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The Continental Divide - Hagerman Pass

Posted in Events on August 1, 2009
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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.

The Hagerman Tunnel can be approached from either end but only close enough to peek inside. On the west side, a small opening at the top of the tunnel can be used to view the construction of the ceiling and walls but a battery operated spotlight will be needed.

The east side was carved from solid rock so beams were not required to support the ceiling or walls. For most of the year, the water inside is frozen.

Getting from one side to the other is accomplished by crossing Hagerman Pass at 11,925 feet. Snow is normally melted off the pass in late July or August. A passenger car road accesses the east portal of the Carlton Tunnel. From that point on, the road becomes somewhat rougher. It should be done in a high clearance vehicle due to rocky sections that will damage the undercarriage if mistakes are made.

On the west side, a well maintained road leads to the maintenance headquarters at the Carlton Tunnel. At the entrance to that complex, turn left on the steep rocky path going around the back of it. From there, the narrow road uses the original railroad grade all the way to the tunnel. It is a scenic drive with a few small camp sites.

This route follows county roads to the west side of Hagerman Tunnel then crosses the pass to the east side. Take exit 147 off I-70 for Eagle, Colorado. Go south through the traffic light, under the overpass, and turn right at the circle drive. Go one block and turn left on Capitol St. Follow Capitol St. and reset your trip meter when it crosses Sixth. Also reset your trip meter any time you see 0 in the trip meter column.

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Trip Meter Latitude North Longitude West Comments
0.0 N39 39.0533 W106 49.5937 Sixth and Capitol. Continue south.
0.3 N39 38.7520 W106 49.8051 Left on Brush Creek Rd. From here, it gets very tricky. Follow the turns staying on Brush Creek Rd.
1.0 N39 38.5144 W106 49.0399 Right. Follow sign for Brush Creek Road.
1.1 N39 38.4226 W106 48.9661 Right at stop sign, then the first left. Follow sign for Brush Creek Road.
9.6 N39 32.3458 W106 45.1512 Right on West Brush Creek Rd. Pavement ends.
N39 28.2606 W106 43.7012 Take the left fork for Crooked Creek Pass. Sign says it is NFS Road 400.
4.2 N39 26.4844 W106 41.1081 Crooked Creek Pass. 10,031-feet on GPS.
N39 24.8723 W106 39.5703 Right toward Thomasville.
N39 21.0707 W106 41.3385 Left on paved road.
N39 17.9339 W106 35.2771 Pavement ends. There is an NFS kiosk with info here. Stay on road past the kiosk. This is the old railroad grade.
2.4 N39 19.1247 W106 37.3516 Continue straight across the creek.
N39 17.5260 W106 31.6723 Hagerman Pass is left. Tunnels are right.
2.3 N39 16.0070 W106 29.9311 This is the Pueblo Water Board caretaker facility. The Carlton Tunnel is used to get water through the mountain. It is private property. Take the road going to the left.
5.6 N39 15.3306 W106 29.4525 Hagerman Tunnel. The road ends here. Turn around and go back to the Hagerman Pass intersection.
0     Intersection. Follow the trail up hill.
0.6 N39 17.0930 W106 31.1668 Left fork.
N39 15.5537 W106 27.5456 Hagerman Tunnel Trailhead. It is a 3 mile hike to reach the tunnel.
0.9 N39 14.9180 W106 28.2399 Carlton Tunnel east side.
N39 16.1095 W106 25.0269 Paved Road. Go straight.
7.1 N39 14.4266 W106 18.1487 The paved road connects to Hwy 24 at the Leadville {{{Ranger}}} Station.
PhotosView Slideshow

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