Royal Gorge Railroad

Home Of The Very Best Colorado Train Rides

The story of the Royal Gorge Railroad is a saga filled with gunfights, courtroom battles and years of bitter arguments.

The nearest town to the Royal Gorge is Cañon City Colorado, founded in 1860 as a base for the exploration of mineral deposits which were thought to be in the area.

This proved to be correct when silver and lead were discovered in 1877. This was at a place, about a hundred miles west of Cañon City, that came to be known as Leadville

Between Cañon City Colorado and Leadville lay the Royal Gorge. This is where the Arkansas River runs through a thousand foot high plateau called Freemont Peak. In some places the Gorge narrows to less than fifty yards wide. The cliff walls on either side have their feet in the icy waters of the river.

Surely the gorge was an impassible barrier for a railroad but to go over or around the plateau was not an option.

However, the rival companies were prepared to overcome the difficulties of laying a line through the Royal Gorge. These two rivals were "The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway" (known as The Santa Fe) and "The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad" (the D & RG)

There was hardly room for one railroad track through the gorge let alone two. Who would get to build the Royal Gorge Railroad?
The race was on! And it soon became a war!


Two rail crews raced for the western end of the Royal Gorge to be the first there to survey their line.

Who got there first is in dispute to this day.

Some say that the D & RG won the race and had a survey party already working in the gorge when the Santa Fe crew arrived and seized the western end. Others maintain that the Santa Fe crew arrived first and the D & RG leapfrogged them to try to get ahead.

Tempers began to rise and both companies took to hiring men more used to firing a gun than wielding a pick. The "Santa Fe" gained the services of Bat Masterson and a gang of toughs from Dodge City.

Meanwhile, in the gorge, the crews from the D & RG built small stone forts in an effort to block any advance by the Santa Fe. These stone forts can still be seen by the railroad passengers today.

Then the fight turned to the courts in an attempt to settle the matter. On April the 21st 1879 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the D & RG should have the right to build the Royal Gorge Railroad.

The Santa Fe was not happy!

They immediately announced they would build competing tracks parallel to every existing D & RG line. Scared by the possibility of financial ruin the smaller D & RG leased the Royal Gorge Railroad route to the Santa Fe for a term of thirty years.

The struggle for business went on as the Sante Fe crews built a 36 inch wide, narrow gauge line, along the floor of the gorge. The D & RG continued building their line to the west of The Royal Gorge Colorado in an effort to block the mighty Santa Fe Company.

Increasing losses over a series of months led the D & RG to return to court to try and break the lease they had given to the Santa Fe.

A local court found in favour of the D & RG.

The Royal Gorge Railroad War flared up again. Armed gangs from the D & RG seized trains, depots and engine houses. Shots were fired and men were killed before the courts intervened again.

A treaty finally settling all the litigation was signed on March 27th 1880. This became known as the "Treaty of Boston."

The Santa Fe Company had virtually finished the line in The Royal Gorge when the courts gave the rights of the line back to the Denver and Rio Grande. The Santa Fe were paid $1.8 million for the line already laid and the D & RG finished the track to Leadville on July 20th 1880.

The Royal Gorge Railroad War had ended!

Laying the line through the Royal Gorge had not been easy. At one place the thousand foot high cliffs are only thirty feet apart at their base. Here the railroad track had to be suspended over the waters of the Arkansas River.

A Kansas engineer named C. Shallor Smith designed a series of "A-Frame" girders anchored on each side of the gorge walls. From these girders were suspended the bed on which the track was laid. This became known as "The Hanging Bridge."

By 1882 The Royal Gorge Railroad Route was part of the trans-continental rail line. The narrow gauge was replaced with a standard gauge track. Travelling through the Royal Gorge became the highlight of the rail journey over the Rocky Mountains.

For many years passengers rode trains through the narrow gorge. At one point there were as many as four trains a day. Most trains would stop at the Hanging Bridge for passengers to alight and marvel at the construction and gaze up in awe at the cliffs.

But then other, quicker forms of transport overtook the trains. The heyday of train travel was gone.
Passenger trains stopped in 1967 and only freight went via the Royal Gorge.

Then in 1998 a new era dawned!

The Royal Gorge Route Railroad was formed purely to take tourists on short journeys along the gorge and back and to provide the very best Colorado train rides.
Some people thought this venture was doomed to failure
In actual fact it has been a booming success.
Now over 100,000 people a year travel on what has been described as one of the top eight train journeys in America.

The Railroad runs a variety of trips from "Murder Mystery Trains," a "Santa Express," and "Twilight Trains" to enjoy sunsets.
There are open air carriages where you can sit outside and take in the atmosphere of the gorge. If that`s too cold there are upper level seats under a glass dome. You will get superb views from there. The railroad is famed for the gourmet lunches and dinners they serve as you travel.
You can even go Arkansas River white water rafting and then take the train back to your starting point.

As you ride this train you can understand why the two rival crews faught to build this wonderful railroad line!




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