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The NRHS 2016 Convention Royal Gorge Lunch Train 7/19/2016

by Chris Guenzler

Elizabeth and I got up and went to McDonald's for breakfast. The two of us and Robin walked over to the Holiday Inn for our safety briefing where we received our red safety vests and our radios. We then went outside and talked to some of our passengers who would be on our trip today. The first bus arrived and we waited for our bus No. 3 to arrive.

Royal Gorge Route Railroad

The Royal Gorge Route Railroad is a heritage railroad located in Canon City, Colorado. The railroad transits the Royal Gorge on a 2-hour scenic and historic train ride along what is considered to be the most famed portion of the former Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. The 1950s-era train departs the Santa Fe Depot in Canon City daily.


In the late 1870s, miners descended on the upper Arkansas River valley of Colorado in search of carbonate ores rich in lead and silver. The feverish mining activity in what would become the Leadville district attracted the attention of both the Rio Grande and Santa Fe railroads, each already having tracks in the Arkansas valley. The Santa Fe had tracks in Pueblo and the D&RG had tracks near Canon City, Colorado, some 35 miles west. Leadville was over 100 miles away through the "Grand Canon of the Arkansas," a mountain valley 50 miles in length at a consistent and railroad-friendly water grade of one per cent. For two railroads to occupy a river valley ordinarily was not a problem, however, west of Canon City the Arkansas River cuts through the Royal Gorge, a high plateau of igneous rocks forming a spectacular steep-walled gorge over a thousand feet deep and six miles long. At its narrowest point sheer walls on both sides plunge into the river, creating a nearly impassable barrier. Sharing is not an option along this route.

On April 19, 1878, a construction crew from the Santa Fe's proxy Canon City and San Juan Railroad, hastily assembled from sympathetic local citizens, began grading for a railroad line just west of Canon City in the mouth of the gorge. The Rio Grande, whose track ended of a mile from downtown Canon City, raced crews to the same area, but they were blocked by Santa Fe graders in the narrow canyon. By a few hours they had lost the first round in what became a two-year struggle between the two railroads that would be known as the Royal Gorge War. Temporary injunctions forbidding further construction were filed in the Colorado courts and soon moved to the federal courts, each company claiming prior right to use of the gorge.

The Royal Gorge War

On August 23, 1878, the United States Circuit Court for the District of Colorado found in favor of the Santa Fe and its proxy, the Canon City and San Juan Company, allowing construction of a railroad through the first 20 miles of the 50 mile-long canyon, which includes the Royal Gorge. The Rio Grande was given secondary rights to lay track provided such did not interfere with Santa Fe interests, and it was given rights to use Santa Fe tracks where the gorge was too narrow to construct its own line.

The Rio Grande promptly appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court and immediately began work to finish a line in the upper 30 miles of canyon. The Santa Fe opposed this move by attempting to lay track in the upper canyon for its subsidiary Pueblo and Arkansas Valley Railroad. Santa Fe resorted to its larger corporate power and announced it would build standard gauge tracks parallel to and in competition with all existing narrow gauge D&RG lines. The bondholders of the D&RG, fearing financial ruin from this threat, pressured Rio Grande management to lease the existing railroad to the Santa Fe.

An end to the struggle appeared to be at hand when the companies reached agreement on the proposed lease all of D&RG tracks, equipment, buildings and employees to AT&SF for a 30-year period. The Santa Fe thus gained access to Denver in competition with its transcontinental rivals, the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific Railroads. The lease went into effect on December 13, 1878 and the Santa Fe soon increased freight rates south of Denver to favor shipping to southern Colorado over its lines to the east, to the detriment of Denver merchants using the leased D&RG lines. By March 1879, with allegations that all of its provisions were being violated by the Santa Fe, the Rio Grande sought to break the lease.

During this period, Santa Fe moved to finish construction of the railroad through the gorge itself while the Rio Grande continued construction in areas in the canyon west of the gorge. Grading crews of both companies were harassed by rocks rolled down on them, tools thrown in the river and other acts of sabotage. Both sides began assembling armed groups of men again to seize and hold strategic points in the gorge in anticipation of a favorable judgment by the Supreme Court. Rio Grande crews built 17 stone "forts" {such as "Fort DeRemer"} at Spike Buck near Texas Creek, Colorado) to block the encroachments and keep the CC&SJ crews bottled up in the gorge.

After months of shrinking earnings from their leased railroad, Rio Grande management went to court to break the lease. While lawyers argued their case before the court, armed men hired by Santa Fe took control of Rio Grande stations from Denver to Canon City, led by Bat Masterson, the sheriff of Ford County, Kansas at the time, ostensibly hired to assemble a "posse" to defend their interests. Masterson enlisted the help of Doc Holliday to assemble 33 recruits, among them the notorious gunfighters "Dirty" Dave Rudabaugh, Josh Webb, Ben Thompson, and "Mysterious" Dave Mather. On April 21, 1879, the Supreme Court granted the D&RG the primary right to build through the gorge on the basis that the lower courts had erred in not recognizing that it had been granted prior right to use of the entire 50-mile in 1872 by an Act of Congress. Masterson's posse returned to Kansas but the validity of the lease remained an issue to be settled.

