A Union Pacific train rolls through downtown Steamboat Springs in much the same way trains  have been  for the past 100 years.

Photo by John F. Russell

A Union Pacific train rolls through downtown Steamboat Springs in much the same way trains have been for the past 100 years.

Railroad came to Steamboat 100 years ago

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Had it not been for a courageous group of men known as Argo's Squirrels, Steamboat Springs might never have become a winter resort. The great coal mines of Northwest Colorado might have languished for decades longer, and the stockyards just west of downtown might never have been built.

If Argo's Squirrels hadn't been willing to dangle from the cliffs of Gore Canyon, the Moffat Road might never have reached Steamboat at all. Even the Depot Art Center would surely have a different name today.

Jan. 6, 2009, marked the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first passenger train in Steamboat. Denver banker and mining magnate David Moffat is correctly credited with bringing the railroad to this valley. He possessed the vision, tenacity and financial means to build the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railroad over the top of the Rocky Mountain Front and press on to Steamboat in early 1908.

Moffat was focused on paying for his railroad with freight in the form of cattle that previously were driven over land to graze on the lush grass of northern Routt County. And, of course, he counted on his freight trains carrying the high-grade coal being mined from West Routt.

Residents of the valley were focused on economic development, too. But the arrival of the railroad meant more than that. It meant a connection to the outside world. Before the railroad, residents of the valley depended on horse-drawn wagons for the manufactured goods and food stuffs that made life more comfortable. And personal travel to Denver was arduous at best.

The late newspaper editor Dee Richards cited an editorial from the Denver Post in her historical text, "Steamboat 'Round the Bend," to illustrate how the railroad changed life in the Yampa Valley.

"One who has not lived in a town remote from railroads, particularly in this western country, where mountain roads are none too good and where stages break down and freight outfits are stalled in the mud and snow for days at a time, cannot realize the sensations that thrill the residents of the gritty little towns in Northwest Colorado when they hear the locomotive whistle," the Post wrote.

Argo's forgotten Squirrels

Moffat's ultimate dream of extending the railroad through Craig and on to Salt Lake City, Utah, was never realized. However, the events that took place 100 years ago gave this remote outpost its first real connection to distant markets and changed the course of history in Northwest Colorado.

The remarkable feat of building a railroad over and through the Rockies could not have been realized without the intrepid Squirrels, a band of acrobatic surveyors under the supervision of a man named J.J. Argo.

The archives of the Colorado Historical Society are among the last links to the men who risked their lives to help get the railroad through treacherous Gore Canyon and the rapids of the Colorado River. Only then could it replace the horse-drawn stagecoaches that brought passengers and freight north to Toponas and, ultimately, Steamboat Springs and Craig.

The Historical Society recounts the difficulty of finding a way through the deep and narrow canyon for the new railroad tracks. Gore Canyon is six miles long and bracketed every mile of the way by sheer granite walls that rise 3,000 feet.

A crew of mostly immigrant workers, the Squirrels dangled from ropes dropped over the cliffs in order to drive steel pegs into the rock above the river. The Squirrels took logs floated down the river and hung them from the pegs to form the crude scaffolding from which they could survey the best route for a rail bed through the canyon.

By the time the Squirrels were doing their work in the summer of 1905, the most difficult phase of building the railroad already had been accomplished. The engineering puzzle of maintaining a surmountable grade from the Front Range up through Rollinsville to the 11,666-foot summit of Corona Pass (now Rollins Pass) had been solved.

Steamboat-bound

However, even in 1905, with the railroad barely 50 miles from Steamboat, there still was a strong chance that instead of coming through town, it would skirt around Emerald Mountain.

Moffat realized he could save many thousands of dollars in construction costs by heading straight for the (now defunct) coal mining town of Mount Harris, downstream from Steamboat.

Only a chance friendship between Moffat and Sam Perry, together with the fundraising efforts of Steamboat community leaders, kept the rails on course for Steamboat. A well-curated Tread of Pioneers Museum exhibit about the history of the Moffat Road and its impact on Steamboat recalls how Perry, who owned a coal mine in Oak Creek, used his relationship with Moffat to help persuade him to continue on to Steamboat. His motivation came in part from the fact that his daughters, Marjorie and Charlotte Perry, had launched a summer dance school just outside Steamboat in Strawberry Park. Residents today know it as Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp.

However, the financial implications were significant. It was costing Moffat an estimated $40,000 a mile to lay track (three times that cost in Gore Canyon), and Steamboat residents who already had put up $15,000 to secure the railroad for Steamboat were asked to dig even deeper for funds.

