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.

Titan I: the remix

« An AtH // urbanescape.fr collaboration »

For the better part of a year, I’ve found myself essentially semi-retired from urban exploring. The trappings of a renewed social life, a (mostly) full time job, and a number of other projects kept me out of the loop. However, sometimes life throws you a little curveball that makes you realize what’s still out there. In this case, that curveball came in the form of two French documentary filmmakers: Mélanie de Groot van Embden and David de Rueda, referred to me by a colleague from the west coast. The target for the crew: an abandoned nuclear missile launch complex we refer to as the Titan. It’s nothing less than a Cold War castle, a huge, decaying underground relic of a time when air raid sirens meant nuclear war rather than tornadoes.


The abandoned Titan I ICBM launch complex from topside. Launcher #2 is at left.

It’s been about six years since my first expedition to this relic of the Cold War, situated about an hour or so from Denver on Colorado’s eastern plains. For this reason, I contacted another local explorer, Micah, who, along with his roommate Ashley, had recently been inside the silo and could give us valuable information as to its condition – and the hazards we would face inside. The recent wet weather meant that the complex could be a muddy quagmire or partially flooded, new developments in the area posed a risk, and decay had doubtless taken its toll on the structure since my last visit.

Our meetup point was none other than Pete’s Kitchen on Colfax, a late-night Denver institution. Its glowing ’40s neon signs cast a bright glare into the night, beckoning our French comrades inside. Over cups of coffee, Mél and David told us stories from the road, tales of climbing bridges in New York and abandoned roller coasters in New Orleans. After crossing half of America, their cross-country road trip had led them here, to the edge of the Rockies. After spending a chilly night high in the Sawatch Range to the west, the two explorers descended on Denver in their fabulously painted van.

The night’s plan was simple: take our team of five and our gear out to the silo, stash Micah’s minivan nearby at a spot he had in mind, and sneak overland under a nearly full moon over to the silo entrance. Subtlety is key to the Titan – it would only take one rifle-toting rancher to mistake us for a varmint in the murk and really ruin our night. Once inside, all we’d have to do is try not to fall in a missile hole and be out by sunrise. Nice and easy.

We headed out of Denver at around 11 p.m., and settled in for the hour’s ride out east. The road was nearly empty, with all the traffic of the day fast asleep. David fired up his camera and our idle chatter became a candid interview. As we drove east, the glow from the city receded until the sky outside the van was an inky black; this is the edge of the Great Plains, and from out here, the relative isolation of Denver was apparent. Once upon a time, the Air Force had the idea that this would be an ideal place to situate the first generation of American ICBMs – the Titan I. The reasons for this move were multifaceted. Lowry Air Force Base was nearby, along with the garrisons of Colorado Springs, providing ready manpower. Denver’s mining history had bestowed some of the most gifted underground engineers in the world, perfect for creating a small, self-sufficient town 40-50 feet below the surface. Even the missiles themselves had only a short distance to travel – they were developed and tested at Martin Marietta‘s Waterton Canyon facility just south of Denver, and their 3.8 Mt thermonuclear warheads were assembled just north of the city at Rocky Flats.

Eventually, we hit our exit, and as we headed away from the highway, the darkness of the plains enveloped us. Our two lane road turned into dirt, then the dirt turned into little more than two ruts in the prairie. With nothing in front of us but headlights, Micah finally said “OK, I think this is it.”, and we disembarked. Outside the van, we gathered our kit: cameras, tripods, respirators in case of airborne nastiness. When we finally looked up, the view was astounding. With no light pollution from the city and a clear night, a seemingly infinite number of stars were visible. Only a few hundred feet away was our quarry. We slipped over to the site and down into the crater holding our entry point. The mission was on; the only hazard we faced on the way in was a lone skunk, stubbornly guarding the path down the crater wall. Lights unpacked and masks on, into the beast we went.


The Titan I’s power dome from the second floor mezzanine. When it was in operation, this room would have been cramped with ventilation equipment, water filtration gear, and 4 huge diesel generators to provide everything the 14 man crew would need. Click to view this image larger.

