"Nothing Called - The last days of
Walter Weart © 2000,
General Manager Denver & Intermountain Railroad
Two Denver railfans, hoping
for yet one more day of railroad photography on the Tennessee
Pass line, stop in the Union Pacific's Operations office
in Minturn, Colo. to see what activity there might be for
the day ahead. They have already seen the empty westbound
coal train sitting in the yard awaiting a crew before proceeding
further. Their scanner had already alerted them to another
westbound empty coal train which was due at 8:30 am and
would also require a crew change.
After a few minutes conversation,
they were told "Nothing called at either end for the rest
of the day". As the Pass route is shut down, the phrase
"Nothing Called" would become more and more common until,
by early August 1997, there was no overhead traffic moving
and the track would be silent for the first time over 100
As 10,212 foot Tennessee Pass
becomes yet one more rail route of legend for pictures and
videos, it may be well to examine its history and speculate
on its future. The Pass has received considerable railfan
media attention in its last year of operation as well it
should as this is the highest standard gauge main line in
North America. Anyone who has had the opportunity to watch
freight trains struggle up the to summit with either steam
or diesel has had an opportunity to witness one of the truly
great railroading shows of all times. Ankle deep piles of
cinders attest to the struggles during steam days and helper
sets of some of the most powerful diesels engines ever built
have fought equally hard to lift their trains up and over
However, before we become
too nostalgic, it would be a good idea to review the history
of the Pass. The fact that the Pass existed at all is more
by accident then by design. Not only that but the Pass has
come close to abandonment at least twice in the not too
The Denver & Rio Grande
(D&RG), predecessor owner of the Pass before the Denver
& Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), the Southern Pacific
(SP) and finally, the Union Pacific (UP) was originally
constructed to connect Denver with Mexico City. Only after
the D&RG lost its fight with the Santa Fe did the narrow
gauge road look west in earnest. In exchange for not building
over Raton Pass, the D&RG received the right to construct
a line through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River. The
intended destination was Leadville, a booming mining town
producing, at that time, almost mythical riches. Leadville
was also the goal of the Denver, South Park & Pacific
Railroad (DSP&P), an arch rival of the D&RG. It
was never the intent of the D&RG to build over Tennessee
Pass as the road was pursuing other goals.
The line from Pueblo reached
Canon City in 1874 with completion through the Royal Gorge
to Salida and Leadville in 1880. The entire route was narrow
gauge which later was to become a problem in more ways than
one. With its eyes set on becoming a transcontinental link
in the railroad map, the D&RG began laying 3' gauge
rails west over Marshall Pass, through the Black Canyon
of the Gunnison to Montrose and on to Grand Junction. Connections
were made with the Rio Grande Western for a "through" route
to Salt Lake City. Construction continued on other routes
with the slim rails arriving in Durango during 1881 and
Silverton in 1882.
Interchange problems with
standard gauge lines required the D&RG to lay a third
rail from Pueblo to Leadville in 1887. This was converted
to standard gauge only in 1912 as 3' gauge was no longer
viable in a 4'- 8 ½" world. During this period, a new
competitive threat arose and it was for this reason the
D&RG extended its line over Tennessee Pass. The standard
gauge Colorado Midland (CM) began construction west from
Colorado Springs with a the goal of reaching Leadville and
Aspen. Before Aspen was the playground of the rich and famous,
it was a mining area of such significance as to attract
at least two railroads.
Starting in Red Cliff which
was then end of the line beyond Leadville, the D&RG
began construction a 3' gauge line towards Glenwood Springs
and ultimately, Aspen. The last 42 miles along the Roaring
Fork River was completed into Aspen in late October 1887
well ahead of the rival Colorado Midland.
An agreement between the CM
and D&RG formed a joint company to build a line from
near Rifle to Grand Junction setting the stage for Tennessee
Pass to become the D&RGW’s primary transcontinental
route until completion of Moffat tunnel. During this era,
the D&RG completed standard gauging its main lines and
ultimately merging with the RGW to form the D&RGW. The
Moffat Tunnel, combined with the Dotsero Cutoff, shortened
mileage between Grand Junction and Denver by about 175 miles
compared with the Pass while also reducing some of the grades.
This shorter route drained traffic off the Tennessee Pass
When the original line was
built, it was not only narrow gauge but was considered only
a branch. This was to create problems later when the route
was standard gauged and more problems when it become the
D&RGW transcontinental main line after the Marshall
Pass route was downgraded to secondary status. The D&RG
dug a tunnel at the summit of Tennessee Pass as well as
making numerous relocations of the grade in an effort to
improve operations over the Pass by reducing the grades.
