Discovering the railroad history of Montrose

"There was a glory and a mystery about that mad ride which I felt keenly...until I had to offer prayers for the safety of the train." - Rudyard Kipling

Silver and gold in the Rockies! In the last quarter of the 19th century, thousands of people swarmed into southwestern Colorado to seek their fortunes in the mineral-rich mining districts. They came on foot, on horseback, in wagons — and on railroads. Today you can join thousands of railroad enthusiasts from around the world and spend a day — or two — following the paths of our world-famous narrow-gauge railroads. You’ll learn about the men who built them, see wildlife and dramatic geology, and find new recreational opportunities along the way.

Slim rails through the mountain

Narrow-gauge railroads, with three feet between the rails instead of the usual four feet, eight and one-half inches, were less expensive to build and particularly suited to the steep, twisty routes into the mining camps. One of the world’s largest networks of these “baby roads” spread over the state, led by the Denver and Rio Grande Railway (D&RG). Founded by General William Jackson Palmer in 1870, the D&RG reached Gunnison in August of 1881. Palmer believed that expansion was key to the success of his business, so construction continued westward toward present-day Montrose and beyond.

Steep terrain lay ahead. Ignoring the advice of experts, Palmer decided to extend his railroad along the Gunnison River, through the rugged Black Canyon. Construction was difficult — some surveying was done in winter when the river surface was frozen and in places where the canyon walls were so steep and narrow, and the rock so hard, that workers placed explosives while dangling from ropes. Hacking a narrow ledge from the cliffs for the rail bed, track crews left the Black Canyon at Cimarron Creek, emerging at the tiny village of Cimarron to complete a more conventional route to Montrose.

Generally following the route of today’s U.S. Highway 50, the railroad climbed the 4 percent grade to the top of Cerro Summit and arrived in the newly incorporated town of Montrose on September 8, 1882. Continuing northward, the D&RG reached Grand Junction in late November. A branch line extended south to Ouray in 1887, and in 1890 a Russian immigrant named Otto Mears, who had made a fortune building a system of wagon toll roads in the area, built the Rio Grande Southern Railroad (RGS) west and south from Ridgway to Telluride, Dolores, and Durango. The RGS became one of the most famous of all narrow-gauge lines. As ranching and agriculture expanded, Montrose became a transportation hub. Each year thousands of tons of rich ore, produce such as pinto beans and sugar beets, and tens of thousands of animals shipped through Montrose.

Chasing the iron horse — by boat

Today, railroad enthusiasts flock to southwestern Colorado to explore these classic routes. A journey along the historic narrow-gauge railway route to Montrose begins at the Pine Creek turnoff for the Morrow Point Boat Tour, less than an hour east of town at mile marker 130 on U.S. Highway 50 (see After descending 232 steps to the level of the river, the remaining half-mile hike on Pine Creek Trail to the boat dock treads along the Gunnison River and the abandoned D&RG rail bed. Let yourself drift back in time; imagine riding along this route in a passenger coach, pulled by a huffing, coal-burning steam locomotive.

This area is now within Curecanti National Recreation Area (CNRA). When the Morrow Point Dam was completed in 1968, the resulting reservoir flooded much of the old D&RG route, so the only way to experience its scenery today is to take the boat ride provided by the National Park Service (NPS). Tours generally run Memorial Day through Labor Day, and reservations are required. NPS rangers serve as guides, and their talks add fascinating details about the history of the railroad, the geologic and Native American history of the area, and the use of water in the West. This 1.5 hour trip on a 42-passenger pontoon boat takes you past several breathtaking landmarks.

Railroad travelers raved about the beauty of Chipeta Falls, named for the wife of Ute Chief Ouray, which plunges more than 200 feet to the river. While today the rail bed is 50 feet under water at this point, the view is just as impressive. The waterfall is also a popular winter destination for ice climbers. Along with several great hiking trails, it’s accessed from above from one of several overlooks on State Highway 92, which is a spectacular drive along the north rim of this portion of the canyon. You reach it by driving across Blue Mesa Dam, about a mile east of Pine Creek on U.S. Highway 50.

