Colorado Railroad War

The Colorado Railroad War came about as a result of two giants in the railroad industry, building a line to Leadville and thus laying track through the Royal Gorge of southern Colorado.

The Santa Fe Railroad had been laying track west from Kansas for about 7 years, along the old Santa Fe Trail.

The Denver Rio Grande Railroad planned to build lines through Raton Pass at the border of Colorado and New Mexico.  So did the Santa Fe.

The main difference in these two railroads was that the Santa Fe was a standard gauge and the Denver Rio Grande was a narrow gauge.

Narrow gauge lines were best for running through the Rocky Mountains.

The race was on to Raton Pass.  The crew of the Santa Fe beat the Rio Grande crew by only a few hours.

In 1878, General Palmer of the Rio Grande met with William Strong, owner of the Santa Fe. They tried to talk out their differences, but to no avail.

Both men wanted a line to the silver mines in Leadville.

After the meeting, the men raced to build a line through Royal Gorge and on to the silver mines in the mountains.

Palmer and Strong hired gunfighters and undesirables to protect their crews from the other. This tiny canyon on the Arkansas River was about to became a war zone.

 Bat Masterson photo courtesy of Time Life Books

It is rumored that William Strong sent for legendary gunfighter, Bat Masterson, photo above, to lead his gang.

So there they were, two bands of gun toting bad guys, trying to protect the rival railroad crews from laying track through Royal Gorge.

Entrenchments were dug, telegraph lines were cut, but believe it or not, hardly any fighting occurred.

The owners of the railroads decided to settle the dispute civilly, by taking each other to court.

In the end, the Denver Rio Grande won the suit.  However, both railroads suffered.

In the settlement, the Rio Grande was not allowed to build further south than the town of Espanola in New Mexico.

The Santa Fe was prohibited from building west of the Rio Grande railroad tracks in Colorado.

So the Denver Rio Grande Railroad ran its line into Leadville, Colorado and changed its north-south route to an east-west one.

When you visit Colorado and decide to take the Royal Gorge train for a really cool ride into the famous canyon, think back a hundred years or so about the turmoil created by this small line of railroad track.

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