In early June 1879, when it appeared the issue was about to be resolved in favor of the Rio Grande, Masterson hurriedly returned by special train with 60 men, taking up a key position at the defensible Santa Fe roundhouse in Pueblo. An injunction on June 10, 1879, from a local court restraining the Santa Fe from operating on Rio Grande track sparked an armed retaking of their railroad the next day by Rio Grande crews. Robert F. Weitbrec, former construction foreman and now treasurer of the company, and chief engineer John A. McMurtrie brought 100 men to Pueblo. They met with Pueblo County Sheriff Henly R. Price and Town Marshal Pat Desmond on the best means to serve the writ and dispossess Masterson's men of the roundhouse. Weitbrec suggested they "borrow" a cannon from the state armory only to find that Masterson had already taken it and reportedly trained it from the roundhouse down the street approach. McMurtrie and Desmond gathered 50 Rio Grande men in front of the Victoria Hotel and distributed rifles and ammunition. They marched to the railroad platform, broke down the door to the telegraph office, and when shots were fired, Masterson's men fled through the back windows, cutting him off from any communication with his employers. Supposedly when confronted with the re-borrowed cannon, Masterson's men surrendered the roundhouse.

Despite accounts in partisan secondary sources reporting deaths at the hands of the rival company's men, there is no reliable proof that anyone was actually killed. The federal courts forced the D&RG to return the property it had illegally seized and ordered it into receivership. However in the fall of 1879 railroad "robber baron" Jay Gould of the Kansas Pacific Railroad loaned the D&RG $400,000, bought a 50% interest in the company and announced the intention of completing a rail line from St. Louis to Pueblo to compete with the Santa Fe.

After the Royal Gorge War

In the end, the warring companies settled out of court. On March 27, 1880, the two railroads signed what was called the "Treaty of Boston" (Boston being the corporate home of the Santa Fe) which ended all litigation and gave the D&RG back its railroad. The D&RG paid the Santa Fe $1.8 million (which included a $400,000 "bonus" over actual costs) for the railroad it had built in the gorge, the grading it had completed, materials on hand, and interest. Gould's plans for competitive lines and a proposed line through Raton Pass southward into New Mexico, were cancelled by the Rio Grande. D&RG construction resumed, and rails reached Leadville on July 20, 1880.

Passenger train service began in 1880 and continued through 1967. Rio Grande continued freight service through the gorge as part of their Tennessee Pass subdivision until 1989, when the company merged with the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the Southern Pacific name took control of the gorge line. In 1996, the combined company was merged into the systems of the Union Pacific Railroad. The year after Union Pacific purchased Southern Pacific and Rio Grande, the railroad closed the Tennessee Pass line, including the gorge segment.

In 1998, Union Pacific Railroad was persuaded to sell the 12 miles of track through the Royal Gorge in an effort to preserve this scenic route. Two new corporations, the Canon City & Royal Gorge Railroad (CC&RG) and Rock & Rail, Inc. (R&R), joined together to form Royal Gorge Express, LLC (RGX) to purchase the line. Passenger service on the new Royal Gorge Route Railroad began in May 1999. Train movements are still controlled by the Union Pacific's Harriman Dispatching Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Except for this section of track, the Tennessee Pass line remains dormant.

Hanging Bridge

A highlight of the gorge route is the 1879 hanging bridge located along the north side where the gorge narrows to 30 feet and the sheer rocks walls plunge into the river. Designed by Kansas engineer C. Shallor Smith and built by Santa Fe construction engineer A.A. Robinson for $11,759, the bridge consists of a 175-foot plate girder suspended on one side under A-frame girders that span the river and are anchored to the rock walls. Strengthened over the years, the bridge remains in service today.

Royal Gorge Route Today

The Royal Gorge Route Railroad operates trains year-round through the Royal Gorge from Canon City, Colorado to the western terminus in Parkdale, Colorado. The train is a destination attraction that carries passengers under the Royal Gorge suspension bridge.

Our Trip

The passengers boarding Bus No. 2. Very shortly thereafter, Bus No. 3 arrived and we started boarding our passengers. Once everyone was aboard all the buses, we then went down the highway elephant style all the way to Canon City. I gave a running commentary of sights along the way and some history to the passengers, which they all enjoyed. We arrived at Canon City with over an hour before our train was to depart and I went to Gate 6 and sat underneath a tent waiting to board our passengers.

The rear of the train which includes our two dome cars waits for the train to return from its first trip of the day.

The train returned to Canon City and after all the passengers had detrained, they then put the two parts of the train.

