Today’s Mineral Belt Trail provides a glimpse of Leadville’s once prominent stature as a major mining community; its route is made up of former railroad rights-of-way belonging to the three major systems that served the region, including the Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), Colorado & Southern (C&S), and Colorado Midland (CM). When the mining boom hit the area during the mid-19th century, it became obvious that railroads would be needed not only to serve the mines but also to conquer the Rocky Mountains and open new transportation arteries. As a result, dozens of companies were formed, and while not all were built, many that had been had become predecessors of the D&RGW and C&S (far too many to thoroughly present here). Unfortunately, mining collapsed just as it began to flourish, owing to a financial panic in the early 1890s. Following these events, and the bankruptcies that ensued, railroad operations were never again the same around Leadville; most lines saw significantly less traffic by the 1920s and were gone by World War II.
Colorado’s once vibrant mining industry first began in 1859 when prospectors stumbled upon gold deposits along California Gulch. More gold was discovered at the small outpost of Oro City in 1874 near what is today Leadville. While panning for this lucrative mineral, miners realized that the sand in which they were searching included another valuable resource: silver. As it turns out large deposits of it were scattered all across the region, and the Colorado Silver Boom was underway. In 1877, the settlement of Leadville was established and quickly grew into a city of more than 40,000 residents. In the following years, several other valuable minerals were discovered, including copper, zinc, manganese, and lead. Despite the mining frenzy and growth (in 1879 it was reported that silver and gold earnings totaled $25 million combined, an unbelievable amount of money at the time), there were still no railroads in the area. In 1870, rails reached Denver City (present-day Denver) along the Front Range of the Rockies but no farther west; the rugged mountains had been all-but impenetrable up to that time.
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Access changed when the Denver & Rio Grande Railway (D&RG) was chartered in 1870. While it was proposed to build a north-to-south main line from Denver to Mexico, new ownership under Jay Gould in 1880 and a battle with the Santa Fe over Raton Pass changed the company’s plans. Instead, it opted to build west and looked to reach the growing city of Salt Lake City, Utah. That year, the D&RG opened narrow gauge lines running north to Leadville via Salida as well as south to Durango and Silverton to tap the growing mining industry, the first railroad to do so. It also served an expanding coal and timber industry. To reach Salt Lake, the DR&G struck out west from Salida, reaching Green River, Utah, by 1883 via Gunnison, Colorado, where it interchanged with its Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway (known as the Rio Grande Western) subsidiary. The D&RG built all of these new lines to three-foot, narrow-gauge standards. While this saved on construction costs, it also made interchange with other railroads difficult.
Realizing the benefit of having standard-gauged routes, the company upgraded its property and built a new main line running from its Leadville terminus north through Tennessee Pass and then west along the Colorado River. It eventually linked up with its old main line at Grand Junction, Colorado.
The Rio Grande Western became part of the D&RG in 1908, and following a bankruptcy in 1921, the entire system was renamed as the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. Seven years later, the D&RGW completed the Dotsero Cutoff in 1928, which through the construction of the 11,680-foot Moffat Tunnel, gave the company a shortcut from Denver to its Salt Lake main line at Dotsero. With two routes that were as strategically important as they were beautiful (running through such areas as the Royal Gorge, Glenwood Canyon, skirting the Colorado River, and along the Arkansas River Valley), the Rio Grande remained an important railroad for decades until it disappeared into the Southern Pacific in 1988. Today, the D&RGW’s former line through Leadville makes up fewer than two miles of the current Mineral Belt Trail.
Following the D&RG’s entrance into Leadville was the fabled Denver, South Park & Pacific Railway (DSP&P). The company was chartered on October 2, 1872, but was renamed less than a year later as the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad on June 16, 1873, when it was acquired by John Evans. Initial hopes for the DSP&P was to reach the Pacific Ocean, hence its name, although like so many other planned railroads at that time, it fell far short of its intended goal. Like the D&RG, the system was built to three foot, narrow-gauge standards to reduce construction costs. By the end of the year, it had opened a 17-mile line from Denver to Morrison. The panic of 1873 delayed further construction by five years; by that time the DSP&P decided on a new route down the Platte Canyon to reach South Platte. This was completed in 1878, and a year later, the line was open to Como, via Kenosha Pass, on May 19, 1879. At this time during the height of the mining boom, the DSP&P was a profitable railroad, earning nearly three-times its daily operational expenses by moving in men and material and hauling out ore, minerals, and other freight.
