Big Men and Little Engines

"Rails will never breach those crags. Only a bird or a burro can take men into the Rocky Mountains."

Fortunately for Georgetown, one man, General William Palmer, believed that the shining mountains could be crossed by rails. General Palmer had been a director of the Kansas Pacific line which had reached Denver in 1870. In that same year he began organizing the Denver and Rio Grande, and because the D&RG was to run through the mountains at Raton, General Palmer set the track gauge at a three foot width instead of the growing American standard of four feet, eight and one-half inches.

This "narrow gauge" decision by Palmer was to have a tremendous effect upon transportation into and through the Front Range of the Rockies. This decision, more than any other, kept the mining boom going in the high mountain valleys, for it made possible the easy and inexpensive transportation of supplies into the camps as well as the out-shipment of ore to formerly inaccessible markets.

Two unusual and eccentric gentlemen who gave their names to a couple of Colorado's most scenic passes, W. A. H. Loveland and Capt. E. L. Berthoud, conceived and surveyed a rail line up the tortuous Clear Creek Canyon in 1867. Loveland, who practically owned the City of Golden at the mouth of the canyon, believed, along with Berthoud, that eventually the line would travel to the Pacific shores, and that Golden would become the new capital of the Territory.

But for intermediate financing of this transcontinental dream, Loveland abandoned the almost impossible idea of standard gauge trackage and hustled his little road along the steep and narrow banks of the tumbling creek to Blackhawk and Central City. When Berthoud could find no realistic engineer to undertake the 11,000-foot pass, he allowed Loveland to move the rails south to Georgetown where they came to an end.

In 1879, Jay Gould took over the Colorado Central, as it was then called, and upon a visit to Georgetown, en-visaged an extension of the line to the booming city of Leadville. Under his auspices, The Georgetown, Leadville and San Juan Railroad was organized for this rather grandiose purpose. However, The G.L.&S.J. never put down a foot of track, and another line, The Georgetown, Breckenridge and Leadville Railroad, performed one of the great engineering feats of the age by lifting itself some 638 feet, from Georgetown to Silver Plume, over a track distance of four and one-half miles. This was done (on a gradient of 143 feet to the mile) by the dramatic engineering device of The Georgetown Loop. Here the three-foot tracks spiraled upward above the Devil's Gate canyon of Clear Creek and passed over themselves by the celebrated "high bridge" and on into Silver Plume.

Although Gould's idea of moving over (or under) Loveland Pass to Breckenridge and Leadville never immaterialized (the tracks stopped forever at Graymont), and the ownership passed into the hands of the Union Pacific, the entire Loop setup was widely exploited as a scenic attraction. As many as seven or eight special trains made the trip up Clear Creek from Denver daily during the summer season, in addition to the two scheduled runs each way.

Twenty years after the construction of the Loop, one of the more unusual narrow gauge roads in the world was built over wavy tangents, sky-high curves, and slender trestles from Silver Plume to The Argentine district town of Waldorf, nearly 12,000 feet in altitude. This was the famous Argentine Central road with its unique Shay geared locomotives, the only adhesion motive power cap-able of operating over the steep grades.

Thus Georgetown became, for a brief time, the center of a complex of narrow gauges only rivaled in density of trackage and operations by Denver itself. Clear Creek Canyon, The Loop and The Argentine Central made a trip to Georgetown a must in the guide books of the time, and a scenic attraction of unsurpassed beauty.

And so it is today. Don't miss it!

The years dealt impartially with mining in Colorado and with the narrow gauges, and the decline of one into terminal borasca spelled the eventual end of the other. In 1912, The Argentine Central was sold for $5,000. It had cost close to half a million. And in 1919 (13 years after its completion) it was sold for scrap. In 1939 the last engine rolled across the spidery Loop, and by 1941 the entire narrow gauge complex (by then, The Colorado and South-ern) from Denver to Georgetown and Graymont had heard the last cheerful tooting of the little trains. The tracks were torn up to make way for the more efficient highway system, but no automobile, no matter how glamourous, will ever have the romance of the little engines- or the big men who ran them.

NOTES: Highway Six from Golden to Georgetown is the approximate route of the narrow gauge line. The six tunnels are strictly highway engineering, but if you look closely you will be able to see long stretches of railroad grade winding along the river banks. It is anticipated that the Colorado Historical Society will soon rebuild the famous Georgetown Loop as well as a model mining complex alongside its historic right of way. You may today drive over a portion of the Argentine Central grade by way of a county road to the ghost town of Waldorf. Anyone interested in The Loop and The Argentine Central may see them in all their previous glory when visiting The George-town Railroad Museum where the largest operating rail-road model in the world portrays the lines, and the towns of Georgetown, Silver Plume and Waldorf as they were in the booming times of yesterday.

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