Denver to Salt Lake City - The Moffat Road

The story of the Moffat Route of the Denver & Rio Grande Western begins in 1860 with a man called David Moffat. Moffat, aged 21 viewed Colorado as a land of endless opportunity. Coming from New York he started up in Denver with a bookstore. Soon he changed to banking.
There he started to invest in silver mines making him a Millionaire by the time he turned 40. Soon Moffat got interested in railroads. He became a board member with the Denver & Rio Grande and just two years later, aged 45 he became president of the company. He soon made himself a name by making tough decisions. When the Denver & Rio Grande refused to build a line to the silver mines of Creede, Moffat built it himself and made a fortune. When word came around that there were findings of gold in Cripple Creek, Moffat again built a railroad from his own funds and made a lot of money.
But Moffat wanted something more than that: A new mainline railroad across the Rocky Mountains. He found it unacceptable, that his trains had to travel 120 miles south to Pueblo until turning west over Tenessee Pass for Salt Lake City.
Moffat left the Rio Grande board of directors in 1891, when it became clear they did not approve of his idea.
Eleven years later in 1902 Moffat was back on track, proclaiming he would build the mainline from his own money. The tracks would cross north east Colorado, the Wasatch Mountains and reach Salt Lake City for connection with the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railway. The name of his venture would be Denver, Northwestern & Pacific or in short Moffat Road.
Only months later about 4000 men started work at South Boulder Canyon west of Denver, laying tracks towards Tolland. 29 tunnels had to be build to cross this difficult territory. The line continued over Rollins Pass. However this was seen as a temporary solution right from the start as Rollins is more than 11000ft high. As soon as the railroad had been completed funds were to be made available for construction of a 6 mile tunnel thus avoiding the climb over Rollins.
West of Rollins Pass the tracks followed the Fraser River and ended in Yarmony, Co in the middle of nowhere. This is where Moffats money ended, he had spent his entire fortune of 9 mio $. The cost for construction had been much higher than anticipated and Rollins Pass had been very costly to operate because of snow and avalanches.
However Moffat was convinced that he would at least find investors for his tunnel. But potential money donators where driven away by the high operating cost of the line, the lack of traffic and the allmighty competition of Union Pacific and Southern Pacific. Finally Moffat's friends put up 1.5 Mio $. This however did not last for very long.The line was continued to Steamboat Springs where the Yampa coal fields are. In this territory 1.5 Mio $ is not a very large sum of money.

The next seven years saw only occasional traffic: One mixed passenger/freight per day and in the summertime occasional excursion trains, hardly enough to justify a line as expensive and long as the Moffat Road. Finally coal traffic from Yampa started to pick up but it was to late for David Moffat. He died in 1911. One year later the Moffat Road went into bancrupcy.

The firm was reorganized in 1913 as the Denver & Salt Lake RR and the line extended to Craig. Here the tracks ended once again in the middle of nowhere, 300 Miles west of Denver but still far away from destination Salt Lake. Only months later bancrupcy once again ceased the Moffat Road and it vanished into obscurity for almost 20 years.

At the beginning of the 1930s it reappeared as part of the Rio Grande RR. The citizens of Denver this time gave their money, 18 Mio $ in all to resurrect the railroad. Finally the Moffat tunnel was constructed, 6 Miles long, eliminating the tedious crossing of Rollins pass. Half way between Denver and Craig a cutoff was build, leading to the route between Pueblo and Salt Lake at Bond. If Yampa Valley would not have been rich with coal over 130 miles would have been build for nothing. The Moffat Route was integrated into the Denver & Rio Grande Western in 1947 and the "mainline" to Carig became just a siding to the coal fields.

Since the end of World War II the fortune of the Denver & Rio Grande Western has been closely linked to the demand in coal. Coal has become the main load on the line. Traffic dropped to a critical low, when the City of Denver changed its heating from coal to gas and oil. Sometimes only one weekly train would run carrying sheep and cattle for the market in Denver.

1973 the oil crisis came. Prices for a barrel of oil quadrupeled and suddenly everyone was interested in coal again. Yampa coal has a very high energy value (10500 BTU per pound), much higher in fact than the coal of Union Pacifics Powder River Basin. This meant the Rio Grande was back.

At present there are four major mines which carry their coal on the Rio Grande. That means a lot of business for the D&RGW especially as one customer, the Central Power & Light is located as far away as Corpus Christi, Texas. But the way east is not easy. Between Craig and Denver a 14000to coal train will have to climb 1000ft to Moffat Tunnel and then descend again 1200ft to Denver. A lot of railroad companies do not like to see their engines run on the Denver & Rio Grande Western because of the high wear these locos experience on high grades, sharp curves and long suffocating tunnels, let alone snow and rockslides.

In the early 80's the Denver & Rio Grande Western was merged with the Southern Pacific who thought that any old six axle diesel could run on the line. Soon they learned the truth and the Tunnel Motors returned to the line. These SD 40 and SD45's are equipped with special radiators near the ground to get the cool air from the base of the tunnels instead of the hot exaust fumes from the top. This exact reason terminated any efforts by the German firm Kraus Maffai to establish their dieselhydraulic turrret cabs in the U.S. - those engines just suffocated.
Even now there are complaints that the brand new AC4400 engines by GE are showing severe signs of wear just months after their purchase.

But there are positive sides too. For the railroad passenger the Rio Grande is the "Scenic Line Across The Rockies". The Denver & Rio Grande Western had been the only company to deny Amtrak access to its system and keep its own passenger trains (Rio Grande Zephyr, Ski Train). It is the Denver & Rio Grande Western which is credited to the invention of the Dome Car, a vista dome coach that soon conquered the world and could even be found on Germany's Rhinegold trains. When the Southern Pacific took over, Amtrak took over almost all passenger operations and now there is the daily Desert Wind crossing the Moffat route. However to this day the Ski Train keeps running from Denver to West Portal (Winter Park) a ski resort. It has been taken over by private businessmen who purchased both the train and the right to operate, so it will even survive the Union Pacific / Southern Pacific merger.

However the future of the Denver & Rio Grande Western is dependant on coal. The route is to mountaineous to justify the transport of large quantities of general freight trains over it. When UP and SP merged they closed the Tennessee Pass line, an irony because when the rails are removed the Moffat route will be the only Denver & Rio Grande Western transcontinental line. Finally Moffats dream will be reality, to have created the mainline through the Rockies.


Last Update: Mar 1st 2008

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History Of The Moffat Road