Published: October 3, 2023
By: Adam Burns
The Colorado Central Railroad, often overlooked in the annals of American railroad history, was one of the state's famous narrow-gauge lines out of Denver. Born out of the great Colorado Gold Rush of the 1860s, the railroad would be the lifeline of the mining industry, connecting isolated mining towns with thriving markets.
One of the Colorado Central's most famous features was the innovative Georgetown Loop. Designed by engineering marvel Robert Blickensderfer, the loop allowed the train to climb an incredible grade without necessitating dangerous and expensive tunneling work. It was a feat of brilliance, elegance, and efficient design.
The Colorado mining boom was instrumental to the development of the Colorado Central. Prospectors and miners swarmed into the region, leading to a burgeoning demand for transportation of people, goods, and extracted minerals.
This gilded environment cultivated the rise of the Colorado Central, directly responsible for connecting and cultivating many mining towns that sprung up within the Clear Creek Canyon during this period.
In 1865, the first predecessor of what became the Colorado Central was incorporated. The railroad was largely complete by the mid-1880s and later became a division of Union Pacific before UP's bankruptcy saw the property come under Colorado & Southern control in the late 1890s.
Increased competition from trucks and automobiles eventually saw the railroad abandoned during the 1930s. Incredibly a section of the line, the famous Georgetown Loop, was rebuilt in the 1980s as a tourist attraction and still carries thousands of visitors annually.
While the Colorado Central is best remembered for handling a large staple of gold ore, traffic which continued to sustain the railroad until the 1930s.
However, its genesis, as author George Hilton notes in his book, "American Narrow Gauge Railroads," was actually in the town of Golden, Colorado's efforts to displace Denver as the main rail hub along the Front Range.
The Colorado Central was promoted by William A.H. Loveland as a standard and narrow-gauge system; the former trackage would connect Golden with the Union Pacific at Pine Bluff, Nebraska while the latter would serve mines at Black Hawk, Central City, Idaho Springs, Georgetown, and Silver Plume via the Clear Creek Canyon.
Denver - Golden - Georgetown - Silver Plume
The Colorado Central's genesis began as the Colorado & Clear Creek Railroad Company incorporated on February 9, 1865. The name was changed several times before 1870; on January 20, 1866 it became the Colorado Central & Pacific Railroad.
Initial construction commenced in early 1868 and on January 14th that year the company was renamed again as the Colorado Central Railroad.
Ultimately, the Nebraska connection was abandoned in favor of reaching the Union Pacific at Cheyenne, Wyoming. This line, running via Loveland and Fort Collins was completed in 1877.
As a result, the dual gauge operation was not viewed as a significant hindrance towards sustained profitability. The Colorado Central held the added advantage of carrying significant financial support from Union Pacific.
In an effort to build its traffic base, UP was heavily involved in Colorado's narrow-gauge rail movement in the late 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s to handle the state's precious metal mining boom (largely through the efforts of Jay Gould).
UP would go on to acquire the competing Denver, South Park & Pacific in 1881 and jointly operated the South Park Line and Colorado Central as the Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf Railroad beginning in 1890.
The Colorado Central's narrow-gauge lines began construction concurrently with the standard gauge route, although were delayed by the financial Panic of 1873.
The first section to Forks Creek was completed on September 1, 1872, and extended to Black Hawk on December 7th that year. - Forks Creek later became the junction point of the main line to Georgetown. - Before the financial downturn the railroad was able to reach Floyd Hill in the Clear Creek Canyon on March 19, 1873.
Following a traffic agreement in 1875 between the rivaling Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific (KP)/Denver Pacific (DP) that saw the latter take over local traffic throughout Colorado, the Colorado Central's future appeared bleak.
The railroad was still under Loveland's control and he elected to keep it independent, narrowly avoiding receivership in the process. In March, 1877 he worked out an agreement with Jay Gould, then in control of Union Pacific, to help fund the Colorado Central's continued expansion.
Soon after this agreement had been finalized, construction continued beyond Floyd Hill, reaching Georgetown on August 13, 1877. Elsewhere, the railroad built a 5-mile branch to Ralston, via Golden, that was completed in February, 1878.
This spur, built as subsidiary Golden & Ralston Railroad, served coal mines, and was extended in 1883 to Glencoe as another subsidiary, the Denver & Middle Park Railroad. However, this latter extension was later abandoned in 1898.