You may see bald eagles as you glide past the stunning Curecanti Needle, a 700-foot spire of granite that the D&RG used on its logo, declaring it the “Scenic Line of the World.” Rudyard Kipling made this trip by rail in 1889 and wrote, “There was a glory and a mystery about that mad ride which I felt keenly ... until I had to offer prayers for the safety of the train.” The Needle is a favorite of rock climbers, with routes ranging between 5.8 and 5.10 in difficulty.

Along the Cimarron

As you head back toward Montrose, stop at the CNRA’s Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit. When the D&RG emerged here from the Black Canyon, it needed extra locomotives to help pull heavy trains up the steep grade to Cerro Summit, so it built a substantial rail yard with a hotel, an eating house famous for trout dinners, depot, water tower, and a locomotive repair facility. While not much remains at Cimarron today, when the railroad was active it reached a peak population of 250 and became a major livestock loading point.

The CNRA exhibit features excellent interpretive signage, cattle and sheep pens, loading chutes, and a livestock car. Who would guess that livestock cars for sheep had two levels so they could carry twice as many animals? The most impressive exhibit at Cimarron is a couple of miles down the twisty canyon road, where the last standing bridge on the Black Canyon route dramatically spans a narrow gorge. A short train consisting of locomotive No. 278, its tender, a box car, and a caboose normally sits atop this bridge, but it’s undergoing restoration at this time. The train, owned by the City of Montrose and on loan to the National Park Service, could be returned to the bridge as soon as 2018.

Making the grade

As you continue westward on U.S. Highway 50, imagine long trains laboring up the steep grade visible on your left, with multiple locomotives struggling to reach Cerro Summit. When you reach the top, stop at Cerro Summit Recreation Area. This popular year-round site is a great nonmotorized area for mountain biking, hiking, sledding, and cross-country skiing, and some of the trails follow the narrow-gauge route. There are three parking areas and miles of single-track trails through the undeveloped landscape, which is also popular with birders and photographers.

When you reach mile markers 104-103, look to the left. You’ll see a large landslide area that buried the old railroad grade. Slides in the 1940s repeatedly covered the tracks until a huge slide in 1948 resulted in abandonment of the line between Gunnison and Montrose, cutting off livestock shipments to the east. As a result of competition from trucks and automobiles, the Rio Grande Southern was forced to close in 1951, and the Ridgway to Ouray branch was abandoned in 1953. The tracks north from Montrose had been converted to standard gauge in 1906, so southwestern Colorado’s narrow-gauge era ended — or did it?

Narrow-gauge today

Southwestern Colorado’s narrow-gauge legacy survives today in museums and on the famous Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, a 45-mile long former segment of the D&RG that carries more than 250,000 visitors each year in vintage equipment that allows you to experience rail travel as it was a hundred years ago.

The Montrose County Historical Museum is located in downtown Montrose in the D&RG depot, next to the still-operational tracks. Built in 1912, its diverse collection features a modern standard-gauge caboose, a rare authentic stagecoach that carried travelers between Montrose and Ouray, a cowboy line cabin, and many more exhibits that take you back in time to experience how early settlers lived in the Uncompahgre Valley.

A 30-minute drive south on U.S. Highway 550, the Ridgway Railroad Museum has extensive exhibits chronicling the area’s narrow-gauge history, including several D&RG and RGS railcars that actually operated locally. The Ridgway museum also recounts the tale of the world-famous RGS Galloping Geese, seven ungainly automobile-based rail buses that carried passengers and the U.S. mail during the depression and war years. Built in Ridgway, these unlikely contraptions kept the RGS in business until 1951, when it finally ceased operations. All seven still exist today, fully restored and on display in Ridgway, Telluride, Dolores, and Golden, Colorado, and at Knott’s Berry Farm in California.

To complete your Montrose-area railroad history experience, portions of the rail bed, spanning from East Oak Grove Road to north of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose and in Ridgway along the Uncompahgre River, have been converted to walking and biking trails. The railroads may be gone, but you can still appreciate how they made this beautiful area what it is today. As you travel these quiet pathways, let your imagination slip back to the late 1800s. You may hear the faint echo of a steam whistle and catch the smell of coal smoke.