High Country Rails And Trails
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World, American Indians had, for centuries, established migration routes across the Continental Divide of North America. One of these such routes, located high in the Rocky Mountains in north-central Colorado, was subsequently used by white explorers and dubbed "Corona Pass" ("corona" means "crown" in Spanish). Throughout the years, the route was also called Boulder Pass, but today it is best known as Rollins Pass.
In 1873, before Colorado was a state, a man named John Rollins finished building a wagon road over the pass and it was renamed in his honor. Much of that original road still exists. Some of it can be driven in a vehicle, but the passage over the top is locked away behind the gates of a Wilderness area and hiking shoes are required to follow it.
As rails for the iron horse began pushing into the Rocky Mountains, a Denver banker named David Moffat set his sights on Rollins Pass as the route for his Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railway. He envisioned this railway reaching all the way to the West Coast, but the Continental Divide was a formidable obstacle. Although Moffat had always thought that a tunnel would be the best approach, he decided it would be faster and cheaper to lay tracks over the top. The first train topped Rollins Pass in September of 1904.
The railway over Rollins Pass, though a significant engineering accomplishment, was not the greatest of plans. Even it's builder, David Moffat, admitted it was nothing more than a temporary solution until funds could be raised to build a tunnel through the mountain. Rollins Pass is a very windy and cold place. Blizzards are frequent during the winter with winds approaching 100 mph, and thunderstorms are numerous during the summer. At the top of the pass, the entire railway was enclosed in narrow wooden snow tunnels where smoke and soot built up to the point that passengers and workers passed out. The decaying remains of those massive snow tunnels still lie beside the road today.
Just building the railway was an enormous task in itself - thirty-three tunnels had to be dug. In order to maintain a grade of less than 4 percent, valleys had to be filled in, trestles had to be built, and hills had to be flattened. Even with all that work, it took the builders only two years to complete the construction of the railway from Denver to Winter Park, Colorado.
Another problem was keeping the trains on the track. Apparently the braking systems on those old locomotives had a lot of room for improvement. There are still scattered remains of the ones that lost control and jumped the tracks. Of course, there was also the ever-present danger of forest fires. The huffing, puffing locomotives discharged a lot of soot; that soot was hot and could easily start a fire, so brush had to be continually cleared from near the tracks.
At the summit of the pass was Corona Station and Hotel, accompanied by another restaurant-hotel. The concrete foundations are still there, but everything else is gone. The cable supports alongside the foundations were used to keep the roofs from blowing off during the days when wind speeds exceeded 80 mph. The tracks at the station were covered by huge showsheds that are best described as wooden tunnels. Access from the train into the buildings was by way of more wooden tunnels built from door to door. The train stopped inside a tunnel and passengers walked through another wooden tunnel to reach the station. During winter months, the wooden tunnels, the hotel, and most everything else at the summit of Rollins Pass were buried under 30 feet of snow. The wooden tunnels only existed at the summit, so special engines were outfitted with huge rotary snowplows to run ahead of trains and clear the tracks in both directions.
The rails over the Rollins Pass route were used until the 6-mile-long Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1928. Although David Moffat never lived to see the completion of the tunnel and the problems associated with traversing the pass solved, Moffat Tunnel is still being used today, almost 100 years later, to transport passengers from the east side of the divide to the west.
Today, the Rollins Pass route is like Disneyland for a railroad buff, especially one who 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.