Our entry portal let us into the complex’s power dome. David and I busted out our photo rigs and began to get to work. This room was huge; 130 feet (40m) across and 60 feet (18m) high. In operation, it would have been an incredibly noisy place, with four enormous diesel generators running all the time, and right next door, the immense fans that vented the diesel exhaust and moved breathing air in and out of the complex. As David and Mél shot some footage near the mezzanine ladder, I noticed the large slab of concrete I had just jumped onto had moved! I bounced my knees slightly, and sure enough, it seemed that the whole slab was mounted on springs. This made perfect sense; almost everything in the complex was mounted on springs to prevent damage when the missiles were fired – or when a Soviet nuclear warhead hit nearby. The generators themselves were no exception, and even after fifty years underground, the huge springs holding up their foundations still had plenty of bounce left. Maybe not quite a Cold War bouncy castle, but close.


Let there be light!
This newsreel shows the inside of the Colorado Titan Is in operation. Note the missiles raised up above their doors – unlike later ICBMs, the Titan I launched from outside the silo, not within.

From the expansive confines of the generator dome, we headed through the complex’s main tunnel junction and into the control dome. It’s exactly what it says on the tin – this part of the facility held the computers and men that could actually fire the nuclear missiles within. Slightly smaller than the power dome, this space was divided into two levels. In operation, a crew of 14 would keep watch upstairs in rotating shifts until relief came. Instead of bunks, the airmen got a ready room/lounge on the lower level of the dome for their downtime.


The ready room on the lower level of the control dome was used as a venue for a small illegal rave back in 2003.

Before we proceeded upstairs, something caught Ashley’s attention. The floor of the lower level was littered with bullet casings, a testament to the years of locals who came down into the silo for shooting practice. Ashley proved to be an expert in firearms forensics; over there was a 9mm, here a .45 ACP, even a few 12 gauge shotshells. Also present were a few 7.62mm cartridges – spent ammunition for the notorious AK-47. Our French comrades seemed surprised, even slightly taken aback at the knowledge that these casings were not relics, but left here after the fact. This is Colorado, however, and guns in rural parts of the state are about as common as dish soap. Tonight, though, no armed resistance was encountered, and with souvenirs of middle America in our pockets, we headed up the stairs to the heart of the beast: the control room.


“LAUNCH OPS.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, this room was at the flashpoint of the Cold War. On 26 October 1962, at 8 P.M. local time, the United States raised its strategic readiness level – also known as DEFCON – to level 2 for the first (and still only) time. This move put US nuclear forces on high alert – and as a result, the men in this room actually raised the nuclear missiles from their silos, ready to fire in minutes if the order was given. I can only imagine what must have passed through their minds, waiting sixty feet below the Colorado plains for orders to obliterate millions upon millions of people and begin nuclear Armageddon. The stress must have been unbearable.


This is the heart – this room once held the control panels and computers for the site’s three thermonuclear ballistic missiles. The drop ceiling has long since given way, collapsing into the floor of the space.

We left the control dome for our next objective, the silos themselves. Down the tunnel lay the moats, deeply dug junctions between the connecting tunnels that served to join the various pipes and control lines strung throughout the complex. Their depth (about 15 ft.) means that they are now flooded with murky ‘water’ – a potentially toxic witch’s brew of chemicals and runoff dissolved in groundwater. We’d have no choice but to cross these pits in order to access the launchers. Micah and Ashley set across first to the right, while David, Mél, and I kept to the left side with our photo gear. There are no more floors in the complex tunnels, as these were some of the first metal parts to be scrapped. There was no easy way across the first junction; the thick steel support beams we had to balance on were spaced far enough apart that shuffling over them was a delicate task.

The junction room was filled with all sorts of exposed pipework and conduit, and while some of this metal made great handholds, some was so rusty and rotten it could easily give way. About halfway across I heard Mélanie suddenly yelp “Help me! I’m falling!” from behind me. I spun around just in time to see her wobbling precariously above the moat! Her gear had shifted ever so slightly and thrown her off balance, and David was already out of reach. I had only a moment to flip my tripod over my shoulder and reach out to keep her from falling into the murk. Once safely across, we caught our breath and ventured deeper into the tunnels.


This tunnel junction further into the complex remains high and dry. The tunnels tend to get quite wet during the rainy season, but the sturdy engineering means some parts remain remarkably dry after 60 years.
Mél traverses a tunnel junction near a propellant terminal. There were separate storage facilities for missiles, fuel, and the equipment to handle both. The beams were covered with plate steel floors, long since removed for their scrap value. Plumbing and control lines for the missiles ran underneath.

