Trails Of The Iron Horse
No one seems to know what the Indians called Rollins Pass, but they used it frequently in the early years when mankind traveled across the Great Divide. Spanish explorers called it Corona Pass, meaning "Crown." For a while, it was called Boulder Pass. When Colorado became a state in 1876, John Rollins had already constructed a wagon road over the top. From that time on, it was known as Rollins Pass.
Parts of the original wagon road still exist, but most of it is locked away behind the gates of a federal Wilderness area to keep old folks like me out. Don't let anyone tell you Wilderness areas are roadless. Rollins built his road in 1873 and it was used until the gates went up. The railroad took a higher path than the wagon road, so another way to see the original route across the Great Divide is with binoculars while standing on the rail bed at Needle's Eye.
The first railroads in the United States were on the East Coast. Every year, the end of the tracks reached farther west. When the iron horse began pushing into the Rocky Mountains, a man named David Moffit picked Rollins Pass to cross the Continental Divide. His first train topped Rollins Pass in September of 1904.
Today, the Rollins Pass route is better than Disneyland for a railroad buff. Especially one that is healthy enough to do some hiking and climbing. The current vehicle road uses most of the original railway. On the other hand, for those who know where to look, the real treasures are along sections that remain hidden far away from the untrained eye. Tunnels, water towers, bridges, trestles, and much more are at the ends of long switchback routes that the new road bypasses. Of course the tunnels are collapsed, the water towers are nothing more than scattered piles of lumber, and the amazing railway bed is overgrown with trees, but with a little imagination and some close observations, it is not difficult to put the pieces together mentally.
Of the 33 tunnels built for this railway, the most famous was called the Needle's Eye. It's not really much of a tunnel and not much longer than a single locomotive. In fact, one must wonder why the builders bothered with a tunnel when they could have simply chopped that part of the mountain away like they did in so many other locations. The view from either end of the tunnel can be described as nothing less than spectacular.