The Consist

CRRX F7A 403, CRRX F7B 1503, CRRX coach 5581 Theodore Russell, CRRX 507 ex. Santa Fe Super Dome Monte Visa, CRRX coach 5497 Phantom Canyon, CRRX 3211 open car Sangre de Cristo, CRRX 2510 coach Sunshine Falls, CRRX ex. Santa Fe Super Dome 503 Buena vista, CRRX 5580 club car Spike Buck, CRRX 4011 open car Leah Jean, CRRX 15462 power car Doc Holliday, CRRX coach 5541 Zebulon Pike, CN club car 5541, CN club car 5562, CRRX ex. Santa Fe Super Dome 56 Knik, CRRX ex. Santa Fe Super Dome 50 Kenai, CRRX coach 3235 William Jackson Palmer, CN kitchen car 5586 Fremont, CRRX GP7 2238.

About twenty minutes was due to leave, I lined up all of our dome passegers and explained the procedure for boarding and we waited for the railroad to give us the signal to board. It was at this time one of the young women succumbed to the heat and was attended to. Elizabeth then succumbed to the heat and was given water right away. Once we started loading the train, a third female passenger succumbed to the heat. The crew immediately gave her water and within a few minutes, she was able to board the train. Once I boarded, I took a seat in the dome car but I became concerned about Elizabeth so I went looking for her. I found her coming onto the dome car from the open car. There were no more dome seats so I made the decision to put both of us in the club car.

The inside of the club car.

The menu of the Royal Gorge Scenic Railroad.

The last page of the Royal Gorge Scenic Railroad menu. I got Elizabeth re-hydrated and then finally the train departed Canon City.

I got a root beer and put it next to my radio on the table.

The Royal Gorge Scenic Railroad staff waves goodbye to another train of happy passengers.

The engines Westside Lumber Shay and Royal Gorge Scenic Railroad F unit are on display outside the Santa Fe station in Canon City. It was at this point I walked through the dome cars and checked the open cars to make sure all our passengers were well.

The first Territorial Prison in Colorado. The Canon City area also has a men's prison, a women's prison and Supermax, the federal prison, where most of our nation's worst terrorists and criminals are kept, including Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber and Vito Rizzuto, boss of the "Sixth" Mafia "Family, plus others are in there for life.

Our trip will take us to the Royal Gorge along the Arkansas River up to Parkdale.

We will see many different and varying rapids on our trip today.

The water diversion channel of the Arkansas River.

Some type of view of the train will occur in every bend of the Royal Gorge.

Views of the Arkansas River will be ever-changing in the Royal Gorge.

Rock formations will be constantly changing as we travel through the gorge.

The Arkansas River.

The tilted strata rock layers in the Royal Gorge.

The train is heading up through the gorge.

An island in the Arkansas River which is very uncommon in the Royal Gorge.

More interesting rock formations.

The greenery is in quite a contrast to the brown rock of the gorge.

Another view of our train.

The walls of the gorge are getting higher as we penetrate our way into it.

The rocks are ever-changing as we proceed westward.

Can anyone recognize the face on this rock?

Is there a face on this rock that you can spot?

The train is travelling deeper into the Royal Gorge.

Large pieces of rock have fallen from the cliffs into the Arkansas River.

Looking up a side canyon to the south.

The water supply for Canon City crosses the Arkanas River on a bridge in the Royal Gorge.

The train is climbing the grade along the Arkansas River.

There is a narrow path along the Arkansas River.

Looking up another side canyon.

The gorge is getting deeper and deeper.

Rapids in the Arkansas River. Where are the white water rafters?

The train is now entering the deepest and narrowest part of the gorge.

The water truck in case we set fires is running behind the train.

The train is still heading up the Royal Gorge as my lunch arrives which included chicken tenders and a root beer.

The old aquaduct system.

The Arkansas River.

Another large boulder in the Arkansas River.

More rapids in the Arkansas River.

Looking up another side canyon.

The entrance to another side canyon.

More rapids on the Arkansas River.

More of the interesting rocks of the Royal Gorge.

The train is now nearing the Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge.

The Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge.

The train is now closer to the Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge and at the deepest part of the canyon.

The Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge which is 955 feet above the Arkansas River.

The first white water rafters of the trip.

Closing in on the Hanging Bridge which was built by the Santa Fe Railroad even though the Rio Grande Railroad used it until the Union Pacific took it over.

The supports for the hanging bridge.

More interesting rock strata.

The train took the curve after we had crossed the Hanging Bridge.

There is a tunnel in the rock in this part of the Royal Gorge.

The train went under the spillway and continued west up the Royal Gorge.

Rafters taking a break.

Looking up a side canyon.

The train continues on its westward trek through the Royal Gorge.

The raft, although looking abandoned, its passengers were spotted coming out of a side canyon.

Click here for Part 2 of this story!