The Legendary High Line / Working on the Railroad
The Little Engine
The Denver, South Park & Pacific (DSP&P) established a crucial link between Denver and the high Rockies. The goal was to reach the Pacific Ocean but the harsh winters and challenging mountain terrain took a toll on the railroad companies. The DSP&P never made it to Utah let alone the Pacific.
By 1880, Como had become a high alpine hub for the railroad. The Continental Divide rose just to the west. In 1882, workers began laying track over Boreas Pass, the highest railroad pass in the nation at that time, reaching 11,493 feet at the summit. Rail service to Breckenridge and Dillon began in 1882. The High Line eventually crossed the Continental Divide again and by 1884 continued on to Leadville. A journey that had taken days by stagecoach or mule train now could be done in about 12 hours.
The High Line transformed life in Summit County. It brought everything from mail, fresh seafood, clothing, coal, and building supplies to livestock, china, pianos, and mining equipment. Outbound trains hauled ore, cattle, sheep, and lumber to Denver. Summit County boomed because of the High Line. It was no longer isolated from the outside world.
On a narrow gauge line like DSP&P, three feet separated the rails rather than the standard four feet, eight and one-half inches. Narrow gauge track could be laid more quickly and cheaply than standard gauge and could better negotiate sharp mountain curves. Steep hills and slow speeds earned the DSP&PRR the nickname "Dam Slow Pullin' & Pretty Rough Riding." Facing bankruptcy, the DSP&P reorganized as the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison in 1889. It was then bought the Colorado & Southern (C&S) Railway, which operated the line until it closed in 1937.
Train schedules required precise timekeeping. Station clocks were set by the 11:00 a.m. telegraph signal, so that engineers and conductors could check their watches for accuracy. Railroad families and staff did the same. Other people sometimes set their daily schedule by the train whistles. In the 1930s, Dillon residents listened anxiously for the whistle of the Friday train that brought ice cream for Riley's grocery store. An eager line formed quickly; disappointed latecomers had to wait another week for their ice cream.
The sever winter of 1898 - 1899 stopped the trains when snow piled to depths that halted travel on the High Line. The train whistles fell silent for 78 days, and the only supplies that reached Summit County arrived via sleighs and skis.
Your are standing within a few feet of where the rails came into Breckenridge.
Engine 9 passed this way hundreds of times between 1884 and 1937.
Engine 9 is a rare example of a late 19th century steam engine. The Cooke Locomotive and Machine Works of Paterson, New Jersey, built eight identical engines, including No. 9, for the Denver, South Park and Pacific (DSP&P) in 1884.
Coal burning in No. 9's firebox created steam. The engineer's throttle sent the steam to the cylinders, where it pushed pistons connected to the driving wheels by rods. Smoke and steam exhausted through the smokestack. Sand dropped from the sand dome, behind the stack, onto the rails near the drivers to prevent slipping. The steam dome contains the throttle.
Steam engines pulled a tender that carried coal and water. As many as four water tanks stood between Como and Breckenridge to refill the tenders. The restored Bakers Tank stands on Boreas Pass Road, about seven miles from Breckenridge.
No. 9 looks like it did in the 1930s. The Colorado &Southern (C&S) installed the "Bear Trap" or Ridgway Smokestack in 1917 or 1918 to catch sparks and hot cinders and prevent fires along the tracks. Its electric headlight replaced the original oil headlight around 1930. No. 9 including the tender weighs about 62 tons.
The C&S used No. 9 primarily in passenger service. It pulled the last passenger train from Leadville to Denver on April 10, 1937. That year the C&S abandoned the High Line from Como to Leadville, except for a short stub that served the molybdenum mine at Climax. The engine, which continued to work on the railroad's other narrow gauge lines, appeared at the New York World's Fair in 1939 and the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948. Later, it carried passengers on the Black Hills Central Railroad in South Dakota and Colorado's Georgetown Loop Railroad. It returned to Summit County in December, 2010.
Working on the Railroad
"They weren't Hollywood John Wayne heroes that worked the High Line," recalled a relative of the railroader. "They were good, honest, hardworking, gentle, ordinary people of integrity whose word was their bond and who knew what had to be done and just went out and did it." The High Line demanded a lot from a man and his family; life and work proved difficult.
A fireman helped each engineer. He shoveled coal into the firebox and watched the boiler's water level. The conductor directed the train's movements, telling the engineer where to stop and what cars to drop off or pick up. Brakeman set the brakes by precariously walking on top of the slippery, swaying cars. They used a long wooden "club" tool to turn the wheel and set the brakes. Later, engineers used automatic air brakes to control speed.
When the brakes failed on a steep grade, the men sometimes "joined the birds," jumping off the speeding train as a last ditch effort to save their lives. Word spread quickly through town when the telegraph buzzed with the message, "Wreck on the line!" People hurried to the depot for news about loved ones. Not all wrecks were serious, but there were tragedies in which cars derailed and rolled down mountainsides, locomotives rolled over and scalded the crew, or runaway trains missed a curve and plunged downhill. When the High Line claimed a life, hearts in the community were heavy.
Most days passed with normal hustle and bustle of daily life and the frequent sounds of trains coming down the mountain. Engineers liked to modify their whistles to make distinctive sounds. Railroading families listened for the special sound of the train on which their loved one worked. When they heard it, wives started preparing the next meal. Children ran to wave at the train.
It was a hard but rewarding way to make a living. At the time, carpenters earned around $40 per month, while engineers made $160 or more. Railroaders were often esteemed members of the community. When the High Line closed in 1937, it marked a significant end to an era of true, dedicated railroad pioneers in Summit County.