The History of Breckenridge, CO: Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad
The mining and agricultural economies of Summit County required cheap, efficient transportation. From the spring of 1859, when prospectors first found gold, adequate and reliable transportation meant the difference between economic advantage and stagnation. Without it, ore, hay, timber, sheep and cattle could not reach local or distant markets; food, clothing and mining and agricultural equipment and supplies would not be available for those who needed them.
Although pack trains and wagons carried a staggering tonnage of merchandise and ore to and from the county, some pieces of mining equipment proved too heavy and bulky. Merchants and mines required something that could carry larger loads faster and at less expense--and that something was the railroad.
The Denver, South Park & Pacific (DSP&P), created by Governor John Evans in 1872, served Breckenridge and the surrounding area. Feeling that the county’s mineral resources would prove profitable for the railroad, the company decided to begin working on a main line that would offer passenger and freight service to the residents. The newspaper editor wrote that “Breckenridge would have distribution facilities almost equal to Denver.”
The South Park began laying track from Como in 1881, reaching Boreas Pass by the end of the year; Breckenridge by September, 1882; and Dillon by December, 1882. Como became the place for servicing and staffing the trains. Those employed by the railroad endured long hours, delays sometimes hours and even days long, the uncertainly of assignments, and the lack of a daily routine. Women kept the families going. They adjusted to the assignments and delays, sometimes preparing meals in the middle of the night. Cooking, cleaning, and baking were daily chores often done in cold houses surrounded by freezing temperatures, swirling winds, and blowing snow during the long winter months at 9,796 feet above sea level.
Workers built a large six-bay roundhouse in 1881. The need for more room to repair the engines resulted in the addition of thirteen wooden bays in the 1890s. The original stone portion of the roundhouse held a well-equipped machine shop. Even though fire consumed the wooden portion on March 25, 1935, the wooden portion continued serving the locomotives.
The railroad chose to enter Summit County over Boreas Pass. It must be remembered that Summit County was not the primary destination--the rich mines of Leadville were. The railroad established the town of Boreas in 1882 to house workers during and after construction. Named for the wind constantly blowing at 11,481 feet, the town became the highest rail station in the United States. It included a depot, a few log houses, a storehouse with dirt roof, a telegraph house, a section house east of the tracks and a huge stone engine house with turntable, coal bin and water tank fed by springs. A snow shed covered 600 feet of track. When the snow shed burned in 1899, crews rebuilt it and added 397 feet. Another snow shed protected a wye and 1,566 feet of side track.
The mountain railroads of Colorado laid their tracks three feet apart. Narrow-gauge offered advantages: sharper turns, shorter ties, smaller, lighter engines and rolling stock. To save the expense of building and grading a new road, the company bought the old toll road over Boreas Pass. Crews spiked the rails to untreated ties of spruce and yellow pine spaced 18 inches apart. Ashes from the firebox, dumped along the tracks, became the ballast. Tracks bent and sagged; cars swayed and lurched. Maximum speeds for passenger trains reached less than 22 miles per hour and less than 12 miles per hour for freight trains over Boreas Pass.
After reaching Breckenridge in August, 1882, the DSP&P continued on to Dillon and Keystone but the main line turned to Frisco at Dickey and served the mines of the Ten Mile Canyon before crossing the Fremont Pass at Climax. Because the tracks crossed the Continental Divide twice as it entered and exited the county, the railroad became known as the High Line.
Dickey became the switching point between the Dillon line and the Frisco line. The railroad constructed a coaling station depot, 47,500-gallon water tank, 12-pocket coal chute in 1902 and side tracks for 188 cars. Workers built a wye and a roundhouse (1902) with two stalls to hold four helper engines needed for the trip over Boreas and Fremont passes.
Nature worked against the railroads. Bitter cold, howling wind, blowing snow, raging floods, landslides and avalanches often caused by rumbling engines and shrill whistles increased operating costs and endangered workers, riders and equipment. Keeping the tracks clear of snow, ice and rock could be almost as difficult as laying the tracks in the first place. Snow presented the biggest problem. Huge wedge or bucking plows, so large they hid the engine pushing them, cleared the tracks. For the largest of the drifts, a rotary plow, looking like a fan on the front of a boxcar, blew the snow off the track. A coal-fired boiler powered the plow but the car itself had to be pushed by as many as four to six engines. The last might be facing backward to pull the rotary out if it should become stuck. Flangers being the front wheels scraped ice of the tracks. The railroad hired shovelers, who lived in a converted box car at the end of the plow train, to help the rotary attack the drifts.
The winter of 1899 presented particular difficulties for the people of the county. On February 6 the last train crossed Boreas Pass. By February 29, shovelers opened a sleigh road over the pass because the railroad could not get through, even with wedge and rotary plows. Food for humans and animals became scarce. Hundreds of pounds of mail could not be delivered. After several attempts, men on April 24 finally reached the rotary plow stuck on Barney Ford Hill. The blockade had lasted for 78 days.
Financial problems dictated corporate changes. The Denver, South Park & Pacific became the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison in 1889. Colorado & Southern purchased the struggling company in 1898 only to sell it to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy in 1908. Despite new owners, people still referred to the company as the Colorado & Southern. The owners had no interest in maintaining the line because of high operating expenses. Little high-grade ore filled the cars. New concentration methods resulted in less ore to carry. Electricity, available in Breckenridge in 1898, reduced the need for coal, a big part of the tonnage carried on incoming trains. Cars, trucks, and buses replaced the railroad as the primary carrier of people and freight.
Beginning around the turn of the century, Colorado & Southern tried to curtail service to the county. The railroad raised rates and cut schedules; it continued to use inefficient and old engines and rolling stock. The company appealed to numerous courts and governmental agencies but the county won reprieve after reprieve. Everyone knew the victories would not continue.
The impact of the railroads cannot be understated. It determined the location of towns such as Dillon and the businesses in them. In Breckenridge, warehouses and depots lined the tracks west of the Blue River. It tied residents to the services of Denver and Leadville. Diets changed when the railroad brought fresh fruits and produce from the Mormon settlements in Utah. Because of the need to maintain their schedules, railroad brought standard time to towns along the tracks. Ore could reach smelters and mills more quickly; low grade ore brought higher profits because of lower transportation costs. Excursion rates and hotels built to accommodate tourists fostered tourism.
Even so, businessmen and miners suffered because of high rates, poorly maintained equipment and limited schedules. When rail service died, so did much of the economy of Summit County. Many blamed the economic slowdown of the early 1900s on the reduced rail service. As jobs evaporated in the mines, population moved away and businesses suffered.
Colorado & Southern finally abandoned its line in 1937. Engine 9 carried the last passengers and freight from Como to Leadville and back on April 9-10, 1937. Crews removed rails and tracks the following year. The High Line from Boreas Pass to Fremont Pass became just a memory.
written by Sandra F. Mather, PhD