By Walter Weart © 2000, General Manager, Denver & Intermountain Railroad
Two Denver railfans, hoping for yet one more day of railroad photography on the Tennessee Pass line, stop in the Union Pacific's Operations office in Minturn, Colo. to see what activity there might be for the day ahead. They have already seen the empty westbound coal train sitting in the yard awaiting a crew before proceeding further. Their scanner had already alerted them to another westbound empty coal train which was due at 8:30 am and would also require a crew change.
After a few minutes conversation, they were told "Nothing called at either end for the rest of the day". As the Pass route is shut down, the phrase "Nothing Called" would become more and more common until, by early August 1997, there was no overhead traffic moving and the track would be silent for the first time over 100 years.
As 10,212 foot Tennessee Pass becomes yet one more rail route of legend for pictures and videos, it may be well to examine its history and speculate on its future. The Pass has received considerable railfan media attention in its last year of operation as well it should as this is the highest standard gauge main line in North America. Anyone who has had the opportunity to watch freight trains struggle up the to summit with either steam or diesel has had an opportunity to witness one of the truly great railroading shows of all times. Ankle deep piles of cinders attest to the struggles during steam days and helper sets of some of the most powerful diesels engines ever built have fought equally hard to lift their trains up and over the top.
However, before we become too nostalgic, it would be a good idea to review the history of the Pass. The fact that the Pass existed at all is more by accident then by design. Not only that but the Pass has come close to abandonment at least twice in the not too distant past.
The Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG), predecessor owner of the Pass before the Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), the Southern Pacific (SP) and finally, the Union Pacific (UP) was originally constructed to connect Denver with Mexico City. Only after the D&RG lost its fight with the Santa Fe did the narrow gauge road look west in earnest. In exchange for not building over Raton Pass, the D&RG received the right to construct a line through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River. The intended destination was Leadville, a booming mining town producing, at that time, almost mythical riches. Leadville was also the goal of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad (DSP&P), an arch rival of the D&RG. It was never the intent of the D&RG to build over Tennessee Pass as the road was pursuing other goals.
The line from Pueblo reached Canon City in 1874 with completion through the Royal Gorge to Salida and Leadville in 1880. The entire route was narrow gauge which later was to become a problem in more ways than one. With its eyes set on becoming a transcontinental link in the railroad map, the D&RG began laying 3' gauge rails west over Marshall Pass, through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to Montrose and on to Grand Junction. Connections were made with the Rio Grande Western for a "through" route to Salt Lake City. Construction continued on other routes with the slim rails arriving in Durango during 1881 and Silverton in 1882.
Interchange problems with standard gauge lines required the D&RG to lay a third rail from Pueblo to Leadville in 1887. This was converted to standard gauge only in 1912 as 3' gauge was no longer viable in a 4'- 8 ½" world. During this period, a new competitive threat arose and it was for this reason the D&RG extended its line over Tennessee Pass. The standard gauge Colorado Midland (CM) began construction west from Colorado Springs with a the goal of reaching Leadville and Aspen. Before Aspen was the playground of the rich and famous, it was a mining area of such significance as to attract at least two railroads.
Starting in Red Cliff which was then end of the line beyond Leadville, the D&RG began construction a 3' gauge line towards Glenwood Springs and ultimately, Aspen. The last 42 miles along the Roaring Fork River was completed into Aspen in late October 1887 well ahead of the rival Colorado Midland.
An agreement between the CM and D&RG formed a joint company to build a line from near Rifle to Grand Junction setting the stage for Tennessee Pass to become the D&RGW’s primary transcontinental route until completion of Moffat tunnel. During this era, the D&RG completed standard gauging its main lines and ultimately merging with the RGW to form the D&RGW. The Moffat Tunnel, combined with the Dotsero Cutoff, shortened mileage between Grand Junction and Denver by about 175 miles compared with the Pass while also reducing some of the grades. This shorter route drained traffic off the Tennessee Pass route.
When the original line was built, it was not only narrow gauge but was considered only a branch. This was to create problems later when the route was standard gauged and more problems when it become the D&RGW transcontinental main line after the Marshall Pass route was downgraded to secondary status. The D&RG dug a tunnel at the summit of Tennessee Pass as well as making numerous relocations of the grade in an effort to improve operations over the Pass by reducing the grades. At a much later date, Centralized Traffic Control was installed along the Pass route in an effort to speed up trains.
