The International Steam Pages

A Tragi-Farce -- The Colorado Midland Railway

Robert Hall writes about a US railway which had a shorter than average life.. There is a map at the end of the text.

The CMR was too obscure and closed too early to have attracted enthusiast cineographers. However, footage exists of the associated Midland Terminal Railroad just before it too closed in 1949 - An image search will produce reasonable results, one of the better ones is this collection -

As I have remarked in previous pieces on this site -- railway history in the USA can be reckoned to have followed a similar course to that in the rest of the world; but with most things tending to happen earlier in the States, than elsewhere. This would include that country's first significantly large-scale railway abandonment, which took place all-but-exactly a century ago. It concerned a route through spectacular scenery; for which a better future, and a longer time in which to appreciate its charms, could have been wished. Circumstances at a time of national crisis made things markedly worse in, and in fact virtually put an end to, this line's none-too-happy story. A case could be made for reading the tale -- lasting essentially a mere three decades from start to finish -- as being about "capitalism gone berserk", outstripping British pre-1923 railway companies' craziest antics -- however, "this side of the pond" too, there were a fair few lines which in a sane society, should probably never have existed; but which must have been delightful to know.

I owe a debt of gratitude for some of the information in this piece, to Mr. Peter Sartucci of Colorado.

The undertaking involved, was the Colorado Midland Railway (one of the minority of US lines which chose -- except for, with this line, a spell in the 1890s -- to employ officially, the title "Railway" as opposed to "Railroad"). Its envisaged purposes were to play a part in east -- west long-distance rail traffic and its more convenient handling than hitherto, across the Rocky Mountains range in the state of Colorado -- linking with connecting rail arteries taking that direction, toward the next state westward, Utah; and and to serve various potentially lucrative mining undertakings in this part of the Rockies.

The history of US railroads, particularly in the high days up to World War I, often appears to an outsider, such that adjectives like "chequered" and "colourful" come to mind: with much engaging in "swallow my neighbour" games, seemingly involving kaleidoscopic mergers / splittings-up / name changes / partnerships becoming rivalries, and vice versa. Sounding sometimes as though imagined by Terry Pratchett on one of his less-good days; and often hard for the author of this piece, to try to keep straight. Imaginably, though, these matters could be crystal-clear to an American enthusiast -- who might in turn find pre-Grouping British railway companies' wheelings-and-dealings, demented and complicated beyond any comprehension. 

Inaugurating new lines in quest of better east-west communication, and access to assorted lucrative mining operations; was undertaken in -- to a fair extent -- conjunction between the Colorado Midland Railway, and its older and larger neighbour the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (these two concerns were at various different times, rivals; allies and partners; and "ownee / owner"). The "Midland" was always and only standard-gauge (4ft. 8 and one half in. / 1435mm); the D&RG had started its career on the 3ft. / 914mm gauge. The CMR's coming on the scene in the later 1880s, prompted rapid adoption by the D&RG where routes were contiguous, of standard gauge: either new construction of same, or widening / third-rail-ing of 914mm gauge lines. (The reaches of the D&RG's system which remained 914mm gauge-only, for much longer -- some continuing active thus, well into the second half of the 20th century -- lay further south.)

The goal as regards "east to west, new and improved", was to provide all-standard-gauge and less-indirect trackage across the Rocky Mountains: between Denver, state capital of Colorado, and Utah, the next state to the west. This had hitherto been furnished by the D&RG on a highly circuitous and largely 914mm gauge southerly route via Gunnison: to be replaced in part by overall less circuitous routes (though still, for sure, far from beelines), on the standard gauge throughout. There commenced in the later 1880s what one might see anthropomorphically, as three decades of "sibling rivalry" or "love / hate" between the two railways which crossed the mountains. The CMR main line opened at the end of August 1887, having started from Colorado Springs, on the joint D&RG / Colorado & Southern Railroad north-to-south main line; into the prominent mining centre of Leadville. This marked the first direct standard-gauge access to this community -- hitherto reached only by the for a long time 914mm-gauge, incipiently east-to-west line of the D&RG (and at that, by a short branch off said line); and a yet more "rolling road", also 914mm gauge -- that of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad, later absorbed by the Colorado & Southern. (The CMR subsequently put in a Leadville "avoiding line", giving an option of cutting-out and grade-easing re the difficult route through Leadville town.)