After another half hour of monkey business, we found our target. Through a pair of blast doors at the end of a tunnel was Silo #2. Water had long since replaced the Titan I missile that was once here, and over the years the water level had risen to only ten feet below our tunnel. With the silos reaching 160 feet in depth from the surface, it’s easy to see why some enterprising people have made indoor SCUBA an adaptive reuse of a few similar sites. A sobering silence took over us as we realized what had once been in here, the magnitude of the space we had come all this way to see. The weapons once stored in here could have killed millions at the turn of two keys. At the end of the access tunnel, only a flimsy wire rope strung as a makeshift guard across the opening stood between us and the abyss.


Mél, David, and I look for a stable shooting position at the silo entrance. Beyond us, in the blackness, is the pit of the silo. Photo courtesy of Micah.
Silo number 2 from the personnel tunnel level. This composite image only captures the top forty feet or so!

A check on our watches revealed that 4 A.M. had come and gone. All that remained now was the long walk back to the power dome and our exit. We packed up everything but our cameras as we began back through the jungle gym, clambering over pipes and ducking underneath low hanging beams. Farther down, once the tunnels became mercifully dry, we simply walked on the packed earth at the bottom.


David grabs some video on the walk back to the power dome.

We emerged from the Earth after four and a half hours, physically tired but totally awake from the adrenaline. If we could only get past our last barrier – that skunk – we’d be home free. Under the abundant starlight, we could see surprisingly clearly. A quick check revealed no marauding wildlife, so up the side of the hole we went. Almost there. Fifty yards away was the van, and a beacon pointed us towards it. Silhouetting our ride were the 139 turbines of the Cedar Point Wind Farm, all flashing on and off in unison, forming a long, red glow across the horizon. It was a fitting end to a surreal night.

Back on I-70, the highway noise took over as the crew snoozed on and off. Micah turned off the road once or twice, seeking the towering lights of an open gas station. Mél and David slept through all of it, getting a head start on an early morning. Their plan was to head out just after sunrise, aiming west for the Rockies and eventually California. They would be missed. Personally, I hope to have the good fortune to meet more people like them in my life. Sometimes, all it takes is a little positive influence to get motivated.

through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 2

As the train pulled out of Glenwood Springs, I noticed a reddish haze in the air. At first, it was barely perceptible, seen only when it turned the disk of the midday sun blood red. Soon, we left Glenwood Canyon and continued west, the haze thickening the partly cloudy sky into a roiling mixture of reddish-black and grey. The source of the haze had not been apparent, but as we rounded a bend in the track, it was suddenly clear: the miles-long plume of thick, black smoke before us left little doubt. We were headed straight for a Colorado wildfire.


Before long, Forest Service and fire trucks were frequent sights at grade crossings.

By the time we entered De Beque Canyon, through which both the rail line and Interstate 70 run, the fire was burning on the tops of the ridges next to us and down the canyon walls. The sky became completely obscured, save for a crimson sun, by a thick smoke that appeared to glow red at times from the reflected flame. I ran to the lower level vestibule of my car and began taking photographs and video out of the window – which, when I pressed my hand to it, was almost scorching hot to the touch. A few tense minutes later, we were clear of the canyon, and the dispatchers at Union Pacific (who currently own the line) shut it down – we were the last to pass. The adjoining Interstate was shut down as well, and the nearby communities of De Beque and Palisade were put on evacuation notice. The fire consumed more than 12,000 acres by the time it was extinguished – but fortunately, no lives were lost.

The Zephyr passes through the Pine Ridge Fire as myself and a fellow passenger look on. Click here for the BBC version.

After a few tense minutes, we cleared De Beque Canyon unscathed and headed into Grand Junction, a city at the far reaches of the Colorado Rockies. From here, we would set out across the desert for Salt Lake City, arriving there early in the morning. The sun had begun to set, still hazy red from the fire to the east. I disembarked, along with the train’s passengers stretching their legs as a fresh locomotive crew did their checks before setting off for the night. The city’s former depot, a grand turn-of-the-century building, sits dilapidated next to the current station. It was built in the early 1900s by the Rio Grande, and was meant to be the centerpiece of the town; a place that the citizens of Grand Junction (which essentially exists because of the railroads) could take pride in as a representation of their community. Inside were 22 foot high ceilings and arched stained glass windows. Now, Amtrak uses an unremarkable 70s-era building next door that originally served as a restaurant for the depot. In February of 2012, a Texas-based realtor purchased the dilapidated structure for just over $188,000, though with admittedly no real plans to start with. Time will tell what happens to this historic structure, one which has no doubt seen some interesting, if better, times.