At a much later date, Centralized Traffic Control was installed
along the Pass route in an effort to speed up trains.
The Tennessee Pass route favored
connections at Pueblo which were primarily the Missouri
Pacific (MP) and Santa Fe while the Moffat line provided
better and stronger connections in Denver with the Rock
Island and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q).
The Pueblo connections never provided as much traffic as
did the Denver interchanges so the Tennessee Pass route
with its operating problems was slowly downgraded. As a
merger would ultimately spell the end of the Pass, earlier
mergers would provide a reprieve from managements who sought
to abandon this line.
Coal traffic was also a temporary
savior of the Pass as western low sulphur coal started moving
east in unit trains. Certain destinations favored the Pass
route so traffic slowly increased.
The merger of the MP and the
UP created a new outlet for the Pass route as the D&RGW
was granted trackage rights to Kansas City. However, this
only allowed existing traffic to continue over the Pass
and management began to look at the possibility of abandonment.
In the early 1980s, loss of the friendly Western Pacific
(WP) connection in Salt Lake City when the WP was taken
over by the UP; the abandonment of the Rock Island; closing
of the Pueblo steel mills and economic deregulation of the
railroad industry made the D&RGW's management wonder
it they needed two routes over the Continental Divide. Later
in that decade, most traffic was moved off the Pass and
the crew change and helper station at Minturn was closed.
Abandonment seemed likely as only one train a day was then
operating via the Pass.
New owners of the D&RGW
came on the scene in 1985 and by 1988, the Pass was being
rebuilt with new rails, ties, ballast and improved clearances
for auto rack cars and double stack intermodal business.
Meanwhile, the merger of the CB&Q in to Burlington Northern
and the acquisition of the Southern Pacific (SP) by the
D&RGW owners virtually closed the old D&RGW - CB&Q
gateway in Denver so the SP began running more trains over
the Pass and on the Kansas City.
The SP's management again
looked at the Pass and 1993 and 1994 carefully studied how
to eliminate one of the two transcontinental routes. They
came to the same conclusion as past managers that they could
not close either route without creating severe and costly
problems. After this study, traffic on the Pass soared so
that during 1996 as many as 30 trains and helper engines
moved over the line in a 24 hour period. Not only was coal
moving but a new taconite move originating on the Wisconsin
Central destined for a steel mill at Provo, Utah was going
over the Pass. In addition, merchandise traffic was added
to the mix, including a new lumber train so that the Pass
became a raifan magnet.
This was its own undoing as
only the newest and most powerful locomotives were being
assigned to the Pass while other SP trains were being held
for lack of power.
As mergers created opportunities,
another merger spelled the end of the Pass as a viable route.
The owners of the SP became convinced that the railroad
was no longer capable of surviving in light of the merger
of the BN and Santa Fe (BNSF). The SP sought out the UP
and the merger was completed in 1996.
An examination of the Surface
Transportation Board (STB) final order shows that the UP
made a very pervasive argument for abandoning the Pass.
As outlined in Finance Docket 32760 and specially in Decision
44, the UP indicted that it would reroute Pass traffic to
other UP lines. As part of its plan, the UP stated it would
upgrade to Kansas Pacific (KP) route from Denver which would
allow it abandon the old MP line from Pueblo to at least
Towner, CO. This action would effectively cut off the Pass
as eastbound trains over the Pass would then be required
to move north about 65 miles over the highly congested Joint
Despite this plan, the STB,
taking into consideration the recent reopening of Stampede
Pass by the BNSF, granted only permission to discontinue
operations and not abandonment. `The UP cited potential
annual losses of $1.8 million while the STB set its figure
at $1.73 million. No shippers other than ASARCO, were located
on the line and ASARCO projected only 477 cars annually.
ASARCO closed this mine in 1999, eliminating even this traffic.
UP managers do not like helper districts and the thought
of multi-million dollar locomotives being used only a few
hours a day is an anathema. In this era of competitive transportation
characterized by 53' trailers, turnpike doubles, Interstate
Highways and "Just In Time" inventory techniques,
freight trains grinding up Tennessee Pass powered by six
or seven locomotives just does not fit. The UP managers
are also aware of two recent accidents on the Pass which
highlighted operating problems. In one case, a taconite
train derailed near Mitchell and shortly thereafter, a merchandise
train was in an accident which resulted in a sulfuric acid
spill just east of the Deen Tunnel.
