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Denver Area
Denver to Pueblo
Colorado Springs Area
Royal Gorge Route
Marshall Pass Area
Gunnison River
Uncompahgre River
Tennessee Pass Area
Eagle River
Colorado River
Grand Jct.- Green Riv.
Green Riv.- Provo
Provo- Salt Lake
USGS History



Marshall Pass Area: Salida to Gunnison

(U.S.G.S. Bulletin 707, 1922)

The part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad that runs over Marshall Pass was a part of the main line built with a 3-foot gage in 1881, and because of its steep climb over the mountains and its tortuous course through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison it has not been changed from its original gage. To the traveler who has never ridden in a narrow-gage coach the name " baby railroad," which was given to this system in the early days, seems eminently proper; but after traveling over the mountains and turning and twisting through the narrow canyons he gains respect for the narrow-gage road, which in this part of the country was the pioneer of railroads and led to the development of the mineral resources and the agricultural wealth much earlier than if the road had been built standard gage. In Colorado, however, the day of the narrow-gage road seems to have nearly passed, and all such lines will probably be abandoned or changed to standard gage.

Salida Area

The country about Salida is well watered, and much hay and grain is grown for the herds of cattle that may be seen from the train. Some fruit is raised, but the altitude here is so great that only the more hardy varieties will ripen. On leaving the station the railroad runs southwestward, directly toward the great mountain wall that bounds the valley (See sheet 3). It ascends the valley of South Arkansas River, in which no rock can be seen in place except at a distance until the train enters the mountains. The immediate valley is excavated in gravel and boulders, which may be seen on the right in the cut edge of a well-developed terrace . The top of this terrace, when seen from a high point, appears to be a part of what was once the floor of the valley. Remnants of a similar though higher terrace may be seen in the foothills on the left at a much greater elevation (See Plate XLIV).

The traveler is now near the, high mountains, and he may look up on the left to lofty peaks on which the snow banks of the preceding winter linger well into the summer and on which a fleecy mantle falls during the first snowstorms of early autumn, or even occasionally during a cold midsummer storm. The commanding summits which may be seen from time to time are Ouray Peak (altitude, 13,955 feet), near Marshall Pass (altitude, 10,856 feet), and Mount Chipeta on the left, and a group of peaks known as Mount Shavano (altitude, 14,179 feet) on the right. The lower slopes are more or less covered with timber, which becomes scanty as the height increases, until finally even the stunted balsams disappear (see Pl. XLV, A, p. 92) and at the summits there is nothing but wind-swept rock. The slopes vary in color according to the light, at times being rich red or bright yellow in the strong sunlight and at others deep purple or a steely blue. The color of the lower slopes depends largely on the vegetation, but that of the upper slopes depends on distance and light. In spring and summer the shrubs and trees present many shades of green and yellow, but they are most brilliant in September, when the first frost touches them and tinges them with red or gold.

Poncha Area

The railroad follows the valley up to the village of Poncha, where the road to Marshall Pass turns to the, south (left), but a branch keeps straight ahead to the inkling town of Monarch, 15 miles distant, where it ends. From Monarch the principal highway between Salida and the Gunnison Valley is an automobile road across the range. The Marshall Pass line turns to the south in a, broad curve and begins to climb the range. For half a mile it cuts through ridges and spurs of gravel and boulders which constitute a part of the high terrace already mentioned. Near milepost 222 it enters the canyon which Poncha Creek has cut in the hard rocks that compose the mountains.

gs161fig42.gif (4047 bytes)A quarter of a mile above milepost 223 the railroad swings to the left in a broad curve around a mass of loose material which has been swept down from a small gulch on the right, and almost immediately after swinging back into its normal position it has to make another curve in order to pass a second mass of similar loose material. Such masses, if fairly flat, are known as alluvial fans, but if steep they are called alluvial cones. The fans in Poncha Canyon are shown in the accompanying diagram. On the first fan the radial lines occupied by the streams at different times can easily be seen from the train, as they are marked by straight depressions and by ridges of boulders and angular pieces of broken rock which have been swept down by the stream.