1887 was a busy year where railway doings in this part of the world were concerned. In the course of that year, the bulk of the CMR's main line eastward from Colorado Springs , was opened. The D&RG, scrambling to keep up, added a third rail to allow standard-gauge use of its existing route between Pueblo, Salida, and the Leadville area; and inaugurated a new standard-gauge line -- less direct than its "Midland" counterpart -- westward from the Leadville area, through Edwards to the vicinity of Glenwood Springs -- which city was also on the CMR's route. From there and then on, things slowed down somewhat; becoming as it were a joust to see which party could get further west, first. The prize and goal was Grand Junction -- out west near the Utah border: on the D&RG-and-associates' old route westward via Gunnison, toward Salt Lake City originally on the 914mm gauge throughout.

Re this particular historical episode, this author feels like something of a "dumb Limey", in having trouble -- given the available source material -- in comprehending the details of the large and expansive "Rio Grande" rail outfit: forgiveness requested for a possible degree of vagueness / inaccuracy concerning this "patch".

It seems strongly inferrable that there were for long, two semi-separate at least, sectors of the Rio Grande: the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad operating essentially in Colorado; and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, active in the very far west of Colorado and in Utah -- the two connecting with each other, by the D&RG's southerly route via Gunnison, at Grand Junction (originally the "end-on" kind of junction between two different administrations, not the "branching-off" kind). Situation between the new Colorado Midland Railway and the D&RG, sorted itself out gradually between late 1887, and 1890: various financial /physical / proprietorial constraints and "headaches" were lived through and resolved. It eventually panned out that the CMR's own trackage ran -- parallel to that of the D&RG -- as far west as Gramid, where the two lines physically joined. (The name presumably deriving from the spot's being meeting-point of Rio GRAnde, and MIDland.) It was convened on, that CMR trains would have running powers for another 25 km westward on the new D&RG line, as far as Rifle. It was further convened on, that there should be created a new concern, jointly owned by Denver & Rio Grande, and Denver & Rio Grande Western: the Rio Grande Junction Railway -- to be built and opened 105 km from Rifle westward to Grand Junction. This allowed, by whatever logic, running powers for Colorado Midland Railway trains all the way to Grand Junction. All of these doings came to full fruition in late 1890.

The CMR main line's route over its own metals, Colorado Springs -- Gramid, was approximately 355 kilometres -- tortuous rail line through difficult mountain country meaning a distance between the two points, much longer than the crow-flight one. The CMR had towards its western end, a couple of branch lines, often closely paralleled (as was the CMR with various main-line stretches also) by other railways' trackage. One of these branches terminated at what I believe to be nowadays the US's premier ski venue, namely Aspen; it would seem that America discovered skiing too late for that to be any help to the CMR. And further east, the CMR acquired in time a "daughter" line: the Midland Terminal Railroad, opened in a couple of stages up to 1895, running from the CMR main line at Divide (about 35 km north-west of Colorado Springs), some 25 km southward to gold-mining-important Cripple Creek (also linked at least for a time, to the outside world by other routes, variously standard- and narrow-gauge). When in 1918, disaster struck the CMR and mostly ended its story: the existence of the Midland Terminal, and its wish to remain connected to the wider USA rail system, meant salvation for another thirty-odd years for the easternmost extremity of the CMR's route.

The CMR was costly to construct, and overall did not receive as great a quantity of traffic as had originally been hoped for; the line was bedevilled by financial difficulties right from opening to closure, and spent much time as a -- usually nominally independent -- "football" being kicked around between bigger and more powerful neighbouring railways. After an initial couple of years' truly independent existence -- incomplete, and with tangled doings at its western end as recounted above -- the CMR was sold in 1890 to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, of which it became a nominally independent subsidiary -- its title changed from "Railway" to "Railroad". In part as a result of financially troublous times for the whole country -- the 1893 Silver Panic -- the CMR (and its "parent" Santa Fe) went into receivership; trains continued to run, and better prosperity slowly returned, but the Midland ended up being sold in 1897 to a wealthy entrepreneur, one Henry T. Rogers, and reverted to life as an independent outfit, once more opting for the title of "Railway".

