Quest to Span the Royal Gorge
By the time Charles Driesel left the golden wheat fields of Red Rock, Okla., in 1929 and traveled west into Colorado, the fluctuating flow of the Arkansas River had been slowly carving a canyon into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains for over 5 million years.
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A Railroad Journey 1,000 Feet Down
ALL ABOARD! THE last passenger train rolled through Cañon City and the Royal Gorge in 1967, signaling the end of an era and 87 years of passenger service. Freight trains continued to run the line, but eventually Union Pacific abandoned the route to the wind and the weeds.
It’s not a new story. America’s famed railroads fizzled out with a sigh across Colorado, but people’s memories of railroad times never died. Many still think of the railroad and don’t see rusting tracks, but a time when America swelled with opportunity, the railroad pushing out into the western world of possibility.
Cañon City entrepreneurs shared this optimism in 1998 when they purchased the historic 12-mile section of track that runs through the Royal Gorge. on May 15, 1999, the Cañon City and Royal Gorge railroad started running passenger service again to the delight of Coloradans and rail fans worldwide.
The Royal Gorge Route uses historic locomotives, passenger coaches and observation decks from throughout North America, many held in storage until being put back into use by the reborn railroad. The modern journey begins at the Cañon City depot, built in 1914, where young couples, old couples and families with eager children line up, tickets clutched in hands, until the conductor yells, “All aboard!” Then they clamber on, some heading to Vista Dome cars with overhead glass windows and lunch service, others to basic but comfortable coach cars.
With a lurch, the train rolls slowly forward, moving west toward the edge of town and Colorado’s deepest gorge. This isn’t just a historical train journey, but a look into the history of Cañon City and the royal Gorge, an inhospitable cleft in the earth that has fascinated and challenged man since he first set eyes on it.
The train rolls past “Old Max,” the Colorado State Penitentiary which housed cannibal Alferd Packer and thousands of other inmates, then past Soda Springs, a natural springs buried by the expansion of U.S. Highway 50 in 1949. Minutes later, the “Gate” looms over engine 402, a massive fin of granodiorite marking the entrance to the gorge. Immediately the canyon walls press near, split by a rugged desert of cholla, buffalo grass, wild gourd and splintered red rock. Passengers rush to open-air observation cars for unimpeded views of the gorge.
Trains through the Royal Gorge have featured open observation cars since 1891, forever being the best way to get a feel for the chasm. On the opposite side of the canyon, an old redwood water line follows the curves of canyon walls. It carried water to Cañon City from 1907 to 1973.
Today they pump from the Arkansas River, whose crystal waters glitter most of the year, but transform into a muddy wild river during runoff. At high water, this is one of the most challenging stretches of whitewater in Colorado.
Far above, the Royal Gorge Bridge comes into view 956 feet overhead, a thin glistening line across blue skies. From below, it looks tiny, like a toy, putting the immensity of the canyon into perspective. Soon the train comes across another engineering wonder, the Hanging Bridge.
Here the canyon walls squeeze down to just 30 feet wide, hugging the rapids. This represented the crux for railroad engineers in 1878 and they called on C. Shaler Smith, a talented civil engineer who specialized in solving challenging railroad bridge problems. Smith designed a remarkable bridge hanging from angled beams anchored into the canyon walls. Engineers from around the world traveled to study the design.
Here and there on either side of the tracks are small rock walls that resemble childrens’ forts, but these forts were no child’s play. In 1878, fighting broke out between workers of the Denver & Rio Grande and Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe railroads over rights to lay a track through the gorge and access the gold fields of Leadville. Hired guns hid behind the forts while they shot at workers from the other company.
Beyond these remnants of the ambitions of man, geological and biological wonders abound. In this Precambrian wonderland, the black gabbro dike stands out, a dark slash across the red rocks above. In the observation car, people point out a herd of bighorn sheep and darting canyon wrens. Children run laughing back and forth, swinging on the handrails. Languages from around the world fill the air as people busily snap photographs of the stunning scenery. The air feels clean and crisp, the temperatures shifting wildly between sun and shadow.
Times have changed and Colorado has almost forgotten her railroads, but the Royal Gorge Route still runs its canyon course, bringing people into the heart of the gorge and letting them experience the beauty of the depths up close, as humans have enjoyed since this area was discovered.
(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)