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Resilient Breckenridge, CO Part 2: When the Railroad Abandoned Breckenridge

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

An era ended in 1937 when the last narrow-gauge train left the Breckenridge station. For fifty-five years the faithful train chugged over the steep and winding Boreas Pass to connect Breckenridge to the world, haul its gold laden freight, and bring supplies and fineries to the community. Watching the last railroad to run through Breckenridge was like “witnessing the death of an old friend.”

Railroad Train Engine No. 113 at Rocky Point above Breckenridge, CO; 1889-1899 (SHS-P.2014.441)

Breckenridge was booming in 1880 when word of the impending arrival of the railroad reached the community. It had long been a wished-for transportation infrastructure. Ore is heavy and expensive to haul. A train would make lower grade ore profitable to mine and move. Until the train arrived, Breckenridge was very isolated, far from any major population center and barely accessible by rough wagon trails and burro paths. You could hardly even call them roads.

In 1879, the black sand that clogged sluice boxes was found to be highly valuable. Instead of discarding it in nuisance piles, new techniques allowed “carbonate” to be successfully milled. The result was a fortune in lead and silver, creating millionaires in a day.

By 1880, a synchrony of glad tidings improved the lot of Breckenridge. Silver was valuable, capital investment was readily available with the end of the Civil War, immigrants from the impoverished countries of England, Wales, and Cornwall provided cheap labor, and the West had been conquered in the name of Manifest Destiny.

In August 1882, the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad (DSP&PRR) arrived in Breckenridge to great fanfare. Now with regular train service, goods and supplies flowed in to town, as the ore and timber flowed out. A notable change also took over Breckenridge: women. Before the train made access easier, the wives of Breckenridge’s workers would depart for the winter to gentler climates. Now with year-round transportation, the women stayed. They built churches and schools, conducted choirs and music lessons, started charitable outreach, and demanded wall paper to cover the drafty walls of their still-rustic cabins and homes. Breckenridge was becoming an established community.

Train engines on snow covered Boreas Pass; 1899 (BHA.2014.1.10)

Breckenridge’s relationship with the railroad alternated between love and hate, however. There were constant complaints about service, as the train was always late. The acronym for the railroad company came to be known as Darn Slow Pulling & Pretty Rough Riding. When the railroad company moved the telegraph station from Main Street to the depot a half-mile from town, the community grumbled mightily.

Train wreck on the Colorado and Southern tracks (SHS-P.2014.439-1)

The High Line, as it was known, was never well capitalized to begin with. The narrow-gauge track faced many obstacles: erosion from spring run-off, narrow canyons, steep grades, sharp curves, blown bridges, and ice, snow and avalanches. Competitor railroads offered an early warning: “…the treasury of any company that might undertake such a task would be subject to a constant drain to meet expenses.” Prophetic words that were not heeded, as the rush to the mineral wealth of the Colorado Rockies was fueled by one of the most virulent fevers known to man: Gold Fever.

The race to provide rail service to the mining camps was a ruthless battle, the “survival of the fittest.” Plagued by cutthroat competition, mismanagement, high expenses and likely corruption, the High Line went bankrupt once and changed owners three times during its brief existence. As Breckenridge’s fortunes declined throughout the early years of the 20th century, so too did the railroad’s. The mines were playing out and that meant less freight to haul.

By 1928, the High Line was owned by the Colorado and Southern Railroad when the company first applied for abandonment of their lines throughout Colorado. The people of Breckenridge fought abandonment vigorously. William Briggle was successful in keeping the railway open for several more years.

But the end was near. In 1936, the Postal Service awarded its contract for mail hauling to the trucking companies. The thrice-weekly train service could no longer afford to operate without the lucrative mail run. The transportation business was changing too with improved highways and sturdier vehicles. Narrow gauge railways were too expensive to convert to standard gauge.

Railroad track on Bores Pass; 1880s-1900s (BHA.2017.7.2-8A)

An attempt was made to take over the Breckenridge-Leadville section of rail to provide a way to get ore to the smelters in Leadville and continue transportation throughout Summit County. Roads were so bad then that people would put their cars on blocks for the winter. Kids took the train to school. Despite the efforts of County Treasurer George Robinson, the application was rejected. Breckenridge was without a railway.

Crowds gathered on the platform at the Breckenridge Depot to watch the last train pass through on April 10, 1937. It was a sad day for the old High Line, like “attending a funeral” commented one observer. Like the stages of grief, there was a grim acceptance of the loss. The Depression had decimated Breckenridge, and while it was down, it wasn’t out. The Tiger Dredge still churned through town, and mining operations continued at the Wellington and Tiger. Breckenridge remained optimistic that mining would make a come-back.

Engine No. 9 at the High Line Railroad Park in Breckenridge; 2013

Today, relics of the old High Line are still visible throughout the community. Visit the High Line Railroad Park to hear the keening sound of the train whistle and view locomotive Number 9 and the Leslie Rotary Snowplow that cleared the tracks in winter. Other remnants of the old High Line are visible visible along Boreas Pass Road, including the Section House at the summit, and Bakers Tank. In town, the trestle for the old railway can be seen crossing the Blue River at The Village complex.

Learn more about the railroad history and join a tour with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.

written by Leigh Girvin

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