Onward now, as the locomotives sounded their horns, and with fresh crews aboard, we headed out for the evening. As the sun began to set, I headed to the diner car for dinner and a smuggled pint. The car was surprisingly lively, with groups of passengers scooting closer to the window to see what the eastern reaches of Colorado held in store. The Mennonites had returned, settling in en masse to the swiveling chairs on a whole side of the car to watch the sun come down behind the flat-topped mesas that stood guard to either side of our route.


Passengers in the Zephyr’s lounge car socialize as the sun begins to set on the Colorado Plateau. Just ahead lay the Utah border – and about 260 miles of desert.


In motion – the Zephyr’s lounge car as we cross into Utah

Spray painted on the side of one of these weathered red sentinels were the words ‘UTAHCOLORADO’ – denoting the literal line in the sand where the border lay. Eastern Utah is where sci-fi directors go when they’re looking for an alien planet to film on. Before the sun set, it cast the bizarre landforms of the immense desert in an unearthly glow. The Zephyr was picking up the pace now, the track straightening out as we exited the heart of the Rockies. We wouldn’t stop until we hit the tiny oasis of Green River, seventy miles ahead.


This siding, at a place called Brendel, held a number of flat cars carrying half-length metal casks marked ‘RADIOACTIVE’ – as well as a similar number of unmarked black pick-ups. Turns out this location is used to hold lightly radioactive mine waste from a uranium mine near Moab before its burial nearby.

We hit Green River just as the sun set, our train stopping for no more than a breather before pushing off again into the night. Ahead, we would cross the rest of the desert under the stars, climbing the last, faraway range of the Rocky Mountains in the moonlight before descending into Salt Lake City around one in the morning.


Night owls in the Zephyr’s lounge car around midnight.

After sundown, I returned briefly to the vestibule of the car where I had witnessed the fire before. The magic window once again opened, and in the warm night air of the desert, I could see the distant lights of a power plant. They winked at me again and again as they passed behind ridge after mountain after canyon wall. Soon, the lights appeared just up the track, and swiftly flew past us into the night again.

I headed back to my seat, only to remember it had been given to part of a family before – sleeping bodies now occupied my whole row. I elected to become a nomad, and found myself a quiet corner of the car next door with a conveniently unoccupied row of seats. Across the aisle was a fellow traveler named Sam. I asked Sam if the seats were free, and in a Cockney accent, he replied “I dunno, I just sat down in this one!” Brilliant plan! I checked one more time above my seats for reservation slips, and, finding none, I settled off to sleep.

Julia tracked me down and roused me a few hours later, just short of 1.30AM. A few minutes later, I stepped off the Zephyr at my final destination, the promised land: Salt Lake City. The train squeaked to a stop and I disembarked under a star-filled sky.


Julia bids me farewell with one more dose of sass.

through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 1

Travel in today’s United States is mostly about two things: the automobile, which is a fixture in every part of America, and the airplane, which made the vast expanses of the U.S. easy to cross in mere hours. However, one form of transport that was so crucial to the history of the United States is often overlooked in favor of these two: the train. Even though train travel in the U.S. (at least outside of the Northeast) is often seen as the domain of families and retirees it can still be a perfectly viable means of travel for those seeking no more than transport in style.

One of the most well known of America’s modern passenger train routes is the California Zephyr, a named train that has its roots in the postwar 1940s. The route of the original Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco was a cooperative hand-off effort of three American railroads, all now defunct. This relay race of sorts led passengers through some of the most beautiful parts of North America, including the headwaters of the Colorado River in the high Rockies, the strange desolation of the Utah desert, and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The most difficult portion for the Zephyr to traverse, from Denver through the Rockies to Salt Lake City, was the job of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad – and this was no small task.

The gold and silver rushes of the mid to late 1800s caused a huge amount of railroad expansion into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in search of riches, and dozens of narrow and standard gauge railroad lines stretched between the unforgiving peaks. The engineering challenges were gargantuan; narrow, treacherous passages like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison proved almost impossible to build through, steep grades and treeless high mountain passes had to be negotiated, sometimes by blasting paths out of solid rock, and deadly winter blizzards forced shutdowns and stoppages again and again.


