by Mary Lowers
“I’ve been working on the railroad all the live-long day,
“I’ve been working on the railroad just to pass the time away . . .”
I have always thought it would be wonderful to traverse the San Luis Valley (SLV) by rail, sitting back in a comfortable seat with a big window nearby and watching the scenery.
At the turn of the twentieth century railroad tracks ran from Poncha Pass to Alamosa and south into New Mexico. In 1870, William Jackson Palmer, Supervisor of Surveys for the Kansas Pacific Railroad (R&R) had a dream of creating a R&R link running from Denver to Mexico City. In the fall of 1870 Palmer filed incorporation paperwork for the Denver and Rio Grande R&R. He lined up investors in the project from as far away as Philadelpha and even Europe. Virginia Simmons, an SLV historian said, “At the close of the Civil War great energy was turned to another dream of empire, this one built on iron rails.” Manifest destiny was in full force in the country, even in the SLV.
In 1881, the Denver and Rio Grande R&R’s Valley Line came over Poncha Pass to join the Marshall Pass mainline to Orient which is now Valley View Hot Springs, part of the Orient Land Trust. Iron ore was taken by rail to the CF&I Steel Mill in Pueblo from the mines near Orient until around World War II. Highway 17 running north and south on the eastern side of the SLV ran close to a standard gauge mainline track with narrow gauge lines running to meet it carrying passengers and freight from the east and west sides of the SLV. By the end of 1881 rail lines were constructed from Villa Grove to Antonito.
Moffat was established in 1890 by the SLV Town and Improvement Company. It was seen as a good central location for a railroad hub between Alamosa and Salida. Between 1890 and 1910 Moffat, named after the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad President David H. Moffat, was platted and soon had become home to a population of two thousand people seeking new lives. Moffat became known as the Queen City of the SLV. Two passenger trains arrived at Moffat daily and were greeted by a ninepiece band. Moffat was a center for moving cattle in the SLV with huge stockyards near the railroad. At one time Moffat was the largest livestock loading point in the state. Things quieted down when trucking took over livestock-hauling, and the railroad stopped running in the 1950s.
In 1900 a spur line from Moffat to Crestone, then a town of around two thousand souls, was begun. The Crestone District was riding high back then. The train ran from Crestone Junction just north of Moffat with tracks ending at the high-producing Independent Mine located where the Shumei Center is today. The Independent Mine is said to have yielded five thousand ounces of gold from 1899 to 1902. The narrow gauge railroad ending at a turntable in Cottonwood was constructed in 1901 by the Rio Grande and Sangre de Cristo Railroad R&R for the Denver and Rio Grande R&R. There were narrow gauge spur lines running from Bonanza and Creede to Moffat as well as trains from Crestone. Mineral wealth and cattle were the commercial items fueling railroad growth in the SLV. Freight hauling was where the money was and investors counted on freight, be it gold or cattle, to pay for the cost of R&R construction.
In those days the primary sources of R&R freight from the Crestone region were the mines located in the Cottonwood Creek area. The Independent Mine was by far the biggest producer in the vicinity removed thirty tons of ore from its tunnels per hour. It is estimated that fifty to eighty million in mineral wealth left the Baca by rail. Before the R&R, George Harlan reports in his history Postmark sand Places, “The sand made it necessary to use three horse teams to get the heavy gold to Moffat.”
Many of the materials used to construct the R&R came from a narrow gauge track running over La Veta Pass. The rails over the pass were switched from narrow to standard gauge track. In April and May 1901 Narrow gauge tracks and a turntable allowing for a train to be speedily turned around arrived from from the summit station on La Veta Pass. They were reinstalled on the Crestone line. Seemed like everyone was working on the railroads. The R&R boom between 1870 and 1890 increased employment 98% statewide.
There was one train daily to Crestone and Cottonwood. Harlan writes, “When the mine closed, the Sangre de Cristo and Rio Grande R&R found itself without a paying patron, and passenger income was inadequate to maintain rail service to the Crestone area.” The Denver and Rio Grande R&R had invested some $800,000 in the spur line, figuring they would be repaid in freight charges, but without gold to haul, the R&R could not pay for itself. The train stopped running to Cottonwood Creek Stamp Mill and Crestone about 1913. The tracks were removed in 1929, ending hope for a return of rail service to Crestone.
The old R&R Station in Crestone located off West Galena Ave, became a private home owned by the Baca Ranch. Old-time Crestonian Jim Hollmer told me the story of how the old depot, located on the south side of West Galena Ave., burnt down. Jim was up in the mountains in “hunting season so must have been around October 15, I looked back toward town and saw smoke.” Jim realised it was the old depot and hightailed it down the mountain to help.
Jim recollected, “Red and Mabel Thorne lived in the old depot and I knew Red was hunting somewhere on the western slope.” Mabel evidently had put hot stove ashes in a paper bag or cardboard box which she set just outside the building. “The wind stirred up a spark in the ashes which ignited the fire,’’ Jim told me. “People showed up and got everything out, even the refrigerator.” Mabel suddenly remembered Red’s saddle was upstairs and Jim put a ladder up to a window of the burning building, climbed up and crawled in saving the saddle. “Bill Hutchinson and Bill Stewart were there and we were worried about a kerosene tank on the side of the house catching fire and exploding. We shot a hole in the side of the tank to release the pressure so it did not blow up.”
With tracks and depot gone the Sangre de Cristo and Rio Grande R&R became an obscure piece of Crestone and SLV history. When you go down to Alamosa you can see Denver and Rio Grande R&R’s engine 169 on display at the entrance to Cole Park as you cross the bridge over the Rio Grande. This train is reported to have been one of the fastest narrow gauge engines ever built. It operated for fifty years and travelled on the rails linking Alamosa with mining centers such as Bonanza, Crestone, Creede and Orient.
In the 1930s a short section of track was converted to dual gauge so narrow gauge and standard gauge locomotives could use the route. While most of the route was abandoned in 1951 the dual gauge line to Hooper or the Hooper spur line ran until 1959. The railroads in the SLV brought in settlers and took out mineral wealth and cattle, adding significantly to the wealth and culture of the region.