Mears Junction Area

The canyon is narrow and V-shaped as far as Mears Junction, where it abruptly changes to a rather broad valley with a flat, swampy bottom, which bears all the marks of having been occupied by moving ice-that is, by a glacier. At Mears Junction a branch railroad turns to the right and after circling about over the main line turns back on the left and climbs the mountain slope to Poncha Pass, which stands at an altitude of 9,059 feet, and then descends into San Luis Park. Curiously enough, this branch line, in the heart of the Colorado mountains, has one of the longest stretches of straight track in this country-52 miles without a curve. Poncha Pass is much lower than Marshall Pass, and the traveler may look down into it when he is part way up the mountain.

Above Mears Junction the character of the valley is different in different parts, making the answer to the question whether it was occupied by ice somewhat doubtful.

About 2 miles above Mears Junction the valley is again wide and flat-bottomed and has all the features generally attributed to occupation by ice. In this wide part of the valley the railroad crosses to the east side, where it runs for nearly a mile, and then swings across the creek and returns on the opposite slope. As the road curves across the creek the traveler' may see by looking upstream that this branch of the valley is not broad or U-shaped and was therefore probably never occupied by ice. As the train climbs the west wall of the valley many interesting views of the features described above come into sight. It turns in around the head of every ravine and then out around every projecting point (as shown in Plate LX1X, B), until finally it comes to the top of the hills that face the valley. On one of the last bends the traveler may look down upon Poncha. Pass, but from a distance so great that good eyesight is needed to distinguish even the telegraph poles that mark the line of the railroad. The chain of high peaks which lies behind the pass and which is known as the Sangre de Cristo Range here begins to loom up, and as the journey continues it grows steadily in apparent magnitude until it is lost to view over the summit of Marshall Pass.

As the train continues to climb upward the traveler will observe that the slopes become less and less rugged, and he soon begins to realize that the mountain masses about him, which looked so formidable when seen from below, are really only the foothills of the higher range and that many of these foothills have a nearly common height and are relatively flat topped. These flat tops stand at an altitude of 9,300 to 9,500 feet and may correspond with the rolling plain at the north foot of Pikes Peak and with the tops of the Front Range as seen from Denver. Their equivalence with those features can not be regarded as proved, but they suggest that at one time much of the mountain region of Colorado was a rolling plain above whose generally even surface only a few high knobs projected. Later this surface was upraised to its present position, and the mountains as we know them to-day were carved from the uplifted mass.

As soon as the railroad reaches the top of the hills that front the valley it changes its course to one directly toward Mount Ouray, which is the most conspicuous feature in the landscape. The road winds considerably, but from time to time the peak can be seen from either side of the train, though the best views are from the left. The peak is not symmetrical, but looks as if some giant had taken a great bite out of the side next to the traveler. And, indeed, a giant has taken a bite out of the side of the mountain, but the giant was a glacier that once lay high up on its slopes and that gradually ate out a great amphitheater or cirque, as it is called by geologists. This cirque looks large even from the train, for it is about half a mile wide and probably 1,00 feet deep, but what must it look like when viewed from its rim!

Ouray Peak is supposed by some to be an extinct volcano, probably because of the resemblance of this cirque to the crater of a volcano One of the best places from which to see this cirque is Grays siding at an elevation of about 9,673 feet. Here the locomotive may take water, and the traveler may have an opportunity to step from the train and obtain a view of the mountain and the surrounding features.

A short distance above Grays siding extensive views appear on the left at many places. The chief points of interest are the peaks of the great Sangre de Cristo Range, and at their base the upper end of San Luis Park. Farther up the railroad the slopes on the left are very steep and are covered with a mantle of trees. The trees are not very large or very thick, but they conceal and soften rocky slopes that would otherwise be bare. Here the traveler may see, the blue spruce for which Colorado is noted. Only the young growth has the characteristic bluishgreen color, but when the cones have, reached their full growth the tree is one of the most beautiful in the forest. In midsummer these slopes form a sea of green; but if the traveler should cross the pass after the middle of September he will see the aspens in a golden blaze, and even in the thick forest he may see specks of yellow as brilliant as any of the "colors" in the prospector's pan in the early days when he struck " pay dirt."