Despite other published reports,
no specific time limit on retention of the Pass route by
the UP was imposed. The UP must still seek STB approval
for what ever action it seeks. This was a factor in its
joint activity with the State of Colorado in seeking a new
A new chapter in the saga
of Tennessee Pass was written by the latest entity to become
involved with this route, that being the State of Colorado
in the person of its Office of Business Development (OBD).
The interest by OBD stems from Colorado’s governor agreeing
not to oppose the UP-SP merger. With tourism the state’s
largest industry and Royal Gorge one of it’s top attractions,
the operation of tourist trains though the Gorge could not
be overlooked. Nor could the potential for a recreational
trail over the old railroad grade.
When the UP and SP sought
to merge, they wanted the approval of the Governor of Colorado
or, at least his agreement not to oppose the plan. As part
of the agreement. The UP agreed to donate 10 miles of track
through the Royal Gorge and the balance of the right of
way to Minturn. Colorado plans to use the right of way for
a trail but this will have to wait until the UP decides
what to do with the unsold portion of the line.
Colorado and the UP sought
a new owner and this opened a new era for part of the Pass
Route. Initial speculation centered on part of the route
becoming a nature trial and indeed, many groups advocated
this course. The STB’s decision effectively postponed this
for an indefinite period of time so plans for a trail are
OBD mailed over 180 letters
to companies which they thought might be interested in acquiring
and operating all or a portion the Pass route. OBD received
14 replies that they felt were qualified. Of this group,
five firms in turn paid a $500 fee to obtain the Bid package
and signed a confidentiality agreement as they received
information from the UP about salvage values as well as
traffic information. The salvage value would only form the
basis for bid since OBD excluded anyone who indicated they
were interested in acquiring the line for scrap purposes.
In light of the STB’s order, this seemed a sensible approach.
Only two of the bidders considered
the entire route (Malta - Towner) while the other three
concentrated on the Texas Creek - Canon City portion. The
successful bidder is affiliated with a firm that opened
a aggregates quarry at Parkdale while to other two where
primarily interested in passenger service.
This means in all likelihood,
the next train after the "discontinuance of service"
to operate over the Pass could be to scrap the unused portion.
The Minturn yard property is not included in the bid package
so that the successful purchaser would get only one track
through this area. The balance of the real estate could
be worth millions. Vail Associates is extremely interested
in this land as it "around the corner" from the
Vail Valley and is between there and the Avon-Beaver Creek
area which is yet another millionaire’s playground.
Other than the proposed aggregates
quarry at Parkdale, there is no other freight business on
the line east of Minturn with the closing of the Black Cloud
mine. The last major shipper, New Jersey Zinc shut down
the Gilman Mill in 1977 and the mine was closed in 1985.
The mine had produced lead, silver and zinc but stands little
chance of ever reopening. The railroad station connected
with the mine is named Belden which was the source of some
confusion for visiting railfans.
Another factor is the intention
of the UP to abandon the Pueblo – Kansas City ex MP main
line. In many portions of its route, it is only a few miles
from either the BNSF or the UP’s KP line. It would appear
that any attempt to preserve this as a short line would
be less than successful. As an indication of this, the Tennessee
Pass bid package did not contain any trackage rights, effectively
isolating this line for freight traffic. We now know that
the portion from Canon City to a point just beyond the Royal
Gorge at Parkdale has been sold the operators of the Georgetown
Loop. The new company is called the Royal Gorge and they
operate two ex-C&NW F-7s in a Rio Grande inspired livery.
The coaches are from VIA in Canada and they have an open
car which was made from a coach.
A quarry opened at Parkdale
and trains bearing the name Rock & Rail operate from
Parkdale to Pueblo. The R&R also switches the cement
plant at Florence so there is not much UP activity over
the line. When ASARCO closed the Black Cloud Mine in Leadville,
the Pueblo – Malta Local was discontinued so there is no
activity from Gypsum to Parkdale where the Royal Gorge Railroad
starts. The line is out of service and the weeds grow undisturbed.
There is some talk of a commuter operation in the Avon-Beaver
Creek area but there has been no real progress. The state
may retain title to the line much as they do with the Cumbres
& Toltec Scenic Railroad. Spokespersons for the state
also made it very clear that they were seeking to minimize
the impact of the merger on the state and that this was
part of their concern.
In the final analysis, Tennessee
Pass may join other Colorado railroad icons such the Denver,
South Park & Pacific, the Colorado Midland as well as
Rollins and Hagerman Passes in the history books. Future
generations of railfans will view videos, read books and
lament that they never saw Tennessee Pass in operation.
For those of us who did witness this epic battle of railroad
and gravity, our stories will begin with "I remember
the day on the Pass when..."