Denver & Rio Grande Railroad

February 17, 2022

Denver & Rio Grande Railroad

Much of Colorado’s history and development can be traced back to the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The company’s visionary was General William J. Palmer, a decorated U.S. Army officer of the Civil War. Palmer imagined something that had never been attempted- a corridor piercing the heart of the Rocky Mountains. As many of the nation’s railways focused on east-west rails connecting the coasts, General Palmer saw the opportunity for a north-south route that could intersect all transcontinental lines and open trade with Mexico.


The D&RG incorporated in October of 1870, with a proposed route from Denver, through Colorado Springs to Pueblo, up the Arkansas River to Poncha Pass, and then to Santa Fe and El Paso. In January 1871, the first line from Denver followed the Plum Creek wagon road over Palmer Divide, then down Monument Creek to its junction with Fountain Creek. The first passenger train arrived in Colorado Springs on October 27, 1871. It was a 65-mile route that took 5 hours at a pace of 15 miles per hour. The line became the vital conduit which enabled the foundation and growth of Colorado Springs. 

Palmer built his railway without any federal subsidy, at a time when capitalists were reluctant to invest in new railroads. As a means of reducing costs, Palmer pioneered the 3-foot, narrow-gauge concept.  It became a highly popular alternative to standard-gauge rights-of-way during the late 19th century. The railroad also sold land to real estate and coal mining companies that, in turn, developed bustling settlements along the routes to generate traffic for the railway. 


In the late 1870s, the company had to pivot from its original development plan.  The D&RG was engaged in fierce competition with the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railroad, fighting over who would be first to lay track through Raton Pass, which was the way to access Santa Fe. Once silver was discovered in Leadville, Colorado, the two companies also fought to lay track over Royal Gorge. This resulted in threats, violence between rival gangs of railroad workers, and hired gunslingers- a two-year feud that became known as the Royal Gorge Railroad War. The D& RG eventually ceded access to Raton Pass, but legally gained the route up the Arkansas River to Leadville, which it reached on July 31, 1880.


The direct connection to the booming Leadville mining camp kept the railroad profitable. Because of their agreement with the AT&SF not to connect to Santa Fe, D&RG officials instead focused on serving mining and agriculture in the Colorado mountains. The D&RG was responsible for connecting and developing the mining towns of Crested Butte, Aspen, Telluride, Durango, Salida, and Glenwood Springs. 


The D&RG had a profound impact on the settlement and industrialization of the entire state, especially when Palmer built the steel mills in Pueblo to manufacture rails. Palmer built a second line in 1889 that became the Rio Grande Western to connect with Salt Lake City and the transcontinental line to the west coast. The two Rio Grande lines connected on March 30, 1883, completing a 735-mile Denver-Salt Lake City route that took 35 hours.


The D&RG is credited with opening the largest and most successful narrow-gauge network in the United States. At its height in the mid-1880s, the D&RGW had the largest narrow-gauge railroad network in North America with 2,783 miles of track.






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