Railroad advertising called this the "Top 'O the World" and it referred to the Moffat Route over the continental divide and the Rocky Mountains. Rollins Pass was the primary travel route west from Denver until an easier road over Berthoud Pass was constructed. The Denver, Northwestern and Pacific railroad laid its tracks across the pass in 1903-1904 and established a Depot at Corona on the crest.
David Moffat planned to replace the "Hill Line" with a tunnel through James Peak within a few years of the railroad construction. However, he never could obtain financing for the tunnel due to the inability of the railroad to make a profit and opposition from competing railroads such as the Denver and Rio Grande. The D&RG saw the line as a threat. But, in the far future the construction of Moffat Tunnel would turn out to be the D&RG's saving grace.
The trip up Rollins Pass was a favorite of summer tourists looking to enjoy the mountain scenery. It was heavily promoted by the railroad with picnic and wildflower picking excursions. Sights along the line were made famous by postcards containing the photos of L. C. McClure.
Ten years after Moffat's death, the construction of the tunnel he dreamed of was begun after funding was raised by the state of Colorado. Upon completion of the tunnel in 1927, the Hill Line over Rollins Pass was shut down and only a few trains traveled the tracks for emergency service. In 1935 the Hill Line was finally abandoned all together.
Today the old railroad grade is a favorite four wheel drive road and mountain bike trail. It is maintained by the Forest Service and still presents the joy and beauty for the adventurer that it did when the railroad was running.
MILE BY MILE
A journey over the Rollins Pass Hill Line begins at the Town of Tolland. This was once a support site on the railroad where trains could be serviced and helpers added to help with the climb over Continental Divide. A Depot, Engine House, Water Tank and Coaling facilities all supported the railroad.
From Tolland the rail line moves north westerly by making a series of long looping switchbacks up the side of the mountain. First the tracks run east up South Bolder Creek and then turn 180 degrees in a sharp hairpin loop, back to the west on a two percent climb up the mountains east of Tolland. The grade quickly changes to a steep four percent, and will remain there for the entire climb.
The train continues to Jenny Creek Canyon, and then again turns back on itself, passing through Tunnel 31. Here a large rock outcrop high above the tunnel resembles a human head and became known as Sphinx Head Rock.
From the tunnel the railroad continues to gain altitude with several more switchbacks and 180 degree turns. The tracks are a great height with steep falls into the canyon below, yet this is just the lower levels and the train keeps moving up into large glacier cut valleys and near vertical peaks. Glaciers scooped out wide smooth sections from the mountain making a circular bowl, or "cirque", in the valley. Water ponds into lakes in the basin and the train makes another big loop around Yankee Doodle Lake. At one time a series of snow sheds were located on the west side of the lake.
From Yankee Doodle Lake the struggle upward continues with another zigzag around Jenny Lake and then up the face of the giant peak to Tunnel 32. Known as Needle's Eye, this tunnel pierces a section of the highest ridge as the railroad tracks again loop around for the final ascent on the pass summit.
At last the route surmounts the crest of the Continental Divide and takes quick refuge on the top at Corona. At elevation 11, 660 this is truly the famous Top O' the World and one of the highest railroad passes in the world. Due to the great height and nature of the Rocky Mountains, the entire railroad complex was completely enclosed in giant covered snow sheds.
On the east side of the crest at Corona, the tracks hang on the side of the Continental Divide ridge. From this vantage point one could gaze out across the Rockies as far as the eye could see. A steep drop of nearly a thousand feet awaited any mis-step.
Below the crest on the east side of the divide the railroad does a complete loop upon itself. Where the tracks cross over themselves, a high trestle was built at Riflesight Notch. Beneath the trestle was Tunnel 33 which had snow sheds on each end.
From the great loop the train descends down a four percent grade to the small town of Arrow where the passengers could finally get off and have a warm cup of coffee.
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