The Tennessee Pass route favored connections at Pueblo which were primarily the Missouri Pacific (MP) and Santa Fe while the Moffat line provided better and stronger connections in Denver with the Rock Island and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q). The Pueblo connections never provided as much traffic as did the Denver interchanges so the Tennessee Pass route with its operating problems was slowly downgraded. As a merger would ultimately spell the end of the Pass, earlier mergers would provide a reprieve from managements who sought to abandon this line.
Coal traffic was also a temporary savior of the Pass as western low sulphur coal started moving east in unit trains. Certain destinations favored the Pass route so traffic slowly increased.
The merger of the MP and the UP created a new outlet for the Pass route as the D&RGW was granted trackage rights to Kansas City. However, this only allowed existing traffic to continue over the Pass and management began to look at the possibility of abandonment. In the early 1980s, loss of the friendly Western Pacific (WP) connection in Salt Lake City when the WP was taken over by the UP; the abandonment of the Rock Island; closing of the Pueblo steel mills and economic deregulation of the railroad industry made the D&RGW's management wonder it they needed two routes over the Continental Divide. Later in that decade, most traffic was moved off the Pass and the crew change and helper station at Minturn was closed. Abandonment seemed likely as only one train a day was then operating via the Pass.
New owners of the D&RGW came on the scene in 1985 and by 1988, the Pass was being rebuilt with new rails, ties, ballast and improved clearances for auto rack cars and double stack intermodal business. Meanwhile, the merger of the CB&Q in to Burlington Northern and the acquisition of the Southern Pacific (SP) by the D&RGW owners virtually closed the old D&RGW - CB&Q gateway in Denver so the SP began running more trains over the Pass and on the Kansas City.
The SP's management again looked at the Pass and 1993 and 1994 carefully studied how to eliminate one of the two transcontinental routes. They came to the same conclusion as past managers that they could not close either route without creating severe and costly problems. After this study, traffic on the Pass soared so that during 1996 as many as 30 trains and helper engines moved over the line in a 24 hour period. Not only was coal moving but a new taconite move originating on the Wisconsin Central destined for a steel mill at Provo, Utah was going over the Pass. In addition, merchandise traffic was added to the mix, including a new lumber train so that the Pass became a raifan magnet.
This was its own undoing as only the newest and most powerful locomotives were being assigned to the Pass while other SP trains were being held for lack of power.
As mergers created opportunities, another merger spelled the end of the Pass as a viable route. The owners of the SP became convinced that the railroad was no longer capable of surviving in light of the merger of the BN and Santa Fe (BNSF). The SP sought out the UP and the merger was completed in 1996.
An examination of the Surface Transportation Board (STB) final order shows that the UP made a very pervasive argument for abandoning the Pass. As outlined in Finance Docket 32760 and specially in Decision 44, the UP indicted that it would reroute Pass traffic to other UP lines. As part of its plan, the UP stated it would upgrade to Kansas Pacific (KP) route from Denver which would allow it abandon the old MP line from Pueblo to at least Towner, CO. This action would effectively cut off the Pass as eastbound trains over the Pass would then be required to move north about 65 miles over the highly congested Joint Line.
Despite this plan, the STB, taking into consideration the recent reopening of Stampede Pass by the BNSF, granted only permission to discontinue operations and not abandonment. `The UP cited potential annual losses of $1.8 million while the STB set its figure at $1.73 million. No shippers other than ASARCO, were located on the line and ASARCO projected only 477 cars annually. ASARCO closed this mine in 1999, eliminating even this traffic. UP managers do not like helper districts and the thought of multi-million dollar locomotives being used only a few hours a day is an anathema. In this era of competitive transportation characterized by 53' trailers, turnpike doubles, Interstate Highways and "Just In Time" inventory techniques, freight trains grinding up Tennessee Pass powered by six or seven locomotives just does not fit. The UP managers are also aware of two recent accidents on the Pass which highlighted operating problems. In one case, a taconite train derailed near Mitchell and shortly thereafter, a merchandise train was in an accident which resulted in a sulfuric acid spill just east of the Deen Tunnel.
Despite other published reports, no specific time limit on retention of the Pass route by the UP was imposed. The UP must still seek STB approval for what ever action it seeks. This was a factor in its joint activity with the State of Colorado in seeking a new owner.
