Denver and Rio Grande Western Rail Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Denver and Rio Grande Western Rail Trail
Length: 23.5 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking
Counties: Davis, Weber
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Utah

A Brief History

The aptly named Denver & Rio Grande Western Rail Trail spans the very western segment of the railroad for which it is named. Although the D&RGW was not a large system in terms of overall mileage, it pieced together a network of trackage across the states of Colorado and Utah that truly befit its slogan as the “Main Line Thru the Rockies.” The Rio Grande was created soon after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad to serve Denver and Colorado’s ongoing mining boom. By the early 20th century, it boasted an impressive network, given the rugged terrain, and proved a vital transportation artery across the Rocky Mountains. During the 1980s, it elected to end service over its Ogden line north of Salt Lake City. Later that decade, it disappeared into the ongoing merger movement. Today, the Rio Grande’s remaining lines are operated by Union Pacific.

The history of the D&RGW is one during which the company ultimately failed at its initial task to build a railroad from Denver south toward Mexico. Despite the rugged terrain and early monetary trouble, the Rio Grande enjoyed relatively strong financial backing during its formative years. It began with the chartering of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway on October 27, 1870, by Civil War General William Jackson Palmer and several of his associates. The railroad was originally planned to radiate west, north, and south out of Denver and eventually link to Salt Lake City. However, according to George Hilton’s book American Narrow Gauge Railroads, Palmer had a particular interest in the southerly routing. This line would run via Santa Fe, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, using the Arkansas River and Royal Gorge before terminating at the Rio Grande River. To reach the border, its routing would cross New Mexico’s Raton Pass. This led to a bitter fight with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, who also wanted the pass as part of its western main line. Ultimately, Raton went to the Santa Fe, and the D&RG gave up on the project.

By 1880, noted tycoon Jay Gould owned a considerable stake and financial interest in the D&RG. Under his direction, the railroad would instead build west toward Salt Lake City, since service was already opened to Leadville via Salida. To do so, a new D&RG subsidiary was incorporated on July 21, 1881, known as the (first) Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway. It also acquired a handful of narrow-gauge systems operating east and south of Salt Lake City, including the Bingham Canyon & Camp Floyd, Wasatch & Jordan Valley, and Utah & Pleasant Valley. The two roads worked quickly to complete the link; the D&RG built west from Salida via Gunnison and Montrose, while the D&RGW worked eastward from Salt Lake City. They met near Green River, Utah, at a location known as Desert Switch (about 13 miles west of Green River) on March 30, 1883. On May 12, the D&RGW completed its Ogden extension, providing a connection with the Central Pacific (Southern Pacific).

While the through-route had been established, there were still a number of issues to overcome. First, the D&RG was laden with heavy construction debt and fell into bankruptcy during 1884, emerging again on July 14, 1886, as the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Second, all of the properties had been built to 3-foot, narrow-gauge standards and required conversion to standard-gauge (4 feet, 8 ½ inches) to truly make them an efficient operation—integral with the national rail network. As a result, the D&RG took steps to update its network beginning in 1889 and built a new route in the process. This line ran via Tennessee Pass and Leadville, reaching a connection with its Gunnison line at Grand Junction on November 14, 1890. At that time, the former D&RGW, renamed as the Rio Grande Western Railway in June 1889, had also been converted.

With a standard-gauged line now open, the D&RG/RGW offered an unmatched route across the Rockies between Denver and Salt Lake City/Ogden. According to Mike Schafer’s book Classic American Railroads, through-passenger service was established to Oakland, California in 1909, following the completion of the Western Pacific to Salt Lake City, which became the Rio Grande’s principal western connection. In 1908, the D&RG formally acquired the RGW, although the company was again plagued by bankruptcy. It emerged in 1921 as the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, and even by this date, the D&RGW continued to grow during a time when new railroad construction was winding down across the country. In 1934, it opened the Dotsero Cutoff, a 40-mile corridor running from Orestod (“Dotsero” spelled backward), and a connection with the Denver & Salt Lake (D&SL), to its Denver-Salt Lake City main line at Dotsero.

The D&SL was notable as having completed a shortcut west of Denver. While it was never finished as envisioned, it did open the 6.1-mile Moffatt Tunnel in 1928. With the new D&RGW connection, the route to Salt Lake City was 175 miles shorter. An additional bankruptcy plagued the company in 1935 from which it emerged in 1947. That year it also formally acquired the D&SL. At its peak, the D&RGW operated a system stretching more than 2,400 miles. It handled a wide variety of freight and did well as a bridge line, since its route cut through the heart of the Rockies. The company, in conjunction with the WP and Burlington, also launched one of the most famous trains ever put into service: the “California Zephyr.” It was inaugurated in 1949 between Chicago and San Francisco/Oakland, offering some of the most spectacular scenery and on-board accommodations one could hope for in rail travel. In its original form, the train survived until 1970, although the D&RGW continued offering a version known as the “Rio Grande Zephyr” running between Denver and Ogden until 1983.

The Rio Grande became endearing to rail fans for its narrow-gauge operations, some of which remained in use until the 1970s in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Sections of these lines are preserved today, including many of the historical steam locomotives, and operated as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge and Cumbres & Toltec Scenic. In 1983, the Rio Grande began shifting trains off of its Salt Lake City-Ogden line and onto the parallel Union Pacific in response to the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake. A deal was reached in 1985 allowing permanent trackage rights in exchange for UP operating rights over the Rio Grande between Salt Lake City and Provo. The property was officially closed in March 1986 and later abandoned. It was eventually acquired by the state of Utah. Today, the right-of-way is under the jurisdiction of the Utah Transit Authority and may see trains again for light-rail commuter service. In 1988, Rio Grande Industries, parent of the D&RGW, acquired Southern Pacific and merged the former into the latter. The SP was subsequently acquired by Union Pacific in 1996.

Railroad attractions in Utah include Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory Summit; Heber Valley Historic Railroad in Herber City; Ogden Union Station in Ogden; Tooele Railroad Museum in Tooele; and the Western Mining & Railroad Museum in Helper.

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