The Dotsero Cut-Off

The first survey work for a railroad along the Colorado River was made by the Denver, Utah & Pacific in 1880. Rumours have it, that David Moffat himself secretly planned this connection to the Rio Grande Railroad.

The Rio Grande itself did not like the idea as they feared that their long route from Denver to Pueblo in the South and back to Glenwood would be no match for a short, direct routing via the Moffat Road.

In 1924 when work started on the Moffat Tunnel, the Moffat Road immediately started buying land along the Dotsero Cutoff. Survey work was initiated. Soon a battle would erupt between the Moffat Road and its rival, the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande, itself also near bankruptcy, feared losing all freight traffic from Denver if the Moffat Road would build the connection. They threatened to not allow any Moffat train onto their tracks.

On the other hand, the State of Colorado, the main creditor to the bankrupt Moffat Road, was afraid the Moffat Road would never be able to pay back its debts if it would not have a connection to the west.

The Rio Grande tried to slow down construction of the cut-off and filed a protest with the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission). Several court battles followed and eventually the Rio Grande won. They would build the cut-off and the Moffat would have to allow Rio Grande freight trains onto their rails for a sum.

In 193,1 surveyors of the Rio Grande took to the task of determining the route through the canyon and ended up with a route 3 miles shorter than what the Moffat had planned (a fact the railroad took great pride in).  In autumn of 1932, construction started and the route was completed on June 15th 1934.

But the Moffat Road did not give up so easily. A little detail had been overlooked by the courts. The Moffat Road actually did not reach Denver. It ended at Utah Junction a few miles from Denver. Here a subsidy of the Moffat Road started, the “Northwestern Terminal Road”, a remnant from the days the Moffat had not been allowed into town by rival Union Pacific. The Northwestern Terminal Road fully owned by the Moffat Road, basically gave trackage rights to its parent but refused access to the Rio Grande !

A few days before inauguration of the Dotsero Cut-Off, an angry Bill Freeman of the Moffat Road  (and the Northwestern Terminal Road) found an old unpaid bill of the Rio Grande and thus denied the Rio Grande any access to the Moffat Route rails. As a “measure of safety”, the connecting switch to the Dotsero Cut-Off was welded shut.

The Rio Grande paid the bill that evening. When the representative handed over the small amount of money owed, he was told “just for information” that the Rio Grande would not be allowed to use their 3400 Class Mallets as they were too heavy for bridges and rails. The 2-8-8-2 Mallets formed the backbone of the Rio Grande freight roster. The alternative Consolidations would not be able to drag anything over the Moffat.  Even though the denial to the Mallets seems like a blow aimed at stopping the Rio Grande, it was not entirely untrue. The bankrupt Moffat Road was not able to put any money into maintaining bridges and rails.

At the same time, Mr. Freeman in his position as the President of the Northwestern Terminal announced a rate his free Northwestern Terminal Road would charge for transport of a Rio Grande freight train. This rate was absolutely overpriced.

Amidst all this fighting, the inauguration trains were fired up on June 16th for a big celebration in Bond.  The Moffat Road management forbade their employees any participation in the celebrations.

The first train, one of the famous shovelnose Budd self propelled cars arrived on time. Another special carrying Freeman arrived in Yarmony, from where the Moffat man wanted to watch the celebrations from a secure distance.

Two trains carrying officials of the Rio Grande, among them President Pyeatt, departed Denver using the “hostile“ Moffat rails.  Pyeatt was to hold a speech at Bond. The speech was to be broadcasted via radio for everyone to hear. This made it absolutely important for Mr. Pyeatt  to arrive on time.

For reasons unknown (or were they), the two trains had to stop at several sidings to wait for oncoming freight trains. On two occasions a coupler broke causing further delay. Then the water inside the tender of the steam engine was low. Stopping at a water tank, it was discovered that the water inside the tank had not been filled up. Was this coincidence, or was it all staged for the event ?

The trains arrived in Bond in the evening. It had started to rain and the celebrators had meanwhile gone home. True enough, Mr. Freeman had won this battle, but the hands of time could not be turned back. Moffat’s dream was now reality. His railroad was part of a transcontinental system.

This became further cemented when the Moffat Road was merged into the Rio Grande a few years later.

MP 129.30 Bond

Bond received its name from the word „to bond“ meaning to connect. This is where the rails of the Dotsero Cut-Off met the rails of the Moffat Road.

In the 1980s, this was a crew change point. In the 1990s, Bond lost its importance until after the UP merger crews were exchanged here once again (about 1997).

For those rail fans intending to follow the Dotsero Cut-Off by car: Highway 131 will make a sharp "S-curve" and slope uphill. After passing through McCoy turn left onto Colorado 301 (also known as River Road), which is a well maintained dirt track towards Burns and Dotsero. After about a mile, the road runs parallel to the railroad tracks, sometimes as close as a yard.

Eventually, you will reach a grade crossing which will give you a nice shot of an eastbound train coming up the mountain. Near the grade crossing is a campground and a picnic area.

The dirt road will then turn uphill away from the tracks and pass over a plateau before rejoining the valley after about 3 miles. When driving back into the valley, look to your right for another nice photo of a westbound train rounding the curve down below.

The scenery is breathtaking and there are hundreds of photo locations. Unfortunately, trains are pretty fast here, so the method of chasing a train is not possible. Keep in mind, there are small settlements here and children may be playing on the road, so adjust your speed accordingly.

MP 131.20  Yarmony Tunnel   Length: 647ft

MP 142.10 Dell Siding   Length: 7420ft

MP 144.60 Burns

The Colorado Road 39 branches off here. There are a few houses and some trees and the place is really beautiful. In 2000 the railroad bridge still carried the Rio Grande lettering on it, one that UP had forgotten to paint over.

MP 155.20 Range Siding Length: 7720ft

The road is paved from here onwards but dips make fast driving impossible.

MP 158.00 Sweetwater

MP 159.20 Sweetwater Tunnel Length: 1115ft

This is an interesting tunnel through a rock formation. Both portals are protected against rockslides by alarm fences and wooden lining. The road curves away at this location so you will be able to have a good view of both portals.

MP 166.80 Dotsero Junction, Siding Length: 6150ft

This is the place where the Rio Grande started surveying the Dotsero Cut-Off. Surveyors named the place Dot Zero (staring point) on their maps and railroaders turned this into "Dotsero".

You can wait here for a long eastbound coal train which you might be able to follow up to East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel. The River Road meets I-70 here which leads to Denver in one direction and to Glenwood Springs / Grand Junction in the other.

The railroad used to join Rio Grande’s Tennessee Pass line here. Unfortunately, Union Pacific ceased operations over the high altitude pass in 1996, however they left the rails intact and perform occasional maintenance work. The future of Tennessee Pass looks uncertain. Therefore all westbound trains now turn down the valley through the spectacular Glenwood Canyon, whilst all trains coming from the canyon will go over Dotsero Cut-Off and the Moffat.

Since this used to be the Rio Grande Tennessee Pass mainline, the miles are counted from Denver via Pueblo over Tennessee Pass. This explains the gap in milepost numbers.



Last Update: Mar 1st 2008

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Dotsero Cutoff