Also during 1878 the railroad continued beyond Black Hawk, reaching Central City in May of the year. This particular line required a double switchback and three trestles of considerable length through Gregory Gulch to keep grades manageable.
Interestingly, up until this time the Colorado Central had made no serious efforts to even open narrow-gauge service into Denver. However, as the 3-foot movement was in full swing by the late 1870s and the city's importance grew, the railroad felt such a move was necessary.
In 1879 the railroad laid a third-rail along its main line between Argo and Arapahoe, which allowed passenger trains access to the Union Passenger Depot in downtown Denver along 16th Street. In doing so the railroad could offer direct service to the western fringe's of its network.
In February, 1879 the Colorado Central was leased to Union Pacific, which two years later also acquired the South Park Line and jointly operated both as the Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf Railroad beginning in 1890.
Soon after its lease to UP, company officials began eyeing possible extensions to either Middle Park, via Berthoud Pass or Leadville, via Loveland Pass. With the transcontinental railroad now calling the shots, the Colorado Central incorporated the Georgetown, Breckenridge & Leadville Railway to carry out the Leadville extension.
The immediate routing out of Georgetown to Silver Plume offered no easy route, requiring the railroad to gain 638 feet in just two miles, or what would have been a grade of over 6%. The solution became one of the greatest feats in the narrow-gauge movement, the Georgetown Loop.
Designed by engineer Robert Blickensderfer, the line featured two horseshoe curves and the famous loop itself, which encompassed another horseshoe curved trestle over Clear Creek. It was a total of 4.47 miles in length but grades were held to a manageable 3.5%.
The line to Silver Plume was completed in March, 1884 and then continued on to Graymont (4 miles). However, to reach Leadville required a tunnel of considerable length, which parent Union Pacific elected not to carry out after the South Park Line had reached Leadville.
Interestingly, there were nevertheless continued efforts to complete this tunnel although none were successful. Had it been finished the Colorado Central's Denver-Leadville corridor would have encompassed just 127 miles compared to the Denver & Rio Grande's 276 and the South Park Line's 171.
The Union Pacific's 1893 bankruptcy, as a result of the financial panic that year, caused the company to lose control of its narrow-gauge holdings. They were subsequently acquired by the newly formed Colorado & Southern Railway, incorporated on December 19, 1898.
Officially, the C&S took over the Colorado Central and South Park Line operations in January, 1899. From this point forward both were operated integrally as part of the C&S.
As with many railroads of that era, the Colorado Central's decline was a poignant affair, a demise precipitated by the dwindling gold rush and advent of modern transportation methods.
Phenomena like the automobile slowly made steam railroads obsolete, plummeting freight and passenger revenues which led to the eventual abandonment of the railroad.
Into the early 20th century, however, the former Colorado Central lines initially continue to do fairly well in comparison to the other narrow-gauge lines thanks to its precious metal traffic (gold and silver), except for the Rio Grande which was far and away the most successful.
It passenger business also held up until the 1910s when highways finally penetrated the region. The final scheduled passenger trains operated on June 4, 1927 while summer excursions continued for some time afterward.
The first cutbacks began in 1925 when the Black Hawk-Central City segment ended service and was formally abandoned in 1931. Finally, the C&S applied for abandonment of the entire property on February 28, 1936.
It was denied by the Interstate Commerce Commission, except for the Silver Plume-Idaho Springs segment, which by then contained little traffic.
The famous Georgetown Loop segment finally ended service on January 31, 1939 and was removed two months later, including the keynote high bridge. The C&S again applied for complete abandonment on March 27, 1940 which was approved. The final trains ran on May 4, 1941.
Today, most of the original main line has been occupied by the U.S. highway 6. Despite its extinction, the legacy of the Colorado Central Railroad lives on.
The Georgetown Loop, a small section of the original route, is now a popular tourist attraction. This nostalgic nod to Colorado's mining past offers a unique perspective on how the railroad contributed to the rise of the Centennial State.
In summary, the Colorado Central Railroad, an integral thread in the tapestry of Colorado's history, was a pioneering force in the mining boom, ultimately becoming part of Union Pacific and later, the Colorado and Southern Railway.
Today, its memory lingers through the preserved Georgetown Loop Railroad, a testament to the enduring impact of the railroad on the state's development and identity.