When he was a boy his daddy told him many times not to be anywhere near Woodstock, Colorado, after dark on March 10 of any year. His daddy was a trapper who lived in the mountains for most of his life, and the stories he told were never believed by anyone.
Now the boy had grown into an old man, but some of his father's stories still burned in his mind and demanded to be freed. Here he was, camped in waist deep snow at the edge of what was once a railroad track to the Alpine Tunnel. It was March 10, 1984, exactly 100 years since the town of Woodstock was wiped off the face of the earth.
The man huddled in his tent trying to stay warm against the howling winds and blinding snow that pounded the walls. His snowmobile was nearly buried outside the tent in fresh snow. His lantern was all that kept the inside of the tent above freezing. Suddenly, he felt the ground moving under him. It was a vibration that was quickly followed by the sound of steel wheels against a steel track. But that was not possible. The rails for the track had been removed many years ago. He stepped outside the tent and moved to the center of what was once the path of the train. The sound grew louder and louder.
Suddenly a whistle blew and a glow from lanterns appeared before him. The ghostly image of a train lurched out of the darkness and passed right through him in less than a second. The sound of the train began to fade but was replaced by a roar of something coming down the mountain and getting closer by the second. The sound of trees being cracked like toothpicks and the rumble of rocks and boulders being pushed ahead of the white death filled the air.
The old man squinted his eyes against the raging wind and the blowing snow, trying to see what could not be there. He saw ghostly images of several buildings including a telegraph office and a boarding house. Then from out of the darkness, the white death appeared. It was an avalanche bigger than anything he ever imagined. He heard screams coming from the boarding house as the snow engulfed it. The water tank disintegrated with an explosion that sent water and ice into the air. The old man stared in disbelief, unable to move, as the avalanche came over top of him.
Then, it was gone. No avalanche. No buildings. No water tank. It just disappeared, replaced only by the howling winds and blowing snow that preceded the incident. Surprised he was still alive, the old man limped back to his tent. He would never again be in Woodstock, Colorado, on March 10 of any year.
On the other hand, the ghost story is based on the fact that on March 10, 1884, Woodstock, Colorado, was leveled by an avalanche and was never rebuilt. Six children died in the boarding house and seven others lost their lives to the white death. It was only guessed that the rumble of the train or the whistle broke the snow loose from high above and sent it down the mountain.
Our trip through Woodstock was in the middle of the summer. We were on the second half of our journey around Miners Run (see "Miners Run, Part I: Colorado Wagon Roads and Ghost Towns," May 2010). We stopped long enough to read the historic marker and comment on the horrors of the white death. There was nothing left of the ghost town and we were not run over by any trains. Our main objective on that day was to visit the Alpine Tunnel. Lone Writer wanted to see how much progress had been made in restoring the structures. A volunteer organization has been working on it for years.
During the 1800s, railroads were pushing across the wilderness on a direct course for California. The end of the track changed daily until they found themselves faced with the challenge of getting across the Continental Divide. The Alpine tunnel was the first hole punched through the mountain range providing a route trains could use to connect the western slope of the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast. It originally held the title as the highest railroad tunnel in the world at 11,605 feet.
It took two years to build the Alpine Tunnel and cost more than double the original budget. A crew of 350 to 400 men worked on it year around for a whopping $3.50 a day plus a bonus for those who worked with explosives. It was difficult to keep them on the job, turning over about 10,000 workers during the two-year period. Blinding snow made it difficult to find the bunkhouse at the end of the shift, extreme cold threatened their lives, and digging through crumbling granite held a constant fear of cave-ins.
The tunnel was worked from both ends. It was built on a curve and was more than a third of a mile long. When the two ends came together, they were only fractions of an inch apart. It is amazing that engineers and surveyors had the ability to accomplish such a feat in the 1880s.
The first train passed through in 1881 and the last one was in 1910. The telegraph office has been restored and its walls are lined with great stories and facts about the Alpine Tunnel. The boarding house fell many years ago and is a pile of rubble. Passing trains stopped at the boarding house for a 45-minute meal.
After spending some time at the tunnel, we continued our journey around the Miners Run loop. We passed over Hancock Pass at an elevation of 12,140 feet. The route is very rocky and requires a 4x4 with low-range. The views from the top of the pass provide photo moments in both directions. Tomichi Pass is in full view to the south and going down the north slope returns to St. Elmo. It is also possible to visit the Alpine Tunnel on the east slope but includes a very long hike. The road has been closed to motorized traffic.
This navigation begins at Cumberland, which is the point where we left off in Part I of this article ("Miner's Run, Part I: Colorado Wagon Roads and Ghost Towns," May 2010).
Trip Meter - Latitude North - Longitude West - Comments
0.0 - N38 41.3638 - W106 29.0413 - Cumberland Pass. 12,015 feet.
0.1 - N38 41.2882 - W106 29.0842 - Take the left fork off the main road onto the original road.
0.7 - N38 40.9410 - W106 29.6496 - Cross the main road and stay on the original road.
1.5 - N38 40.8981 - W106 29.0818 - Turn right onto the main road. The original road is no longer available.
6.7 - N38 37.4980 - W106 28.5526 - Turn left toward the Alpine Tunnel. There are National Forest Campgrounds in this area for those who have reached the end of the day.
14.2 - N38 36.8245 - W106 23.3994 - At Sherrod Loop, the road splits. Stay left on the main road to visit the Alpine Tunnel. Come back to this intersection and take the right fork to continue along the Miners Run loop.
16.3 - N38 38.2890 - W106 24.4857 - Parking for the Alpine Tunnel. An outhouse is available. When finished visiting, return to the Hancock Pass Intersection and reset your trip meter to zero.
0.6 - N38 36.6848 - W106 22.7102 - Take the left fork. The right fork goes over Tomichi Pass and eventually connects to Highway 50.
1.6 - N38 37.2548 - W106 22.4849 - This is Hancock Pass. 12,140 feet in elevation.
3.8 - N38 38.3632 - W106 21.7054 - The 4x4 road becomes a graded road at the point where it connects back to the railroad grade, where the town of Hancock once flourished. This is also the parking area for the hike to the east entrance to the Alpine Tunnel.
9.0 - N38 42.3597 - W106 20.4123 - Turn left for St. Elmo. Turn right if you would rather soak in the waters of the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs or connect to Highway 285.
1.9 - N38 43.554 - W106 28.789 - Stay right, which is straight.
2.3 - N38 43.1230 - W106 28.9221 - Right turn switchback.
3.0 - N38 43.0318 - W106 29.2693 - Turn left at the buildings. Then to get through town, stay right at the next intersections and go on the right side of a larger building on the left. At that building stay right. At the next intersection take a left, which goes between two buildings and up a slight hill.
3.7 - N38 42.8465 - W106 28.7411 - Right fork.
3.9 - N38 42.7227 - W106 28.7503 - The road continues uphill to some buildings. Stay left past the buildings. Right at the next intersection past buildings.
4.0 - N38 42.720 - W106 28.728 - Right. Stay on the main road.
5.0 - N38 41.9080 - W106 28.6350 - Right. Left goes to a hill climb which is for experienced four-wheelers only.
5.8 - N38 41.3638 - W106 29.0413 - Cumberland Pass. 12,015 ft.