North Fork Branch Facts
The North Fork Branch was constructed in 1902 as a 43 mile narrow gauge branch by the Rio Grande Railroad, a subsidiary of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad? organized in 1900. The branch ran from the D&RG's narrow gauge mainline (via Marshall Pass and the Black Canyon) at Delta, CO, eastward up the North Fork of the Gunnison to Somerset. The route was built to tap coal deposits up at the east end of line, with the side benefit of serving the agricultural regions up and down the valley.
Since the D&RG had already completed its standard gauge route over Tennessee Pass, management realized that standard gauging would come swiftly to the North Fork. The route was laid on standard gauge ties and built to standard gauge standards, and indeed was converted only four years after construction, in 1906. The route was extended in 1929 another two miles beyond Somerset to reach Oliver, a loadout for the Hawksnest Mine.
The route continues today as one of the most important parts of the former Rio Grande system. Thanks to increased demand for Colorado coal due to increased energy needs and the Clean Air Act, mines in the North Fork continue to produce coal at a record pace. Today, the entire line from Grand Junction to beyond Somerset is considered UP's North Fork Branch, with the original mainline southward considered the Montrose Branch (or Montrose Industrial Lead).