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The Continental Divide - Hagerman Pass

Isuzu Trooper Rear
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted August 1, 2009

Tracing The First Standard Gauge Railroad Across The Great Divide In Colorado

The road on the west side of Hagerman Pass offers beautiful scenery and wildlife. During one part of the trip, an eagle swooped down to check us out then disappeared in the forest.

In 1887, there were at least five "narrow gauge" railroads that crossed the Continental Divide in Colorado. Each one crossed at a different point aimed at a different destination. The narrow gauge design was smaller, lighter, and easier to get through mountainous terrain. Construction costs were much lower since the tracks were narrower and could be designed to hold lighter loads. The "lighter load" capability was an advantage in construction but a disadvantage in carrying freight.

With the silver mining boom going on in Leadville, everyone wanted to go there. In fact, Leadville was the second largest city in Colorado at that time and attracted people from all over the world. Only 10 years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Leadville had its own exchange providing communication between the town and outlying mines.

James John Hagerman was a wealthy man who moved to Colorado Springs from the East because of lung problems. He was appointed president of the Colorado Midland Railroad and decided to build a line to Leadville, then over Hagerman Pass to Aspen and on to Grand Junction. His track became the first standard gauge rail over the Continental Divide with operations beginning in 1887.

The biggest challenge was getting the train over the Continental Divide. Using loops and trestles, the track climbed the mountain to an elevation of 11,530 feet then bored through to the other side. Keeping water out of any tunnel in the mountains is a challenge. Since no one cares about the Hagerman Tunnel, it has filled with water. Looking inside at the craftsmanship of the beams supporting its ceiling and walls is still a wonder.

The rail bed leading to the east portal of the tunnel is easy to follow but consists of a six mile round trip hike. The first half of that hike is uphill along the gentle grade of the railway. Regardless of the grade, hiking uphill at 11,000 feet can be more than some people can handle.

A curved trestle 1,084 feet long is considered an engineering marvel of the Colorado Midland. Of course, nothing is left, but the gap it spanned is obvious. There were also numerous snow-sheds built in an effort to keep the track clear.

The railway up the mountain and the tunnel through it were built by Italian immigrants. They lived in a small town located near the mouth of the tunnel called Douglass City. It consisted of eight saloons constructed in tents. There was also a dance hall with shady ladies who were too ornery to practice their profession in towns with a better climate. The remains of a few log cabins can be found scattered along either side of the single street that passed through Douglass City. The town had the reputation of being a place where only the strong survived. If the weather didn't kill the weaker ones, others in the city would.

The Hagerman Tunnel route cost more to keep open than the Colorado Midland could afford. In 1893, construction was completed on a tunnel 600 feet lower in elevation than the Hagerman. It was originally named the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel but was later re-named the Carlton Tunnel. It was owned by a separate company. The Colorado Midland paid rent to use it.

The Colorado Midland never made any money. It was dissolved and in 1922 the Carlton Tunnel became a part of Highway 104. A toll was charged to pass through it. Since the tunnel was only wide enough for one vehicle, a system was devised to inform both ends of traffic within.

In 1943, a part of the tunnel collapsed. It was never repaired. Today the Carlton Tunnel is used as part of a water diversion project. Headquarters for the maintenance crew is located at the mouth of the tunnel on the west side. The tunnel is closed to the public on both ends.

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