Beyond milepost 239 the railroad runs along the side of a bouldery ridge at the foot of the bare cone of Ouray Peak. The traveler is at first so far below the summit of this ridge that he probably does not realize that it is a moraine which was evidently formed by one of the last glaciers that existed on the south slope of the mountain, but when he, is a little nearer the summit of the mountain he will be able to see the small cirque which this glacier excavated, though he will notice that it is not nearly so large as the cirque which he saw from Grays siding. The reasons for the difference are that the glacier which lay on the east side was in the lee of the mountain and received more snow than the other one, which -was exposed to the strong west wind, and that the snow which fell upon the glacier that faced the east was not readily melted, whereas the other glacier, which faced the south, must have received the full warmth of the sun's rays. As the glacier on the east side was thus favored in the accumulation of snow and in the slight melting of the ice it grew apace, whereas the one on the south side was always small and doubtless soon dwindled away.

Beyond the moraine the railroad passes through a swampy flat, which is possibly the cirque of a much older glacier than those just described. The traveler will see on the right the station of a ranger who guards the national forest. Although his station is desolate and the passing trains are his only diversion this ranger must remain here on duty to prevent forest fires and to look after the interests of the Forest Service.

Marshall Pass Area

At last the train stops in a small cut, and the traveler is at the summit of Marshall Pass, more than 2 miles above the level of the sea. This pass as it appears from the hills on the south is represented in Plate LX1X, A. The view from the summit, like that from many high mountains, is not so striking as a view from a point lower down, but it includes a vast expanse of country, especially on the west. Few real mountains can be seen in that direction, and the high land in sight consists mostly of vast plateaus which lie at different elevations. The pass was named in honor of Lieut. William L. Marshall, who was the first white man to cross it, in 1873.

The railroad cut at the summit of the pass is in a volcanic breccia made up of bombs and other fragments thrown out by a volcano and afterward consolidated and cemented into a bed of rock. The source of this volcanic material is not known, but it probably came from the south, where the eruptions were many and violent, though they did not extend into this region. This breccia is much younger than the rocks of Ouray Peak, and it therefore does not indicate that that mountain is a volcano.

The steepest railroad grade on the east side of the summit is 4 per cent, or 211 feet to the mile, a grade that is maintained from a point not far above Mears Junction to the summit, a distance of 14 miles. The grade on the west side is the same from the summit of the pass to a point about a mile below Chester, a distance of 9 miles. As the maximum grade on the standard-gage main line is only 3 per cent, or 158 feet to the mile, a change in gage here would probably mean an entirely new location, so as to avoid the steep grades and short curves.

On emerging from the snowsheds at the summit the traveler has spread before him on the left the long slope down which the railroad winds with many loops and turns. This side of the mountain is more nearly treeless than the east side, because it is much drier, for it is swept by dry winds that have passed over the and plateaus of southern Utah and Arizona. There are no indications that glaciers ever existed on this side, for the entire slope is exposed to view and nothing resembling a terminal moraine can be seen. This fact also is due to the strong west winds and the drier atmosphere on the west side and to the greater heat of the sun's rays, which aided the melting of the snow on the south and west sides. After the train loops back directly under the pass there is little of interest to be seen; the slopes are generally- smooth, and the valley is without scenic attractions.

A short distance west of Marshall Pass the railroad goes from volcanic breccia to granite and then onto quartzite and shale similar to those seen below the Ouray or Leadville limestone in both Eagle River canyon and the canyon of Colorado River above Glenwood Springs. These rocks are not strikingly exposed and probably will be detected only by those who look specially for them.

The railroad gradually descends the slope, and at Chester it is at the level of Tomichi Creek. For some distance the valley is small and narrow, but farther on it opens, and crops of hay may be seen on the flood plain. The chief industry of the country is stock raising, for the high mountains afford excellent summer pasture and the bottoms along the creeks produce hay for the subsistence of the stock during the winter. Cattle may be seen on the range at many places, especially in midsummer, and bands of sheep find pasture at the foot of the highest mountains. (See Pl. LXX, C.)

