Medicine Bow Rail Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Medicine Bow Rail Trail
Length: 21 Miles
Trail activities: Fishing, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Albany
Surfaces: Gravel
State: Wyoming

A Brief History

The immediate history of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail dates back to a former Union Pacific (UP) branch that diverged from its Overland Route main line at Laramie, Wyoming, and proceeded southwesterly into northcentral Colorado. However, the corridor can trace its earliest beginnings to an obscure system named the Laramie, Hahns Peak & Pacific Railway Company, formed at the turn of the 20th century to tap the region’s mining interests. Unfortunately, these dreams later fell through, but the line was eventually able to sustain itself on other forms of traffic, particularly coal. During the 1950s, UP took it over and operated the line for another three decades before a short line acquired the property. Following a short stint hosting tourist trains, the route was abandoned, and a section of it later became today’s trail.

With gold mining fervor running high in southern Wyoming, Isaac Van Horn of Boston began promoting a railroad to serve the region. In early 1901, the Laramie, Hahns Peak & Pacific Railway (LHP&P) was incorporated; the intention was to build west of Laramie, reach Gold Hill in the Snowy Range, then descend into the Platte Valley before terminating at Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Unfortunately, the system got off to a slow start, requiring nearly six years to complete the initial 29.7 miles. This segment reached Centennial, a new mining community promoted by Van Horn, and opened for service in 1907. By then, however, the gold rush was waning, forcing the railroad to find other sources of potential traffic. With traffic prospects fading, the LHP&P turned its attention south toward North Park, Colorado, and abandoned its western route.

Coal deposits were purchased in the area of Jackson County, Colorado, and the railroad extended as far as Coalmont, a distance of 111.1 miles, according to its 1931 timetable. It is somewhat amazing that backers were able to complete such a substantial system, considering the difficult topography and the little traffic it generated. As a result, and perhaps not surprising, the company ran into financial troubles. It was renamed the Laramer & Routt County Railroad, one of numerous reorganizations; others included the Colorado, Wyoming & Eastern Railroad in 1914; the Northern Colorado & Eastern Railway in 1924; and the Laramie North Park & Western Railroad (LNP&W) later in 1924. Although the carrier saw no other further major bankruptcies, it continued to struggle, gaining unflattering names like the “Late, Hard Pressed & Panicky” and the “Lord Help Push & Pull.”

There were virtually only two sources of traffic, coal and timber. On January 1, 1936, Union Pacific controlled the property, and as time passed, it was slowly integrated into UP’s system and officially became known as the Coalmont Branch on December 1, 1951. While the line was named after the end of track at Coalmont, Colorado, this southern section was abandoned a few years later in 1955 and cut back to Walden, Colorado, resulting in a loss of about 19 miles. This action left the branch with 92.2 miles, according to UP’s January 1970 timetable. It proved one of the railroad’s most difficult lines operationally, although the scenery through some parts was quite spectacular.

Despite its setbacks, the branch remained in UP’s network for a surprisingly long time. It was not until the mid-1980s that the carrier shed the line from its system by November 1987. A month later in December, newly formed short line Wyoming & Colorado Railroad took over the property but apparently had little interest in its potential and moved toward abandonment. For a brief time in the early 1990s, a startup tourist line operated the section between Laramie and Fox Park (54.6 miles). While it is said the ride offered stunning panoramic scenery through the Medicine Bow National Forest, it survived only a few short years before it was shut and abandoned. The tracks were later removed, and about 21 miles of the right-of-way was later converted into today’s Medicine Bow Rail Trail.

Railroad attractions near the trail include the Cheyenne Depot Museum in Cheyenne; Douglas Railroad Interpretative Museum in Douglas; and Union Pacific Roundhouse in Evanston. Colorado offers a wide range of possibilities, including the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden; Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow-Gauge in Cripple Creek; Cumbers & Toltec Scenic in Antonito; Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge in Durango; Forney Museum of Transportation and the Platte Valley Trolley in Denver; Georgetown Loop railroad in Georgetown; Greeley Freight Station Museum in Greely; Leadville, Colorado & Southern in Leadville; Pike’s Peak Cog Railway in Manitou Springs; Pueblo Railway Museum in Pueblo; Ridgway Railroad Museum in Ridgway; Rio Grande Scenic Railroad in Alamosa; Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Canon City; and Windsor Museum in Windsor.

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