A map of the Denver and Rio Grande Western circa 1930, showing Colorado crisscrossed with rail lines originally built by at least a dozen companies. By 1930, the D&RGW had absorbed almost all of them into their dual gauge system – the lines in black are 3′ (90 cm) gauge while the red ones are standard 4′ 8½” (1.4 m).

The Rio Grande’s mountain routes have been famous since their inception for the staggering scenery along the way. Originally, mainline trains had to travel from Denver to Pueblo before turning west into the Rockies, then into the Royal Gorge of the Gunnison River and through the impossibly deep Black Canyon before climbing north over Tennessee Pass – the highest point on the entire US rail system. From the top of the pass, trains then descended the Eagle River valley (passing through Belden) and met the banks of the Colorado River, following it west again through Glenwood and De Beque Canyons before clearing the Rockies. This way of doing things was an ethos for ‘the Grande’; their motto was ‘Through the Rockies, Not Around Them’ – a bit of a jab at their competitors (and, ironically, their eventual owners) to the north, the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP used a much easier route through the gradual, easy grades of South Pass in Wyoming, whereas the Rio Grande went west the hard way – straight through the heart of the mountains.

However, as airplanes and automobiles took over for long-distance trains, the preferred way of crossing the Rockies changed – gone were the days of teams of locomotives shoving passengers over high passes and through smoky tunnels. In 1971, during the height of the Oil Crisis, all of America’s mainline railroads ceased passenger operations, handing them in bulk over to a hastily organized state corporation – Amtrak was born. However, the D&RGW, long known for its independent streak, shunned Amtrak and continued to operate its portion of the Zephyr route as the Rio Grande Zephyr until 24 April 1983, when further declines in passengers finally forced the Grande to hand the Zephyr route over to Amtrak.


The Rio Grande Zephyr waits for its final departure from Denver’s Union Station on 24 April 1983. Photo by Slideshow Bruce via Wikimedia.

Jump ahead now, if you will, to the present day. In the middle of summer, I decided that a friend in Salt Lake City was long overdue for a visit. I booked myself a train ticket, and on the appointed day, my California Zephyr showed up at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station backwards – and nearly two hours late. The backwards part is perfectly normal, with Denver’s Union Station resting on a long stub of track that requires the reverse move for access. Today, it was track maintenance and a few passing freight trains east of Denver that held Train #5 up, but no matter; soon we would head out of Denver for the high country and begin making that time back.


Passengers wait to board the Zephyr at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station. Union Station, the Zephyr’s stop since the 1930s, is being turned into a regional commuter rail terminal, and will reopen in 2014.

With a smooth push, the Zephyr pulled out and we were on our way. My car was overseen by conductor Julia Thompson-Johnson of Chicago, a capable professional traveler. Amtrak’s conductors do far more than simply taking tickets; they are the masters of the rails, seeing to everything from extra blankets for toddlers in transit to midnight wake-up calls. I found myself a seat and watched out the window of the café car as the train pulled out of Denver’s freight yards and headed for the Rockies.

As we ascended up the Front Range, I noticed a group of people who looked as if they were from another century. They sported bonnets, dresses, and long beards for the men – members of the Mennonite religious order, as it turns out. Mennonites are similar in dress to their more well-known Amish cousins, and like them eschew most modern technology. However, their order permits them to travel long distances using trains, allowing this group to leave their native Ohio for sunny California. To these people, Amtrak is their primary link to the rest of the country – an essential service indeed.

As the train pushes into the Rockies, the terrain gets much more dramatic.

As we approached the Continental Divide, the mountains seemed to swell around us, as if they were trying to outsmart us, trying to trap the train in some nameless alpine crevice. Originally, trains on this route had to make a tortuous ascent up a 4% grade to the summit of Rollins Pass, well above timberline at 11,660 ft (3,554 m). Winter was not a kind season to the railroad, with blizzards stranding passengers in tens of feet of snow, even after a series of tall sheds were built over the tracks to protect them. By the early 1900s, the need for an alternative was apparent; the railroad was spending more than forty percent of its money on fighting the snow. Denver entrepreneur David Moffat had entertained the idea of a tunnel here as early as 1902, but it would take twenty more years of political and financial wrangling to make it a reality. The resulting masterpiece of civil engineering that would bear Moffat’s name was a 6.2 mile (10.0 km) long tunnel – straight through the Continental Divide.