The rail continued pushing south, reaching Gunnison by 1882 via Trout Creek Pass, Altman Pass, and the 1,800-foot Alpine Tunnel, at 11,000 feet above sea level. By then the DSP&P had come under the control of Union Pacific subsidiary Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf Railway (UPD&G), although the narrow-gauge road continued to expand its presence across the mining region. It next set its sights on reaching Leadville, which it accomplished in 1884. The branch swung off the main line at Como, snaked north through Breckenridge, reached Frisco, and then worked its way back southward to Kokomo, Climax, and finally into Leadville. During 1889, the company was renamed the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison Railway (DL&G) to better reflect the territories it served, which also signaled the peak of its network. Abandonments and cut backs soon followed, and by 1890, much of the Gunnison extension, including the Alpine Tunnel, had been closed.
On October 13, 1893, Union Pacific fell into bankruptcy, resulting in the company’s losing control of the UPD&G. From the wreckage, the Colorado & Southern Railway formed on December 19, 1898, to not only takeover the UPD&G but also several other UP interests it was forced to divest. Eventually, the C&S grew into a formidable road, running from Wendover, Wyoming, to Galveston, Texas, and it caught the eye of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which purchased the company in 1908. For its narrow-gauge lines west of Denver, these were never the same after the financial Panic of 1893, which resulted in several banks failing and at least three major railroads having a similar fate. This was partly caused by the Silver Sherman Act of 1890, which attempted to inflate the price of silver on account of overproduction. The idea collapsed when the government, which was authorized to purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver via Treasury notes, nearly depleted its gold reserves in the process because the public began redeeming their stockpiles (nearly causing the government to go bankrupt itself). The act was repealed by new President Grover Cleveland in 1893. The C&S route to Leadville received another blow with the Great Depression, and finally the railroad abandoned the line back to Climax after the last train left on April 4, 1937. By that time, most of the rest of the original DSP&P had also been closed.
Finally, there was the Colorado Midland Railway, last to enter Leadville and the first to leave. The CM was the vision of Homer D. Fisher, who was in the timber industry and believed a standard-gauge line would prove successful for moving not only lumber but also tapping Colorado’s lucrative mining industry. The road, incorporated on April 2, 1883, was meant to be the greatest competitor to the D&RG and would operate a route from Colorado Springs through Aspen and Leadville, with eventual dreams of reaching Utah. Funding for the project came primarily by way of iron mining magnate James J. Hagerman of Michigan, although other financiers included Irving Howbert (banker) and Jerome Wheeler (investor). Actual construction of the CM did not begin until the spring 1886, but once it did, proceeded quickly. Building west from Colorado Springs and a connection with the Santa Fe, the CM reached Buena Vista by June 1887, Leadville by September 1 of that year, and Aspen by February 4, 1888.
By October 1888, the CM was open to Newcastle and had a connection with the D&RG, featuring 221.1 miles of railroad in operation. The route was rugged, having to cross locations such as Ute Pass Canon and Hagerman Pass, where the 2,164-foot Hagerman Tunnel was bored. Additionally, via the jointly owned Rio Grande Junction Railway with the D&RG, the Colorado Midland was able to reach as far west as Grand Junction by November 1890. This concluded the extent of the CM’s network, which actually consisted of few branch lines aside from reaching aforementioned Aspen and Leadville along with Spring Gulch. That same year, the Santa Fe acquired the company but fell into bankruptcy following the financial Panic of 1893. The road was renamed the Colorado Midland Railway in 1897. Three years later, it came under the control of the Colorado & Southern and Rio Grande Southern (a later D&RG subsidiary).
With debts mounting and traffic slumping as a result of surrounding competition, and Colorado’s crumbling mining industry, the CM again entered bankruptcy in 1917. That year the United States entered World War I, and the railroad was meant to handle the traffic for the conflict as mandated by the United States Railroad Administration (USRA), who had full control of the industry at that time. The USRA recognized the CM’s line as the shortest across Colorado. Unfortunately, the CM’s poor infrastructure could not handle this surge, so freight was shifted onto the D&RG. In 1918, the CM again entered receivership and finally shut down altogether during early August that year. Much of the railroad was eventually pulled up, although the eastern leg of the route from Colorado Springs to Divide remained in use as the Midland Terminal Railway until February 20, 1949.
Colorado is home to numerous railroad attractions, including some of the most popular tourist trains in the country (many of which that operate former spurs built for the mining boom). These include the Leadville Colorado & Southern in Leadville; Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden; Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge in Cripple Creek; Cumbres & Toltec Scenic in Antonito; Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge in Durango; Georgetown Loop Railroad in Georgetown; Rio Grande Scenic in Ridgway; and the Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Cañon City.