In "Steamboat 'Round the Bend," Richards recalled the depth of local sentiment for ensuring the railroad did not bypass Steamboat. She quotes Mayor J.G. Houston, who was pressing in early 1908 for local leaders to come up with more cash and sign an additional contract with Moffat:

"If there ever was a time to show our colors in a fight which means thousands of dollars to your pocketbooks, it is now! You should rise in your might and show the people that there are no freer souls on God's footstool than the good citizens of Steamboat Springs," Houston exclaimed.

"Two years ago, we raised $15,000 in less than a jiffy, and this year, we want to convince the world that perfect unity prevails in the best town on the Western Slope and that everyone is a cheerful giver!"

A joyous arrival

Steamboat's downtown buildings were deserted Dec. 18, 1908, when the first whistle sounded from the "pioneer car" that led the track-laying train into town.

The front page of the local newspaper trumpeted the news on a Dec. 16, 1908, front page devoted entirely to news about the railroad:

"Hundreds of people on foot, on horseback and in sleds, the old and the young, escorted the crew on its way. The band played, and a salute of 13 guns was fired from Flagstaff Hill."

The vision Steamboat residents had for the train was quickly realized. The train carried coal, cattle and even lettuce from South Routt to distant markets. Strawberries from Strawberry Park were served in the fine dining rooms of the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver.

In time, tourists from the other side of the mountains rode the train once a winter in February to attend Winter Carnival and to see the famous Steamboat Springs ski band. It was the first vestige of winter tourism in the valley.

Reliability problems

However, there were serious problems with David Moffat's railroad and its reliability in winter. He never intended that the high route of Corona Pass would be permanent. It was seen as a way to get equipment and work crews to the west side of the Continental Divide, where ultimately the west portal of a tunnel under the mountains would make the route more practical.

In the interim, snow drifts deeper than a locomotive often made winter travel inconvenient, if not downright perilous. Passengers sometimes were stranded and left for days without adequate provisions. In spite of early versions of giant snowblowers mounted on the front of locomotives, they could not always cope with the heavy drifts.

Marcellus "Celly" Merrill, who moved to Steamboat in 1905 at age 5 and grew up to become an inventor of international acclaim, recalled an early train ride.

In a new collection of Celly's stories compiled and edited by his grandson, David Merrill Primus, Celly described how the severe winters forced the railroad to build two miles of wooden snow sheds to protect the tracks. A crew of railroad workers lived in shacks attached to the sheds.

Merrill and his father often made a winter trip to Denver in January during the Denver Stock Show so they could buy cattle and horses. He described one ill-fated trip when they were stranded:

"One time, we were stuck on top for about four days in a snow shed because of a terrible storm," he wrote. "The passenger train had a dining car, but they ran out of food. We ate all of the food that was in the cook shack at Corona (except for eggs - they must have had thousands of eggs).

"I will never forget the time we spent on top. They brought some Chinese in to shovel the snow. It was impossible. The big snowplow chewed up two or three of the Chinese. After that, they refused to go out and shovel. I don't blame them. We had to walk through the snow for about three or four miles to reach a train down the Western Slope that had to come pick us up."

Moffat died in March 1911 in New York City, and his ultimate goal of building a railroad tunnel to replace the old route over Corona Pass foundered for years. The drive to bring Western Slope water to the growing Front Range revived interest in the tunnel, but it took more than a decade of political wrangling for the state to begin the challenging work of boring the tunnel under the shoulder of James Peak.

After the expenditure of $18 million and the loss of 28 lives, the first official train ran through the tunnel in February 1928. The tunnel drastically shortened the trip to Steamboat and Craig, but the railroad was not fated to run its main line through Northwest Colorado to Salt lake City. By that time, visionaries saw a chance to build a shortcut to existing rail lines along the Colorado River downstream from Bond. The Denver and Rio Grand Western acquired the Denver & Salt Lake Western, and with it the rights to build the Dotsero Cutoff, taking the railroad to a point just 20 miles east of Glenwood Springs. That step completed the permanent transcontinental rail route through Colorado and limited the future of the route to Northwest Colorado.

The historians at Tread of Pioneers Museum point out that by the mid-1950s, the railroad no longer dominated commerce in this part of the state.

Cattle ranchers had switched to trucks to haul their cattle to market. The lettuce and spinach industry here no longer could compete with the irrigated fields of Arizona and California. And high labor costs undercut the demand for Routt County strawberries.

Tourists came to favor their own automobiles against the six-hour train trip (in good weather), and the last passenger train ran in April 1968.

The Union Pacific Railroad continues to haul coal from Northwest Colorado to distant power plants, an industry that supports many high-paying jobs in the valley.

But the days when courageous men such as Argo's Squirrels labored to bring the future to Northwest Colorado are a century in the past.

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