Denver Rio Grande Railroad

photo courtesy of the Colorado Railroad Museum


The Denver Rio Grande Railroad was instrumental in making it easier to travel from Denver to Utah.

The railroad was the brainchild of General William Jackson Palmer, who served in the Civil War and was involved in establishing a rail line from Arizona to California.


In 1870, Palmer wanted to build a rail route to El Paso from Denver and then connect to Mexico City.

This would be a narrow gauge railroad, with only three feet wide track to handle the mountainous terrain of Colorado.

Palmer started his venture by building tracks along the eastern foothills of Colorado, heading south.


From Denver, as he approached the New Mexico state line, he ran into problems with the Santa Fe Railroad at Raton Pass and was unable to complete his rail lines to El Paso.

Palmer finally had to head west into Colorado, and it was about seven years before the track reached the Rio Grande in Alamosa.

This proved to be a good idea.  His railroad spread into Durango, Silverton, Aspen and on west to Salt Lake City, Utah.


As the railroad was built west, Palmer not only had a great mountain rail line but he founded a few towns along the way.

Colorado Springs was the first town to his credit, along with it being the first stop on his railroad line.

The narrow gauge track was the longest, spreading about 1700 miles, of which 772 were from Denver to Utah.


General Palmer hoped his railroad would be part of the United States railway system.

However, the U.S. used the standard gauge and in 1890, Palmer had to re-lay track through Royal Gorge, Glenwood Canyon and beyond, to be in compliance and part of the railway system.

He kept his narrow gauge mountain rails as an easier travel route for his trains and passengers.  These rails continued to be in use for almost 75 years.


The beginning of the 20th century saw the construction of the Moffat Tunnel and the Dotsero Cutoff to shorten travel time from Denver to Utah by 173 miles.

In 1947, the Union Pacific Railroad bought the Denver Rio Grande and incorporated it into its railway system.

Some of Palmer's narrow gauge railroad lines are still in use today as scenic railway attractions.



return to Colorado Railroads from Denver Rio Grande Railroad

return to Explore Old West Colorado from Denver Rio Grande Railroad