Royal Gorge Route CRRX 402 model F7A stored in the yard at the eastern end of Cañon City - 4 Oct 2014 William Slim.
The headwaters of the Arkansas River lie in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado near Leadville from where it flows southeast to join the Mississippi River in Arkansas. Leaving the Rockies it cuts a deep canyon, 1,250 feet (380 metres) deep for that matter, known as the Royal Gorge just a few miles west of Cañon City, Colorado. Today the only right-of-way through this canyon carries the Royal Gorge Route Railroad excursions from Cañon City to Parkdale and return, 12 miles each way. About halfway along the route the railway passes beneath the Royal Gorge Bridge, 955 feet (291 metres) above the river and track. This suspension bridge held the record as the highest bridge in the world from 1929 until 2001, when a Chinese bridge won that distinction. However, there is some consolation in the fact that it is still the highest bridge in the United States.
One interesting feature of the route through the gorge is a piece of engineering named the Hanging Bridge. Originally constructed in 1879 it has since been strengthened and remains in use today. The nearly vertical rock walls of the gorge narrow to just 30 feet (9.1 metres) across the river at one point. In order to construct a right-of-way through this gap girders were attached to both sides of the canyon walls forming an "A" frame. Next track was supported on 175 feet (53 metres) long steel plate girders anchored parallel to one canyon wall and supported on the river side by cables hung from the A frames.
A Brief History
Late in 1870 mining for lead and silver in the Leadville district drew the attention of two railroads, the Denver & Rio Grande Western (DRGW) and the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe (ATSF). The DRGW already had trackage in Cañon City while the ATSF had reached Pueblo. Leadville, where the transportation wealth laid (shipping ore), was over 100 miles from these two points with the Royal Gorge lying between. As can be seen by the construction of the Hanging Bridge the possibility of two railroads traversing the steep canyon would not be possible.
19 Apr 1878 saw the start of war between the two railroads. ATSF began grading a right-of-way just west of Cañon City near the entrance to the gorge. DRGW sent crews to the same area but they were blocked by the ATSF graders in the narrow canyon. DRGW tried leapfrogging around ATSF grading but were blocked by court injunctions. Grading crews continued to harass each other with both sides hiring armed guards for protection.
ATSF brought in the famous Bat Masterson and the infamous Doc Holliday who hired about 60 gunfighters. A firefight ensued in the Santa Fe roundhouse at Pueblo in which one person was killed, apparently shot in the back by a drunken DRGW guard.
In 21 Apr 1879 the railroads legal battle ended in the Supreme Court of United States with the DRGW granted the right-of-way through the Royal Gorge. But ATSF did not give up and announced it would build a parallel track through the canyon. DRGW management believed this threat by the ATSF would thereby result in the financial ruin of the DRGW so they entered into a 30 year lease with the ATSF who then completed construction through the canyon.
Now in possession of a lease the ATSF manipulated freight rates to their favour thereby strangling DRGW earnings. This forced the DRGW to obtain another court injunction which barred ATSF from using DRGW trackage effective 10 Jun 1879. This was followed by the DRGW taking over trains, depots, and engine houses under the force of arms in which several men died.
On 27 Mar 1880 the "Treaty of Boston" was signed by both railroads which ended all litigation. The gave the DRGW its railroad back. DRGW then paid ATSF US$1.8 million for their construction of the railroad through the gorge. With the dispute now settled DRGW continued construction west reaching Leadville on 20 Jul 1880.
DRGW operated passenger train service through the gorge from 1880 until 1967 when DRGW merged with Southern Pacific (SP). In 1996 SP was taken over by the Union Pacific (UP) which then proceeded to close the gorge route.
1998 saw UP sell the 12 miles (only a portion of their Tennessee Pass line) through the Royal Gorge to Cañon City & Royal Gorge Railroad (CCRG) and Rock & Rail Incorporated (RRI) who had joined together forming Royal Gorge Express (RGX) to purchase the line. Excursion service commenced on this 12 mile route in 1999. Excursion train movements are controlled by the UP's Harriman Dispatching Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Except for this 12 mile section the remainder of the Tennessee Pass line is dormant.
The railway reporting marks for today's Royal Gorge Route Railroad of CRRX are assigned to Cañon City and Royal Gorge Railroad, LLC.
