The Marshall Pass Route was part of the
original narrow gauge transcontinental line connecting Denver
with Salt Lake City. Construction on
this section of track began in 1880 at Salida
and moved west over Marshall Pass. On both
sides of Marshall Pass the grades were a steep four percent, and
helper engines were required on the trains. Furthermore, the winters were severe and
snow removal was a constant battle for the crews. Near the top of the pass
an extensive system of snow sheds was built and at the crest, most
everything was enclosed in some form of snow shed at one time.
On the west side of the pass, Sargent was a
helper station at the lower levels of the mountain. From Sargent the line
followed Tomichi Creek west to Gunnison.
Construction of the Marshall Pass track to Gunnison and the branch line to
Crested Butte was done in a race with the Denver
and South Park railroad for first rights to coal fields in the Elk
Mountains. By utilizing the existing toll road built by Otto
Mears over Marshall Pass, the D&RG was first on the scene at
Crested Butte beating the D&SP who choose a more difficult route
across Alpine Pass.
From Gunnison the tracks continue west into the Black
Canyon. This rocky, semi-arid region is the site of hauntingly
imposing canyons carved by the Gunnison River. Much of the original line
in the canyon is now covered by impounded waters of Blue Mesa and Morrow
Near the town of Sapinero a branch line was
constructed to Lake City and its mining
prospects. This line was short lived and did not produce tremendous
revenues for the railroad.
West of Sapinero the tracks pass Curecanti
Needle, a giant rock pinnacle that became the logo symbol for the
railroad. Beyond this point the canyon was once considered impassable by
lesser engineers. But, the crews of the D&RG developed a system of
lowering men down the 1000 foot rock canyon face on ropes to dangle above
the raging river, pounding holes into the stone for support decking. Hand
drilled holes for charges would be cut into the rock and long fuses
attached to allow the workers to be pulled out of harms way before the
blast went off.
At Crystal Creek, near Cimarron, the
railroad climbed out of the canyon and began its long four percent grade
to Cero Summit. From the Summit the grades ranged from two to four percent
down into the Uncompahgre River valley at Montrose.
The valley is a beautiful agricultural area that thrives on the waters
from the reservoirs on the Gunnison River in Black Canyon.
A branch line from Montrose to Ouray serviced
the many mining areas in the awesome San Juan mountains. On the way
another connection at Ridgway
with the Rio
Grande Southern provided access to Telluride
and more mining revenues.
The main line left Montrose heading north to Grand
Junction. This portion of track was converted to dual gauge in 1906
and continued to run both gauges until 1953 when the narrow gauge lines
were abandoned through Marshall Pass.
The transcontinental traffic across the Marshall Pass route was
diverted onto the Tennessee Pass route after it was constructed in 1887.
This left only the coal shipments out of Crested Butte as the major
revenue for the Marshall Pass route until the 1950's when the CF&I
steel works at Pueblo
began purchasing coal from the Trinidad
area and put the last nails in the coffin for the narrow gauge over
Marshall Pass. It was not long before the route shut down completely and
the tracks were torn up.