This genuine independence was, again, short-lived. The CMR's two nearby older and larger "frenemies" -- the Denver & Rio Grande / Denver & Rio Grande Western, and the Colorado & Southern -- had ideas of profiting by acquiring the "Midland": it was sold to them in 1900, with each company having half ownership -- the CMR remained nominally independent. This situation was characterised by ups-and-downs from various causes: on a generally downward slope, however -- from about 1908, things began to shape up especially badly financially, for the "Midland" part of the joint undertaking. Road-motor-vehicle competition was becoming meaningful for the first time. Matters deteriorated, financial axes were ground in various quarters: early in 1917, the CMR was foreclosed on by the financiers. It went to auction, and was rescued by a rich entrepreneur -- not the Mr. Rogers of twenty years previously, but one Albert Carlton. This gentleman very effectively used his considerable "clout" to regain traffic for the CMR, and to improve the railway's physical condition. Sadly, though -- among the very many nasty attributes of the First World War, it was shortly to deal an all-but death blow to this, it would seem, predestinedly unlucky rail undertaking.

The USA entered the war in April 1917; very late in that year, the nation's railways were, as a wartime measure, temporarily nationalised under the United States Railroad Administration. This body -- reckonably less clued-up than it might have been -- got embroiled in the apparently endlessly vexed "whose-east-to-west-route?" question. Its administrators initially favoured the CMR as the shortest route across Colorado for continent-wide transit traffic in massive quantity -- including "all government mail and freight"; failing to take into account, the line's "convalescent" status after a lean-years spell. All possible traffic was diverted to the CMR, and away from the D&RG's route which -- as touched on previously -- accomplished the same, but on appreciably greater kilometrage. This proved a burden too great for the CMR -- short of motive power and staff, and with track and equipment still in indifferent condition -- successfully to bear: things got clogged-up, and the consignments were not getting through as wished. Winter 1917 / 18's being a hard one, did not help. USRA inspectors concluded that the D&RG, despite its longer route, was after all more capable of doing the job: in Spring 1918 the original policy was reversed, and the transit traffic was sent over the D&RG. As one source puts it, "With traffic suddenly gone, the railroad was back in receivership again as of July 1918." Albert Carlton himself was appointed as receiver, and ordered to stop operating the railway from early August. This had to be done -- all services on the railway, ceased. There was hope for a fair while, that this might be only a temporary, war-related thing: approaches were made to larger railway undertakings, re taking over the CMR-- nothing, however, came of these. In 1919 the Midland Terminal Railroad bought the 35 km-odd of the CMR between Colorado Springs and Divide, to ensure the maintenance of their connection with the continent's rail network. The thus "augmented" Midland Terminal Railroad, now running between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek, continued to operate passenger services until 1931, and freight until 1949. Mr. Carlton, hoping against hope, long delayed scrapping of the CMR west of Divide; but gave in in summer 1921, and ordered dismantling to begin -- deeding the right of way to the State of Colorado for highway purposes.

Commentators on the World War I-related events here, are disposed to suggest that the raw deal which the line got, was worsened by bureaucratic bunglers / careerists being eager, as is their wont, to "cover their asses" and blame the victim, rather than admit to making of mistakes on their part. Quite possibly; but nothing new or surprising here -- as the chap wrote, "It was going on under the Pharaohs; it will be going on when we colonise Andromeda..." In the way that one feels about one or two, very much shorter, British lines which met a similar fate in those years -- even if there had been no First World War, or if the respective country had not taken part in the conflict, it is difficult to imagine the CMR lasting for very many years post-1918. Nonetheless: lines which seem to be "born losers", are often especially lovable.

Something of a feature of these railroads in the Rockies would seem to be tangled tales of strife and contention, involving routes' surmounting -- to get where they sought to go -- of particularly high and difficult passes in the mountains. One such, was the Alpine Tunnel negotiating the Continental Divide, on the Colorado & Southern (earlier, Denver, South Park & Pacific) Railroad's 914mm-gauge route from Denver ultimately to the D&RG 914mm gauge at Gunnison -- what with endless problems involving both natural, and human / commercial, factors: the section which included said tunnel, ran only from 1882 to 1910. The CMR's equivalent was Hagerman Pass, where its route crossed the same Continental Divide -- across which the corresponding and at times preferred D&RG line ran via Tennessee Pass, some 15 km to the north-east. Another wild story of "man versus nature and man versus man". The CMR was initially constructed to cross the Hagerman Pass, via a short summit tunnel, but otherwise a matter of -- as one source has it -- a horrific compendium of "steep grades, large trestles, sharp curves and susceptibility to blizzards and avalanches". (The repeated-hairpin sinuosity of the original line as shown in the detailed railway atlas, boggles the mind. It is understood all to have been wonderfully spectacular, and amazing photographs survive of this impressive "show".)

