to cross South La Veta Pass at 9380 feet (the new highway uses North La Veta Pass), and then followed Sangre de Cristo Creek down from the pass to (old) Russell and Fort Garland, where it made a straight shot across the valley to Alamosa.
With the north-south main having been dual-gauged in 1888 and then having the narrow-gauge third rail pulled in 1890, it was only a matter of time until the line over La Veta was also standard-gauged. Standard gauge rails had been extended as far as La Veta, CO, by 1894, and if the pass and line to Alamosa weren't also converted, there was just too much traffic going in and out of the valley that had to be transloaded at La Veta. However, the old narrow gauge alignment between La Veta on the east and just beyond Russell on the west was unsuitable for standard gauge track - too steep with 4% grades, and too many sharp curves.
As a result, a new, lower-grade was completed in 1899 across what is commonly known as Veta Pass, about nine miles south of the original mountain crossing and about 100 feet lower, at 9,242 ft above sea level. The new grade diverged from the old narrow gauge route just west of La Veta and followed Middle Creek up towards the summit. On the west side, the route followed Wagon Creek (aka Wagon Wheel Creek) down, rejoining the original alignment just below Russell, CO - where the tracks rejoin US Hwy 160 today, since the highway is built on the old narrow gauge alignment.
The old narrow gauge route between Russell and La Veta? was largely torn up in 1901, except for a section on the west side between the Placer Spur junction near Russell and where the new mainline rejoined the old route. Much of the track material and the summit turntable went to the Crestone Branch, which was under construction at the time.1
The Veta Pass Route is one of the least explored and least accessible sections of the standard gauge Rio Grande network. Most of the route is away from even the most primitive of roads or inside the Forbes Trinchera Ranch, closing off access to most.
There was some amount of mining activity along the line. Near the east end, the D&RG/D&RGW Loma Branch diverged from the route at Walsenburg?, running northwest to a series of coal mines. The original narrow gauge line over La Veta Pass connected to the Placer Spur (aka the Grayback Branch) near Russell?. Once it was replaced by the newer standard gauge route, two more branches were spawned - the Tropic Branch and the Reliance Branch, both coming off the route near La Veta? to serve coal mines.
In addition to the D&RG/D&RGW spurs, the narrow gauge Trinchera Estates Railroad? connected near the loop atop Veta Pass, running south to various logging facilities and a mill at the far end of the line. Also, between 1902 and 1909, the narrow gauge Bald Mountain Railroad connected at old Occidental, ran down and across Middle Creek, and then back up the north side to servce the Occidental Mines. The total length was about two miles between the D&RG interchange and the mine.
In 1911, 20 years after standard gauging the Rio Grande's original Pueblo-Trinidad line, the section from Cuchara Jct?. north to Pueblo was replaced in function by a new, improved double track line, constructed and operated jointly by the C&S and D&RG. The actual D&RG line itself was removed in sections, first being severed in 1924 and the last section - between Lascar and Cuchara Jct - being removed in 1932. The Pueblo-Trinidad line south from Cuchara Jct?. to Trinidad? lasted a few more years, not being removed until the 1936-1937 timeframe and the D&RGW then reaching Trinidad via C&S trackage rights south of Walsenburg. After these changes were made, the line over La Veta left the joint trackage at Walsenburg, just as it does today.
The line passed from the Rio Grande to the Southern Pacific as part of the merger in 1988, and then to Union Pacific in 1996. On 29-Jun-2003, the La Veta Pass line, along with the rest of the San Luis Valley Lines (the Antonito Branch and the Creede Branch), were purchased by RailAmerica from UP and made into the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad, a shortline. They continued the same basic operations as UP, running over Veta Pass largely at night. During December of 2005, the San Luis & Rio Grande was sold to Iowa Pacific Holdings, LLC. and Permian Basin Railways, but operations remain largely unchanged.
La Veta Pass Route Timetable (Standard Gauge, 1899-Present)
1 The Railroad Telegrapher, Feb 1908, p. 320 ⇑