The Zephyr approaches the Moffat Tunnel. It takes the train about six minutes to pass through James Peak.


Train #5 calls at Winter Park station, former terminal of the Rio Grande’s Ski Train – the last of the Grande’s passenger trains. The idea was simple: a train leaves Denver full of skiers in the morning, takes them straight to the slopes, and returns them to the city the same evening. The route survived under various owners until 2009.


The Colorado River begins in this high mountain valley, and the route of the Zephyr follows it from here to the edge of the Utah desert.


This stretch of the Colorado River is popular among whitewater rafters and kayakers like these. It is a tradition in these parts for rafters to salute passing trains with their rear ends – this group chose to refrain!

Ahead lay one of the most isolated parts of Colorado: Gore Canyon, a roadless chasm that nearly ran the railroad out of business trying to build through it. This canyon is inaccessable by any other means; only the Zephyr, a few hiking trails, and the Colorado River below allow people passage. This stretch of track was (and still is) an engineering marvel, with sheer drops, tunnels, and miles upon miles of rockfall sensors and fences. Rockslides in particular are a hazard here; in 1942, a huge steam locomotive hit a large slide while entering a tunnel here and derailed – straight into the wall of the tunnel, causing it to collapse and bury the engine until crews could dig it free. Our locomotives, however, remained firmly attached to the rails as we continued our climb through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.


D&RGW steam locomotive #1800 pulls an express passenger train through Gore Canyon in the late 1940s.

From here, our train follows the Colorado River along a rail line known as the Dotsero Cutoff. This shortcut allowed more than 200 miles to be shaved off the trip from Denver to Salt Lake City by connecting the Rio Grande’s main line through the desert of eastern Utah to David Moffat’s direct, tunnel-equipped line from Denver. This combination of routes proved its worth through longevity – it still carries thousands of tons of freight and passengers through the Rockies every month. The terrain changes here, too, as the jagged peaks of the central Rockies change to the weathered reddish sandstone and limestone of eastern Colorado.


The Zephyr takes a long curve along the Colorado River.

There are few places I’ve been to so far that even come close to the natural beauty of Glenwood Canyon. This rugged chasm in the Earth was carved out of the surrounding rocks by the Colorado River over eons, leaving some of the most spectacular land forms I’ve ever encountered. Since its first run in the late 40s, the California Zephyr has been specifically timed to pass through the canyon during the day regardless of direction, always giving its passengers an eyeful of western Colorado. Our train was no exception to this rule, and as we approached the canyon’s mouth, I gave up my seat on the upper deck of the car and found myself a spot next to a window in the lower vestibule – a window that conveniently opened, allowing me to indulge my habit of sticking my head (and camera) out of moving vehicles.


The sedimentary rocks that make up Glenwood Canyon also make this route particularly susceptible to rockslides. To prevent the inevitable accidents and derailments, the railroad devised a system of rockslide fences meant to warn oncoming trains. An electric current is passed through the wires guarding the track, and when a rock slide breaks the wires, the broken circuit trips a signal warning of the danger.


Julia Thompson-Johnson and the rest of the conductors sound the ‘All Aboard!’ at the Zephyr’s stop in Glenwood Springs, a city of nearly 10,000 people nestled in the heart of the canyon.

Ahead: the strange Utah desert – and a hot surprise! To Be Continued in Part 2…

belden – into the rabbit hole, pt. 2

«Second in a two-part series on Belden»

As we peered down the incline, the space below us opened up into the workings of a full-sized underground ore mill, a complex of huge machines used to crush big hunks of ore-bearing rock down to smaller and smaller pieces for transport and further processing. The miners dug out a cavern more than eight stories high in places, housing not only the huge rock crushers themselves, but more workspaces, a few company offices, and a conveyor system which fed the hungry workings of the various machines involved in the milling process. At peak output, an incredible 150-200 tons of ore could be processed in each 8-hour shift. This was Belden’s heart; the place where the huge machines that did the dirty business of milling the ore lived. Our voices bounced off the high walls and huge, silent machines, our breath hanging in the air, visible for seconds at a time after we exhaled before clinging to flat surfaces as shimmery drops of condensation. Years ago, this room would have been deafeningly loud with the sounds of mineral extraction: metal smashing rock, the hum of generators and engines, the shouting of the foremen as the carts crawled up and down the incline. Many of the slowly rusting ladders and stairs didn’t even creak after years in the mountain – a testament to the skill of the men who dug this manmade cave out of the hard granite of western Colorado.


