D&RG / D&RGW Denver-Pueblo (Joint Line) History

Denver-Pueblo Main Facts
From: Denver, CO
To: Pueblo, CO
Miles: 108-118
Built: 1871-1872
Still in Service

This piece of track is where the whole thing started. The original Denver & Rio Grande was chartered on 27-Oct-1870 to begin construction southward from Denver. The original intent was to build south to El Paso, where the route would connect to a Mexican sister railroad for the rest of the trip to Pacific Coast ports. The preferred route was south from Denver to Pueblo, then west along the Arkansas River. Having reached Salida at the other end of the gorge, the rails would turn south across Poncha Pass and stretch out through the San Luis Valley, joining up with the headwaters of the Rio Grande (the river). The little railroad would then just follow the river all the way south to the border.

The interesting thing was that, a few years earlier, the completion of the line to the Pacific (the so-called "Transcontinental Railroad") by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific had cemented what the true standard gauge of the United States would forever be - 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches between the rails. Capt. Howard Schuyler, an old partner of Palmer's, is usually credited with pushing the decision to make the D&RG narrow gauge. He was convinced that the narrow gauge operations he'd seen on the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales would be ideally suited for the terrain the D&RG was about to build through. In addition to the ability to more easily conquer adverse terrain, narrow gauge track was cheaper to build (primarily from smaller bridges, cuts, fills, tunnels, ties, lighter rail, etc.) and the equipment was also cheaper. Palmer and the D&RG's officers were quickly convinced that a three foot gauge would be much better suited, and that by being the first road in the area, they could essentially "set" the standard for railways that would come after them in this region. This view ran contrary to popular opinion, and the early Grande spent much time fighting with public criticism over the issue. In the end, Palmer pushed forward, and the first 30 lb iron rails were spiked down in Denver on 28-Jul-1871, with exactly three feet between them.

By October of 1871, the rails had reached what would become Colorado Springs. The town wasn't actually there, yet - it was yet another piece of Palmer's scheme. It was merely a point near Colorado City, which the railroad had decided to bypass in favor of setting up its own town. The plan, essentially, was to build a station point on the railway and then convince people to come settle a brand new town. Not only do you get to sell them railway services, but also land, housing, supplies, etc., and you're putting people where they'll be shipping with your railroad for years to come. Ingenious, really. Palmer and his partners advertised around the world, and sure enough, people came. So successful was this experiment - so-called "colony towns" - that it was repeated numerous times during the building of the railroad.

By the first day of 1872, regular service to the newly founded Colorado Springs commenced, and Palmer was already grading south again, expanding towards Pueblo. By mid-June 1872, rails were complete as far as Pueblo, and the railway officially opened for operation, end-to-end. The only further work done that year was an extension some thirty miles west to the Florence area, in order to tap coal mines just to the south of town.

While the next fifteen years were exciting times for the Grande - the Gorge War? with the AT&SF, radical changes to the goals and destinations of the Grande's lines, contemplating standard gauge, the removal of General Palmer and the instatement of David Moffat?, and expanding the narrow gauge network deep into the mineral-rich Rockies and finally connecting to Salt Lake via the Rio Grande Western. However, despite all this change and growth, not much happened with the original Denver-Pueblo route. In 1887, the D&RG's eternal rival, the AT&SF, completed their own line, in standard gauge, between Denver and Pueblo, largely paralleling the Rio Grande, but crossing it at least three times at Sedalia, just north of Palmer Lake, and then again near Fountain.

The same year that the AT&SF completed its competing route to Denver, the realization finally hit the D&RG. Unless the line was standard gauged, little or no interchange traffic would traverse the Rockies via the Grande. Either it would go around, or more likely, competitors like the AT&SF or the CB&Q would construct their own lines through the mountains, relegating the D&RG to a branchline status. So, without further delay, by 1888 the Denver-Pueblo segment was converted to dual gauge (three rails, capable of hauling narrow or standard guage trains). Only two years later, the standard gauge network was complete enough that narrow gauge access to Denver was no longer required, and thus in 1890 the third rail came out. Thus, Palmer's dream of a narrow gauge empire was shrinking fast, being relegated to the mountainous regions of southwest Colorado.

The years passed, and again not much happened on the Front Range. The only item of major note was that a succession of rather unsuccessful railroads - the Denver & New Orleans (1881-1886), the Denver, Texas & Gulf (1886-1887), then the Denver, Texas & Fort Worth (1887-1890), the Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf (1890-1898), and finally Colorado & Southern had eventually built a third north-south line between Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. This line, lying far out in the rolling plains east of the Front Range (at least as in comparison to the D&RG/AT&SF tracks), was less than suitable, having both greater length and steeper grades than the previous two. Within two years of acquiring the line, the C&S found it rather unsuitable and signed an agreement to operate over the AT&SF line between South Denver and Pueblo. The old route remained in place, however, until 1917-1919.

The whole picture changed in 1918, when all three lines were under the wartime control of the United States Railway Administration, otherwise known as the USRA, on account of World War I. Seeing the chance to boost operational efficiency and cut maintenance, the USRA decided to turn the parallel D&RG/AT&SF mainlines between Pueblo and Denver into a directional running double track main and eliminate the less-desirable C&S/CB&Q line through the plains entirely. As part of the process, they ripped out the bridges where the AT&SF crossed the D&RG all three times and straightened out the route, as well as tore out the entire C&S route. All three roads would operate their trains over the same, optimized route. Even after the lines were handed back to private enterprise after the war, this directional running, the trackage rights arrangement continued under the Joint Line Agreement. Thus was born the Joint Line as know this route today.

There was one major change yet to come. The Santa Fe line through Colorado Springs had always passed through a quite a few residential neighborhoods, having a great number of at-grade street crossings. The City was pushing for increased grade-separation of the Santa Fe line, both to increase safety and to decrease horn noise. Having little traffic on the line (2-6 trains a day from each of the three railroads on the route), a deal was struck with the City whereby the ATSF would tear up its mainline from Palmer Lake to Crews and simply connect its main into the D&RGW line at these points. Some original discussion had the ATSF abandoning its line clear to Bragdon, just north of Pueblo, but more reasonable minds prevailed and the Crews was selected on the south end. CTC and appropriate sidings would then be built on the largely grade-separated (done in the 1960s) D&RGW mainline to allow the moderate amount of traffic to flow through the single-track section. This conversion was completed and trains were running over the new route by July of 1974.

Today, both the C&S and AT&SF eventually wound up as parts of BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe), and the D&RGW obviously wound up in Union Pacific hands. BNSF calls their side of the Joint Line the Pikes Peak Subdivision, and UP calls it the Colorado Springs Sub, but operations largely remain the same. The line is double track, directional running with ABS between South Denver and Palmer Lake and then again between Crews and Bradgon on the south end. Between Palmer Lake and Crews, the line remains single track with CTC, proving to be a major bottleneck in today's operation and suggesting that the AT&SF's deal with the City back in the 1970s was a monumental mistake. As of 2006, the line hosts 25-30 trains every day, largely BNSF unit coal trains moving back and forth to the Powder River Basin, along with a few BNSF manifests, two daily UP manifest trains (MNYPU and MPUNY), and a few UP coal trains, largely coming off the ex-D&RGW lines.

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  Last modified on January 25, 2006, at 10:12 PM
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