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