Tom Ross: More harrowing than a trip along I-70 on a busy ski weekend
March 4, 2013
Steamboat Springs — I received reports over the weekend that the trek was rugged from Denver into the mountains and through the Eisenhower Tunnel. But the tedium those skiers and snowboarders endured couldn't have matched the rigors of traveling over Rollins Pass and through "The White Desert" by train to reach Colorado's Western Slope in the winter of 1909.
My wife and a friend returned from a down-and-back trip to Denver for a trade show in time for dinner Saturday night, and Judy said she could not believe the miles and miles of idling vehicles they passed headed in the other direction while cruising unimpeded down from the Eisenhower Tunnel on Saturday.
There was an era in Colorado history, before the Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1928, when traveling to Colorado's Western Slope in winter could pose delays that lasted days, not hours.
Before the tunnel, the Moffat Road lost large sums of money trying to plow the snow off the tracks near the 11,680-foot summit of Rollins Pass each winter. A little town near the top of the pass, Corona, existed to shelter the trains, their crews and passengers that were frequently trapped by deep snowdrifts and avalanches. It even had a restaurant. Still, experienced passengers sometimes brought snowshoes and extra provisions, just in case.
The harrowing trip inspired a former Denver Post reporter, Courtney Riley Cooper, to write a novel titled "The White Desert" (1922) about tunnel workers trapped in the high mountains by an avalanche. Subsequently, Louis B. Mayer and Metro Goldwyn Pictures produced a 1925 silent film based on the book starring Claire Windsor and Pat O'Malley. The film actually was shot on Rollins Pass.
I recently stumbled on an account of an unusual mishap on the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad (the rails never went as far as Salt Lake, but that's another story) that took place in a blizzard in Middle Park.
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The account was published in "The Treasury of Western Folklore" edited by B.A. Botkin and published by Crown Publishers of New York in 1951.
The story relates how the westbound train, seven hours late out of Denver, made it over the pass, crawled out of Fraser Canyon and gathered speed to cross the Granby Flats.
In the meantime, the eastbound train, two days late out of Craig, finally got under way but did not pass the westbound train in the night as expected, creating considerable consternation.
The westbound train had run out of the sand typically sprayed onto the iron rails just ahead of the locomotive's wheels to improve traction, and with the blizzard becoming severe and darkness all around, the crew shut it down and waited for morning.
When dawn arrived the train crew was shocked to see that the train had stopped in the middle of Granby's main street, directly in front of Payne's Café.
It was determined later that the train had left the rails in the storm and traveled a mile over the frozen highway into the town itself.
Ultimately, the railroad had to build a new spur to recover its locomotive.
At least, that's the way the story goes.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com