The long steel rods inside the crushers would roll around as they turned, smashing the pieces of siderite, sphalerite, and pyrite (among other other minerals) into bits to be transported elsewhere.


A view looking back up at the incline from the crusher level.


An elevator in the upper level of the crusher room moved people and equipment between the crusher and shop levels. If it were operational, it would take us down to a tunnel leading out to the rail siding in the canyon.

It was almost time for us to head for the exit, as we’d be losing light in the canyon soon. Our exit from Belden took a different route than our entrance, and as we moved through the tunnels to the surface, the mill proved there were still surprises around the corner. A plastic tarp, ostensibly put there by the EPA during their cleanup, blocked off a side tunnel. We investigated, and found that the room held something straight out of a video game: a cavern with electric lime green runoff beneath the makeshift floorboards. Once the room was confirmed to be mutant- and zombie-free, we moved in.

Further back, we found a wooden catwalk which gave claustrophobic access to the top of a large holding tank. It seemed we had stumbled onto one of the EPA’s mine water storage locations, part of their plan to clean up the Eagle Mine site. The idea here is that water in the tanks is to be drained and treated in a newly built water treatment plant near Bolts Lake, a few miles up the river. The unearthly shade of green may be a combination of antifreeze (added to the runoff water to keep it liquid during the frigid winter months) and copper leaching, but regardless of its chemical content, we decided the best course of action would be to continue out of the mountain and away from the neon green liquid. Tripods and cameras were packed and accounted for, and off we went.

Eventually, one of the tunnels showed light at the end, and the four of us opened a rusty, creaky door and broke out of the depths and into the warm Colorado sunshine. Our exit let us out of Battle Mountain at an interesting place: about a third of the way up the canyon wall, right above a long, steep slope strewn with sharp, broken rocks of all sizes. Not the easiest place to descend from, but it definitely made for a great view of the exterior of the subterranean giant we had just slain.

Our descent began, the four of us slowly making our way down the scree to the floor of the canyon below. An old steel cable, perhaps once used to move ore or power around the site, now made a makeshift fixed rope to steady us as we tried to keep our footing on the loose, constantly shifting mass of rocks. Before long, the team was once again on ground level. As the sun continued its arc towards the tops of the peaks hemming us in, we investigated some of the above ground buildings in the complex. A small power substation near Darwin’s Ladder once supplied the mine and mill with power enough to keep the machines inside running and the miles of lights on. It was from here that the fateful switch was thrown, plunging the underground into the darkness when the EPA finally pulled the plug.


These transformers, once filled with toxic PCBs, were emptied ahead of the EPA’s arrival by a Union Pacific Railroad subsidiary. UP owns the now-abandoned Tennessee Pass line which runs past Belden.

Our hike out began soon after, the four of us heading back down the tracks toward Red Cliff. The Tennessee Pass line that our boots now traversed was once the highest railroad mainline in America. Built in the late 1800s by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway to beat the competing Colorado Midland to the mineral riches of the Leadville and Gilman districts, this line was for many years the primary transcontinental route through the Colorado Rockies. Southern Pacific bought the D&RGW in 1988, routing their huge 100-car coal trains up the line, some with as many as ten locomotives shoving them up the steep grades to the top of the pass. Eventually, Union Pacific bought out Southern Pacific, and with UP’s ownership of the Moffat Tunnel and other routes through the Rockies farther north in Wyoming, this legendary route was shut down for good in 1997. Only the section through the Royal Gorge remains open as an excursion line.

hiking out
Digital_me takes point as the team heads for the Red Cliff Bridge, which carries U.S. Highway 24 over the Eagle River. The new water treatment plant, built to clean up water from the mine, is nearby.

We arrived back at the car exhausted, but elated with the accomplishments of the preceding 48 hours. Only time will tell what becomes of Belden; recent work has been centered on stabilization and environmental monitoring. Unlike the town above it, redevelopment is not in the cards for Belden (after all, there’s only so many things one can use a giant, contaminated underground mill for) so for now, only the slow, unyielding forces of decay will continue to work inside Battle Mountain.

«Many thanks go to the Denver Public Library’s Western History Department for providing invaluable information on the history and underground workings of Belden.»