Sargent Area

gs167fig43.gif (6927 bytes)Below Chester the valley expands, and at Sargent the stream which the railroad has been following, is joined by a large branch from the north. Sargent is a busy railroad point which still bears the marks of a frontier settlement. Here "helper" engines are kept to assist the trains up the heavy grade to the summit. The rock near Sargent is mainly granite, but it is not conspicuous, for most of the slopes are smooth and round and few ledges are visible. The granite extends as far as milepost 263, where it is replaced by sandstone (Dakota), which forms a pronounced hogback on both sides of the tracks. This hogback forms one edge of a broad, flat basin of sedimentary rocks that extends practically to Gunnison. Where first seen the Dakota sandstone is overturned, as shown in the figure, showing that the down folding of the basin was accompanied by a strong thrust from the east.

gs168fig44.gif (6742 bytes)The Mancos shale forms the surface of the inner part of this great basin for a long distance. This shale is so soft that it is seldom seen in outcrop, but it has a decided effect in subduing the features of the landscape. The valley has a width of 2 or 3 miles, the slopes bordering it are gentle, and the hills are low. In the midst of the broad valley, or rather on its north (right) border, is a prominent mountain called Tomichi Dome, which rises more than 2,000 feet above the level of the valley. As shown the figure, this mountain is a great stock or mass of granite, much younger than the granite of the main mountains, that has been forced up through some crevice from below. It is much harder than the surrounding shale and hence stands up as an isolated mountain mass. The, elevation of the valley here is so great that few grains will mature, but fine crops of hay are grown and the level valley floor is dotted here and there with ranches. Doyle, the center of much of this fine meadow land, is connected by stage with Waunita Hot Springs, about 8 miles to the south, which is said to be a very beautiful health and pleasure resort.

Below Doyle the valley grows narrower, and within about 3 miles from the town the Dakota sandstone rises from the floor of the valley and makes prominent ledges on either side. This sandstone is underlain by the variegated shale and sandstone of the Gunnison formation, and this in turn rests directly upon the granite, which forms the foundation of this mountain region. The Dakota sandstone rises only a few hundred feet above the level of the stream, and the underlying rocks are worn into fantastic shapes, as can be seen on the north (right) side of the valley.

Parlin Area

From the point where they first appear to a point a few miles beyond the town of Gunnison the Dakota and the underlying Gunnison formation on the north side of the valley are continuously from 50 to about 300 feet above the level of the stream. In general, the valley continues wide and includes many hay fields. Parlin, at the mouth of Quartz Creek (see sheet 6, p. 182), is the principal town in this area. It was formerly connected with Buena Vista by a narrow-gage line of the Colorado & Southern Railway, but owing to the caving of the tunnel at the summit of the range service on this line has been discontinued. This branch was originally built down the valley to Gunnison, and the old track is visible at several places on the right. On the south side of the valley the sedimentary rocks can be traced to Parlin, but below this place the granite that forms the lower slopes is overlain by a great mass of volcanic rocks. These rocks cover every high point that projects into the valley from the south between Parlin and Gunnison. Two miles below Parlin Tomichi Creek is joined from the south (left) by, Cochetopa Creek, down which in 1853 came the exploring party which gave its name to this county. This party was one of several authorized by Congress to explore for the best route for a Pacific railroad. The party, under the command of Capt. J. W. Gunnison, entered the mountains by the pass now known as La Veta Pass, through the Sangre de Cristo Range, and crossed the north end of San Luis Park, reaching the Continental Divide at Cochetopa Pass (altitude, 9,088 feet). They descended Cochetopa Creek to its junction with Tomichi Creek, and this stream to the Gunnison, and so continued down to Colorado River (then the Grand). The party crossed Cochetopa Pass on September 2 and reached the present site of the town of Gunnison about September 7, 1853.

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