tunnel vision

The cliffs surrounding Manitou Springs, Colorado echoed with yelped curses and the unmistakable *swoosh* of heavy objects sliding down a bed of rocks. In this case, the objects in question were myself and two brave friends, and the streams of profanity came from our somewhat hasty descent down the cliff. Our backsides bore the brunt of the assault, but despite some shredded pants and a few cuts we made it down intact. Whatever, the climb had been worth it. It looked steeper from the bottom anyway.

About halfway up the canyon wall lies part of a neglected route once used to ascend into the heart of the Rockies. A drive up scenic Highway 24 doesn’t even give clues; the deep red hillsides showing no trace of the path carved into their steep faces. This is no ordinary hiking trail, however. It is on no official map, and though it lies very close to one of Colorado’s largest tourism destinations, even most residents have no knowledge of its existence. We had just ventured into what formerly comprised a section of the Colorado Midland Railway – a series of tunnels, blasted and hand-carved out of the Rocky Mountains.


Midland Tunnel #8 in the year 1900. Below, next to Fountain Creek, is the dirt trail up Ute Pass that would eventually become Highway 24. (DPL Western History)

Back in 1883, the fledgling city of Colorado Springs had only a few thousand people within it. One of these residents was a man named H.D. Fisher, manager of a sawmill about 25 miles from the city, near what is now Woodland Park. Mr. Fisher had a problem: his lumber had a long way to go to get to his hometown. Though a logging railway had been built at the site to transport logs, the finished product still had to be hauled overland on rough trails to the Springs, where the railroad could finally take over. Fisher reckoned that if he had the money, he could link the two railways with his own, with the aim of eventually extending the tracks to Leadville – the epicenter of an incredibly rich mining region. The thick stacks of cash he sought were soon found in a man named John J. Hagerman. Hagerman had made his fortune in mining back east, and his ill health drove him to move to Colorado Springs the year prior. Fisher and his associates made Hagerman the chairman of their fledgling railroad, and with money in the bank, construction started in earnest. The route they chose led east from the Springs, over Ute Pass, and north along the Arkansas River to Leadville. This is some of the roughest country in the west, with 14000 foot peaks and deep valleys to wind around and through. Also, the banks of the Arkansas River that led to Leadville were already occupied by the Rio Grande Railway – a direct competitor to the Midland. These factors combined meant that the Midland needed to be creative with its real estate – the railroad turned to tunneling as a solution to its woes.


A Midland steam locomotive pulls a full load through Tunnel #7 near Manitou Springs in April of 1935. (DPL Western History)


Modern day Tunnel #7 peeks out from behind a hill as storm clouds start to gather. The above photo appears to have been taken from just above the bushes at far left.

As the line left Colorado Springs for the mountains to the west, it followed the steep, narrow canyon carved out by Fountain Creek. The banks of the creek above Manitou Springs proved too narrow to accommodate more than the existing dirt trail up Ute Pass, so to push the railway up to Woodland Park, the company’s engineers decided to dig. A series of eight tunnels were carved into the red rocks of the canyon, moving the railway through the most narrow parts. When the company finally went under in 1949 under the name ‘Midland Terminal Railway’, the tracks were simply pulled and the tunnels left to nature. Today, they are not on any tourist map, no signs point to them as historical relics, not even a marked trail to acknowledge their existence. When I asked a few Manitou residents about them, even they didn’t know of the tunnels in the hills. My friends and I had driven more than 100 miles for the chance to find them. All I knew was their rough location from a dusty book in the Denver Public Library’s stacks, but that was enough.

Before the evening’s butt-slide down the steep, jagged slope, we first had to ascend. I had tried this climb a few weeks prior on a scouting mission, and ended up having to come down hastily – and in near darkness. This cloudy June afternoon, we came slightly better prepared. As myself and my friends Evan and Ann struggled to keep traction on the constantly shifting surface, we were forced to grab for anything we could use to haul ourselves up. Finally, we reached the level of the rail bed – a shelf about six to eight feet wide more than thirty feet above the bottom of the canyon.


Ann pauses on the former Colorado Midland rail bed after the climb up. 100 years ago, you’d see this stunning view from a train coming down Ute Pass into Manitou Springs. Tunnel #7 is on the left, and Tunnel #6 is on the right. Click this panoramic image to view larger.


Evan and Ann pause before entering one of the tunnels above Manitou Springs.

