History of the Denver and Rio Grande Western

The Denver and Rio Grande Railway was charter ed in 1870 by Genera l William Jackso n Palmer in order to build a railroad from Denver south to El Paso, Texas. The line was completed narrow gauge up to Pueblo by 1872 and a branchline was built to west to Canon City the same year connecting some coal mines.

In 1878 the Rio Grande Western fought two railroad wars against arch rival Santa Fe. The Rio Grande won the territory of the Royal Gorge, west of Canon City along the Arkansas River but lost the route over Raton Pass in the south. Soon afterwards the Rio Grande came under control of the Santa Fe through a lease agreement but control was regained by 1879 by joint managment of Gen. Palmer and Jay Gold. An agreement was made that the Santa Fe and the Rio Grande would head off in different directions, the Rio Grande to the West and the Santa Fe to the South.

In 1881 lines where completed to Gunnison and Durango. The same year a third rail was added on the line from Pueblo to Denver to accomodate standard gauge traffic aswell. Construction also started on a branch line from Leadville north over Tennessee Pass and along the Eagle River to Glenwood Springs, but this would take almost 6 years to complete.

In 1882 the Denver and Rio Grande leased the Denver and Rio Grande Western which was building southeastward from Salt Lake City and approaching the Denver and Rio Grande fast. In 1883 the two lines met near Green River in Utah - thus froming a narrow gauge connection from Denver, via Pueblo and Marshall Pass (not Tennessee Pass) to Salt Lake City.

By 1887 the line to Glenwood Springs was finally completed. Two years later it was continued to Rifle. Soon another little war erupted between the Denver and Rio Grande and the Colorado Midland (again one of the Santa Fe affiliates). Both railroads were secretly planning to complete a cross Rocky Mountain network and both where missing the piece from Rifle to Grand Junction. It turned out there was only room enough for one line geopgrphically and so the line was completed and owned by both in 1889. The fact that it was build narrow gauge was not of an advantage to the standard gauge Colorado Midland whose passengers would have to change trains in Grand Junction and again at Rifle.

Meanwhile the Denver and Rio Grande was adding a third rail for standard gauge operations starting at Leadville and working eastwards to Pueblo. The lines west of Grand Junction where converted to standard gauge completely and by 1890 the entire route between Denver and Ogden, Utah was passable for standard gauge trains the mainline being via Tennessee Pass now.

For financial reasons (narrow gauge is cheaper to construct than standard gauge) this was by far not the end of narrow gauge operations on the Rio Grande. In 1880 a line was built from Antonito, Colo. to Espanola, New Mexico, Silverton and Durango were connected by 1882 and in 1890 a line was completed from Alamosa to Salida, all being narrow gauge. In 1895 the Rio Grande aquired the Santa Fe Southern, a narrow gauge line from Santa Fe to Espanola.

Realizing that local traffic would not be enough to keep the railroad in business forever, the next project was completion of a transcontinental line and for this reason the Rio Grande involved itself deeply in financing the Western Pacific, a route from Salt Lake City west via the Salt Lake to San Francisco.

This proved to be too much for nearly all investors and even though the Western pacific was completed in 1910 it went bankrupt by 1915. Since the Rio Grande was so involved in it, it soon followed into receiveship.

By 1920 the Rio Grande was sold to investors connected with the Western Pacific and renamed the Denver and Rio Grande Western, entered receivership in 1921 again reemerged in 1924 under ownership of the Western Pacific and the Missouri Pacific. Even though there was a true transcontinental network now the railroads were so debt riden that the Denver and Rio Grande was bankrupt again in 1935.

Meanwhile the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railway also known as the Moffat Road had been built from Denver westbound over Rollins Pass to Craig in nothwestern Colorado (see feature The Moffat Road on this site).

In 1912 the Denver Nothwestern and Pacific had been reorganized into the Denver and Salt Lake but was still very far from its goal of reaching Salt Lake City by 1930. The City of Denver had wanted a direct route for years to the west and now was the chance. So investors from Denver financed the Moffat Tunnel for the Denver and Salt Lake and a line from Orestod to Dotsero (note the word play) was built by the Rio Grande connecting the two railroads. Finally there was a direct connection from Denver to Salt Lake City and it was 175 miles shorter than the route via Pueblo.

By 1947 the Denver and Rio Grande Western emerged from trusteeship and merged with the Denver and Salt Lake.

Meanwhile the narrow gauge network started to diminish due to a lack of traffic. By 1955 only the line from Alamosa to Silverton via Durango and Farmington had survived. This line started to disappear by 1967 and now only two segments remain being operated as tourist railroads: Durango to Silverton and Antonito to Chama (being operated by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad respectively). Together with the demise of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad (see installment on this site) and others such as the Colorado central, Colorado Midland, e.t.c. narrow gauge had all but ceased in Colorado by 1967.

The Denver and Rio Grand e now saw itself as a fast freight carrier across the Rocky Mount ains, depending on interchange with the Rock Island and the Missouri Pacific in the East and the Western Pacific in the West.

In 1980 the Rock Island ceased operations and Union Pacific (itself a transcontinental carrier with a less ardous transcontinental line in the north) bought the Western Pacific and the Missouri Pacific. The Rio Grande aquired trackage rights from Denver to Kansas City and coal became the most important factor frot the railroad.

Still the Rio Grande was isolated even though still healthy. In 1984 control over the railroad was gained by Phillip Anschutz who also offerd to purchase the Southern Pacific in 1988. The same year the two railroads were merged under the Southern Pacific name and the Rio Grande became a fallen flag.

In 1997 Union Pacific took over the Southern Pacific and subsequently closed down Tennessee Pass. The Moffat Route was soon drained of most of its traffic and now mainly coal trains are operating there, plus the California Zephyr.


Last Update: Mar 1st 2008

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History Of The Rio Grande