Means were sought from the first, to make matters here more "handle-able". With the infant Colorado Midland Railway being too broke to undertake on its own, a longish relatively low-level tunnel under the pass; a work-around was divided, whereby the Busk Tunnel Railway Company was launched, to bore such a tunnel, a little over 3 km long (full name, Busk -- Ivanhoe Tunnel) -- with the CMR paying fees to the tunnel company, for everything that it hauled through the tunnel. Regular tunnel use thus, commenced at the beginning of 1894 -- the tortuous "old line" was however not dismantled. In the CMR's late-1890s spell of receivership and then true independence, those in charge of the railway -- "the Official Receiver, and then the tycoon Rogers" -- went into battle against the Busk Tunnel Railway Company, to try to lessen the CMR's financial losses. The "old line" running across the top was refurbished, and through 1897 and 1898 all workings -- freight and, remarkably, passenger too -- ran via the old line, leaving the "tunnel guys" with effectively no revenue. Mother Nature weighed in at the beginning of 1899, with tremendous snowstorms accompanied by avalanches, which made the old line effectively impassable for nearly three months. As the source puts it, "This crisis brought the Midland and the Busk Tunnel Company back to the negotiating table". The upshot was, the CMR's buying the tunnel company outright, with all traffic running through the Busk -- Ivanhoe Tunnel as from late May 1899: the old line was dismantled during the following few months. One is inclined to feel that Shakespeare -- very popular in the 19th-century USA -- nailed it: "Lord, what fools these mortals be !"

"Loser" though the CMR may have been: it nonetheless had some practical, as well as aesthetic, positive attributes. Its ten class 115 2-8-0s purchased for the opening, were among the largest and most powerful of their type in the USA at the time. Its first dozen 4-6-0s were, similarly, reckoned the heaviest and most powerful of that wheel arrangement, yet built. (CMR's loco stock ordered throughout the decades, were overwhelmingly 4-6-0s and 2-8-0s -- sadly, after the first years, less-good-than-hoped-for financial doings precluded particularly high-class motive power.) And, the CMR's being built from the first to standard gauge resulted, in the nature of things, in more solid and stable routeing than with the lines, quite often closely parallel with the CMR's, of its sometimes "mirror twin", the Denver & Rio Grande. The D&RG had been there earlier on these routes, but laid out and built to the 914mm gauge: which meant ipso facto, done in cheaper-and-corner-cutting fashion. By the time late in the 19th century when the CMR was coming on the scene, the D&RG in those areas had standard-gauged or was in the process thereof -- however, its routes essentially stayed on the formations taken when inaugurated on the narrower gauge. In parallel-routes situations, the CMR's lines tended to be higher up in relation to watercourses, than the earlier 914mm-built D&RG or associated lines: they were less prone to being overcome by the sudden floods which are a feature of this region.

My acquaintance Peter Sartucci, mentioned above, has had the rare experience of person-to-person contact with someone who had known at first hand, travel on the CMR. This was an elderly gentleman with whom he was acquainted -- born, one infers, around the turn of the 19th / 20th centuries -- with some interest in railways; son of the holder of a high post in the mining industry, involving travel in the first two decades of the "Twentieth", to many mine sites operating in Colorado. On occasion, Dad took son with him on various journeys in professional capacity, done by passenger train. Memory told of a preference on the father's part for using, where possible, the Midland's services; rather than their counterparts on the close-by D&RG lines, originally engineered and built to the 914mm gauge. A combination of, on the CMR's part, better-laid-out routes and a tendency for its coaches, built to standard gauge from the outset, to be more roomy; plus the "Midland lines higher up" factor mentioned above; in the father's mind, tipped the balance toward favouring use of the CMR. A preference not indulgeable post-1918...

Rob Dickinson