We spent several hours exploring the westernmost tunnels, retracing the old route from one end of the rock shelf to the other. After the tunnels fell into disuse, the closest two to Manitou Springs as well as part of a third suffered collapses. The rest, however, have weathered the years in much better shape. The intervening years had allowed nature to take over some parts of the shelf until it scarcely looked like it could have been big enough to accommodate the steam locomotives that once chugged through this canyon. Unlike many of Colorado’s mountain railways, the Midland was built to standard railway gauge of 4′ 8.5″ – meaning that the shelf had to accommodate large main line trains. The remaining tunnels are in very good shape, good enough that an impromptu homeless encampment had sprung up in one of them. Upon closer inspection, we even found 100 year old coal soot still clinging to the ceilings.


The west portal of the 211-foot-long Tunnel #7.


A Midland locomotive pulls a load of empty cars through a Manitou tunnel in July of 1939. By this time, the dirt road at the bottom of the canyon had been widened and paved as US Highway 24. (DPL Western History)


Inside Tunnel #6.

By the time the sun was setting, thick, dark rain clouds were closing in. We decided to make a retreat to the car, and in the dying light, we made our graceful butt-slides down the steep slope covered in jagged loose sandstone and gravel. Dirtier and a bit torn up we made our way back to the car and loaded up. With the rain moving in, we realized this part of the canyon was not a smart place to be. Only a few weeks later, a huge mudslide caused by flash flooding charged down the canyon with the force of a flood of concrete, trapping dozens of cars in the muck. Shortly after that, yet another flash flood caused millions of dollars in damage to Manitou’s downtown. Thankfully, this evening we had only a dramatic sky to worry about.

A few weeks later, I went with a friend to go check out another group of tunnels about 80 miles deeper into the mountains, near the town of Buena Vista. Here, the tunnels were built because the banks of the Arkansas River were already occupied by a rival railroad – leaving the Midland the task of using what little real estate they had efficiently. Rather than winding back and forth across the river on bridges to dodge rock outcroppings until the valley opened, the Midland bored a series of four short tunnels, making the route north to Leadville a straight shot.


A train and its mustached crew pauses for a photo in front of one of the Buena Vista tunnels sometime in the 1890s. (DPL Western History)

This part of the line was actually abandoned before the Manitou portion, in the years following World War I. The Midland, like all other American railroads, was placed under the wartime control of the US Railroad Adminstration (USRA). The USRA decided that all traffic crossing western Colorado would be routed onto the Midland’s line, and for a few years the business outlook was good for a railroad which had just emerged from bankruptcy. Then, just as quickly, the government yanked almost all of the traffic away from the Midland when it became apparent that the line’s facilities and equipment could not hand the overwhelming volume. Adding to their woes, the dizzyingly high passes to the west of Leadville required constant maintenance and snow clearing in the winter, sapping the railroad’s cash flow and stalling their trains in feet of ice. In 1918, the year the war ended, all of the Colorado Midland west of the town of Divide was abandoned and pulled up for scrap – more than 3/4 of the railroad’s mileage. Unlike the Manitou tunnels, which remained in use for another 31 years, these tunnels were converted and repurposed with the rise of the automobile.


A car stops before heading through the Buena Vista tunnels in June of 1943. (DPL Western History)


Our expedition vehicle next to the tunnels in the modern day. Pullouts at each end allow cars to wait as the tunnels are only wide enough for one lane of traffic.


Inside the Buena Vista tunnels. All four are visible in this photo, bored so closely together that trains were occasionally long enough to be in all four at once!

Today, rather than the *chug-chug* of steam trains, only the rumble of tires on gravel resonates through the tunnels. The county owns the right-of-way now, keeping the old route plowed in the winter so backcountry enthusiasts and cross-country skiiers can access National Forest land. It’s well used, too; in our short time exploring the tunnels, dozens of jeeps and a few ATVs passed through one at a time.


We hold for a moment at the northernmost tunnel, waiting for traffic to clear as a storm rolls in.

I find it fascinating that these relics of Colorado history have remained in such good condition as they reach well over 100 years old. The most crucial tunnels to the Midland, at the top of Hagerman Pass, both collapsed by 1940. Another set remains passable, on a back road in a place called Elevenmile Canyon. With a few feet of snow on the road now, though, they’ll stay hidden until the melting of summer for a visit. Just a few more months to wait.

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