History of Rio Grande's Tennessee Pass

Part of the "Wild West" surely was exploring the riches offered by Colorado. These included ore, coal, silver and gold.

To help this process the Rio Grande Railroad started to build railroads in 1870 ,mostly narrow gauge railroads leading to mining camps. The RG was just one of the many railroad companies spinning a web of purpose built narrow gauge lines, some of which had quite adventurous ways of conquering the steep mountains of Colorado.

Since a transcontinental line already existed to the North (Union Pacific), the idea was to build a line southwards from Denver via Pueblo to Mexico City.
When the tracks reached Pueblohowever, all dreams were destroyed by the Santa Fe which beat the Rio Grande to it by building a line over Raton Pass. So one decided to continue wet from Pueblo to reach the mining camps in the Rocky Mountains and connect them to Denver.

In 1880 a narrow gauge line through the Royal Gorge was completed, a deep canyon reaching Leadville a major mining community. In 1881 another narrow gauge line was built from Leadville to Red Cliff, called the Eagle River Branch, basically continuing the Rio Grande line but being hastily constructed with obviously no thought of usage for long time. This line ended in the middle of nowhere, in a narrow canyon no place for a railroad station but a good place to load ore. Nobody at that time knew or would have believed that this line would once become part of a transcontinental railroad line.

In 1886 another railroad company, the Colorado Midland started to build a branchline from Leadville to Aspen where a new silver mine had opened. Remarkably the line was build in standard gauge. Plans were made to continue the line to the north west and connect with the Rio Grande Western in Grand Junction.
This would have been the end for the Rio Grande RR, as a narrow gauge line would never be able to compete with the standard gauge Colorado Midland connecting to a major hub.

Quite aware of this fact the Rio Grande RR started to build a line from Glenwood Springs to Aspen arriving there two months before the Colorado Midland did. At the same time a installation of athird rail was started from Pueblo west towards Leadville, making standard gauge traffic possible.

This way the Rio Grande saved itself from being destroyed by competition from the Colorado Midland.
Both railroads continued buiding their lines towards Grand Junction and soon they reached De Beque Canyon which was too narrow to hold two railroads. But the two companies agreed on a solution and built a standard gauge line through the canyon which was completed by 1890 and operated by a company named Grand Junction Railroad, owned by both companies.
In Grand Junction the railroads connected to the Rio Grande Western, which had been converted to standard gauge recently.

Soon the Rio Grande convert to standard gauge. The section of the Eagle River Branch however was deemed to be to narrow to convert, so the route was realigned and rebuild with narrow gauge. Shortly before completion the RG changed its mind again and readjusted this stretch to standard gauge after all.

This completed the transcontinental route over Tennessee Pass, starting at Denver south to Pueblo and then via Grand Junction to Salt Lake City and Ogden. Looking at the adventurous routing however makes it clear that this line was not feared by any of its competitors.
This does not mean however that the line was not profitable. The many mines along the right of way meant good business and brought a lot of money to the Rio Grande.

This money was not put to good use however. Whilst the Union Pacific and the Santa Fe used their profits to modernize existing lines the Rio Grande tried to pursue futile plans to construct a line from coast to coast. Thus the tracks and installations slowly became obsolete, signalling was non existant and the line was unable to handle the traffic it could have had as sidings were too few for a non signal operation.
After the first world war modernisation finally hit the Rio Grande when heavier rail was installed and some of the route was realigned to increase the curve radius. Signalling was also introduced thanks to President J.S.Pyeatt who gave the modernisation boost to the RG. He ordered new locomotives and double tracked most of the line.

By 1930 the Rio Grnade had become a serious competitior but 1930 was also the year the great depression started. The Rio Grande had spent all the cash reserves it had had and was unable to cope with the decline in revenue.

In 1933 the Rio Grande was bancrupt. At the same time a new route had been completed also at the cost of bancrupy, by the Denver & Salt Lake Railway: The Moffat route.

The two railroads were merged into the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad and the Dotsero Cutoff was built to connect the two lines. Now the Rio Grande had a truly competitve line from Denver were it connected to the CB&Q and the Rock Island via the Moffat Route and Dotsero to Grand Junction and Salt Lake City. Since this connection seemed so much better, soon it was only the Moffat Route which benefited from cash injections whilst the Tennessee Pass Line was left orphan. CTC was introduced on the Moffat whilst the Tennessee Pass was single tracked again in 1958.
By 1983 talks were openly held on closing down Tennessee Pass. The Rio Grande had suffered too many setbacks and was undr financial pressure. Could it afford two parallel lines ? The reasons for keeping Tennessee Pass open were few: Loose coal revenue from the many mines along the way, be unable to compete with the Santa Fe on transcontinental traffic from the south as detouring from Pueblo via Denver would mean more than 120 miles on top.

In 1985 Philip Anschutz took over the Rio Grande and in 1988 the dwarf Rio Grande bought the giant Southern Pacific leaving SP its name, livery and corporate identity though. Since the SP fought in bitter competition with the Burlington Northern Denver once again became an important point on the map because it was here that empty cars were exchanged. The same year the Tennessee Pass aspects looked brighter than ever. The line was completely refurbished, new ties and rail were laid and tunnels widened to accomodate double stack container cars. When everything was complete the Tennessee Pass route was officially part of the Southern Pacifics transcontinental gateway from California to Pueblo.

Everything seemed fine but in 1993 Edward Moyers arrived at SP, former President of the Illinois Central. He realized that in the view of growing competition surplus lines would have to be given up. Two parallel lines across the Rockies would be too costly to operate. The choice was the Moffat Route. The main reason was that trains do not have to climb as high on it as the 10000 ft Tennesse Pass. This decision lingered on for some years but nothing happened until 1995. It was the merger of the Santa Fe with the Burlington Northern that forced the Southern Pacific to find a mighty partner aswell which it did with the Union Pacific.

Since geographically speaking the Union Pacific has the most efficient line and the cheapest coal at Powder River Basin this also meant the death throw for the Tennessee Pass Line on the short run if not for the entire Rio Grande in the long run.

Soon the decision was made final to tear down the Tennessee Pass line. Trains  stopped runnning over it in 1998. All freight and intermodal traffic was rerouted via the UP. Only coal traffic originating in Rio Grande territory still runs over Moffat Route aswell as some trackage right trains by BNSF.

Initially it was planned to remove the tracks from the Line and make it a recreational bicycle road. However as of 2003 most of the rails are still in place and rumors are frequently surfacing, mixed with wishfull thinking that the line will be reopened. Whenever an inspection train or a locomtive collecting a few cars appears anywhere on Tennessee Pass, it is instantly spotted and subject to wild speculations and guessing in various fan circles. However in 2003 a new bridge was constructed - an expensive concrete bridge. Again this leads to speculations. personally I think UP is leaving the line intact in case it can be needed or sold at some point.

The Rio Grande has always been a survivor. Has it not survived numerous bancrupcies and hard times so far ? Let us all hope it will continue to do so for a long time.


Last Update: Mar 1st 2008

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History Of Tennesse Pass