A new chapter in the saga of Tennessee Pass was written by the latest entity to become involved with this route, that being the State of Colorado in the person of its Office of Business Development (OBD). The interest by OBD stems from Colorado’s governor agreeing not to oppose the UP-SP merger. With tourism the state’s largest industry and Royal Gorge one of it’s top attractions, the operation of tourist trains though the Gorge could not be overlooked. Nor could the potential for a recreational trail over the old railroad grade.
When the UP and SP sought to merge, they wanted the approval of the Governor of Colorado or, at least his agreement not to oppose the plan. As part of the agreement. The UP agreed to donate 10 miles of track through the Royal Gorge and the balance of the right of way to Minturn. Colorado plans to use the right of way for a trail but this will have to wait until the UP decides what to do with the unsold portion of the line.
Colorado and the UP sought a new owner and this opened a new era for part of the Pass Route. Initial speculation centered on part of the route becoming a nature trial and indeed, many groups advocated this course. The STB’s decision effectively postponed this for an indefinite period of time so plans for a trail are on hold.
OBD mailed over 180 letters to companies which they thought might be interested in acquiring and operating all or a portion the Pass route. OBD received 14 replies that they felt were qualified. Of this group, five firms in turn paid a $500 fee to obtain the Bid package and signed a confidentiality agreement as they received information from the UP about salvage values as well as traffic information. The salvage value would only form the basis for bid since OBD excluded anyone who indicated they were interested in acquiring the line for scrap purposes. In light of the STB’s order, this seemed a sensible approach.
Only two of the bidders considered the entire route (Malta - Towner) while the other three concentrated on the Texas Creek - Canon City portion. The successful bidder is affiliated with a firm that opened a aggregates quarry at Parkdale while to other two where primarily interested in passenger service.
This means in all likelihood, the next train after the "discontinuance of service" to operate over the Pass could be to scrap the unused portion. The Minturn yard property is not included in the bid package so that the successful purchaser would get only one track through this area. The balance of the real estate could be worth millions. Vail Associates is extremely interested in this land as it "around the corner" from the Vail Valley and is between there and the Avon-Beaver Creek area which is yet another millionaire’s playground.
Other than the proposed aggregates quarry at Parkdale, there is no other freight business on the line east of Minturn with the closing of the Black Cloud mine. The last major shipper, New Jersey Zinc shut down the Gilman Mill in 1977 and the mine was closed in 1985. The mine had produced lead, silver and zinc but stands little chance of ever reopening. The railroad station connected with the mine is named Belden which was the source of some confusion for visiting railfans.
Another factor is the intention of the UP to abandon the Pueblo – Kansas City ex MP main line. In many portions of its route, it is only a few miles from either the BNSF or the UP’s KP line. It would appear that any attempt to preserve this as a short line would be less than successful. As an indication of this, the Tennessee Pass bid package did not contain any trackage rights, effectively isolating this line for freight traffic. We now know that the portion from Canon City to a point just beyond the Royal Gorge at Parkdale has been sold the operators of the Georgetown Loop. The new company is called the Royal Gorge and they operate two ex-C&NW F-7s in a Rio Grande inspired livery. The coaches are from VIA in Canada and they have an open car which was made from a coach.
A quarry opened at Parkdale and trains bearing the name Rock & Rail operate from Parkdale to Pueblo. The R&R also switches the cement plant at Florence so there is not much UP activity over the line. When ASARCO closed the Black Cloud Mine in Leadville, the Pueblo – Malta Local was discontinued so there is no activity from Gypsum to Parkdale where the Royal Gorge Railroad starts. The line is out of service and the weeds grow undisturbed. There is some talk of a commuter operation in the Avon-Beaver Creek area but there has been no real progress. The state may retain title to the line much as they do with the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Spokespersons for the state also made it very clear that they were seeking to minimize the impact of the merger on the state and that this was part of their concern.
In the final analysis, Tennessee Pass may join other Colorado railroad icons such the Denver, South Park & Pacific, the Colorado Midland as well as Rollins and Hagerman Passes in the history books. Future generations of railfans will view videos, read books and lament that they never saw Tennessee Pass in operation. For those of us who did witness this epic battle of railroad and gravity, our stories will begin with "I remember the day on the Pass when..."