A Trip on the Line
Our journey begins at the old brick walled terracotta roofed Santa Fe depot in Cañon City. Well maintained by the Royal Gorge Route Railroad the depot is surrounded by several large parking lots and fresh green landscaping. The building contains the ticket office and a well-stocked gift shop with plenty of souvenirs of the railroad trip.
Royal Gorge trains can be quite long for an excursion railway consequently there are several "gates" that mark the entrance to a gravel platform where passengers congregate before boarding their train. A railroad photographer takes photos on the steps of a coach as couples board. Later on, during the excursion, she searches for them onboard as the train trundles along its route, pulling out a printed photo to compare with those people she encounters during her search. There are a number of friendly and helpful onboard staff who point out the reserved seats offering info and advice.
Trains depart from the depot westward beneath a roadway overpass which connects the depot area with the main street of Cañon City. The train remains on the north side of the Arkansas River for the entire trip out and back. Approximately a mile and a half from the depot the start of the Royal Gorge canyon is encountered. The countryside is arid. The river runs through low hills dotted with bushes, growing thicker where they are closer to the river. An abandoned and collapsing aqueduct is in evidence on the south side of the river. It's early October and the weather during this trip is perfect, cloudless, sunny, warm, not exceedingly hot as one could imagine during the height of the summer season. Also, the train is not overcrowded, there's plenty of room to move about. A basic coach fare permits access to the open air observation cars so 95 percent of the trip will be spent there taking photographs. Two videographers have set up their expensive camera on a tripod in one of the open observation cars. They're making a promotional film for the railroad as they photograph sightseers, parents, and children gawking at the scenery. I'm told the audio will be added during the editing process at a later date.
Moving deeper westward into the canyon the hills become higher and the walls steeper but not yet vertical. Vegetation is reduced. The right-of-way is a series of "S" curves as it snakes alongside the river. An abandoned concrete pillar is seen in the middle of the river which once supported the aqueduct as it crossed over the river. Slightly further past this point the canyon walls are now nearly vertical. Telegraph poles line the route between the track and the sheer canyon wall with a series of parallel wires strung between the poles. These are not telegraph or telephone wires but a warning device to trip the railway signals to red should a rock slide occur. Suddenly the train lurches to an emergency stop, possibly toppling the wine glasses in the first class Supper Domes. Passengers standing in the open air observation car are shaken enough to lose their footing momentarily but no one falls. One would guess the speed was less than 10 miles per hour when the emergency happened. Can you guess what's happened? After a pause crew members can be seen way up at the head-end of the train in front of the locomotive. They're throwing rocks off the track. The entire drama lasts only minutes and the train is underway once more.
Rounding a bend in the track the Royal Gorge suspension bridge comes into view. Up there! Way up there! Multiple cameras click away. Passing beneath the suspension bridge the train crawls under a steel pedestrian overbridge with the Hanging Bridge visible ahead. This is the narrowest portion of the gorge with only 30 feet (9.1 metres) between the vertical walls which support the Hanging Bridge. The whole area here is very impressive being the highlight of the excursion
Further west following the Hanging Bridge their lies a concrete structure that appears to be a roadway overpass that ends abruptly at the river's edge, it's purpose unknown. Still further to the west the canyon now widens while the high narrow gorge disappears behind the string of passenger cars. The excitement of the gorge is over and the balance of the journey to Parkdale seems tame but... Upon reaching Parkdale, after a pause, the train, unable to turn, or carry out a locomotive run-around move, now proceeds to back up all the way to Cañon City. Once again the paying passengers will travel through the spectacular Royal Gorge.
In addition to the diesel-electric locomotives a specially configured HEP (Head End Power) unit is used on the rear of some trains. Equipped with windows, headlights, ditch lights, horns, and a yellow flashing beacon it is manned by a crew member while the train backs from Parkdale to Cañon City.
A total of 32 photos were taken during a ride from Cañon City to Parkdale and back on 4 Oct 2014. The railway's route is virtually inaccessible by vehicle (there's a walkable path that parallels the railroad just west of Cañon City for a short distance. The basic coach fare was US$39 per person and this gives free access to the open observation and concession cars. See the brochure below for all the 2014 rates. Click on the camera to view the photos.