The Silverton Railroad! The most intriguing piece of narrow gauge in the world! The railroad of the steepest grades, the sharpest curves, the crookedest loops, the highest altitude and the oddest switchbacks, on one of which sat a wye with a depot inside and on the other a housed-over turntable! And the railroad of the famous Otto Mears passes!
Otto Mears and Fred Walsen, after the Opening up of the rich Yankee Girl mine made it feasible, in 1882 and ’83 built a toll road they called the “Rainbow Route” from Ouray to Silverton. This was the most famous and the most difficult piece of road engineering of the day. The line crept along the precipitous mountains of the Uncompahgre River and Red Mountain Creek canons and in places was cut out of sheer granite walls. It was so narrow and crooked in places that only by the expedient of backing up or unhitching a buggy and setting it on a sidehill could another conveyance get by. The grades were so steep, often 19%, that most of the early cars could not climb them. It was the road of the famous Bear Creek toll bridge where a driver stopped and parted with his cash, $2 for a saddle horse or $5 for a buggy and team.
While Mears and Walsen were constructing their road from Ouray to Red Mountain in the summer of 1882, the Denver and Rio Grande was completing its railroad from Durango to Silverton. The next year while Mears and Walsen were extending their road from Red Mountain to Silverton, the D. & R. G., through its construction engineer, Thomas Wigglesworth, was making a survey from Silverton to Red Mountain and Ironton Park. Nothing came of it but one wonders if it did not give Mears the idea of building a railroad himself.
The Silverton Railroad was incorporated on July 5, 1887 and chartered on July 8. Mears was the president of the company and John L. McNeil was the treasurer. Though we have no evidence to the effect, Walsen was, without doubt, an incorporator and official. Since much of the Rainbow Route toll road grade was to be used the railroad adopted the name. Incidentally a new wagon road had to be built.
The first part from Silverton to Chattanooga would not be too difficult but Red Mountain would have to be ascended on a steep grade and by many curves to the summit, Sheridan Pass. Then the line would have to go around a succession of curves to Red Mountain town and over more curves, grades and switchbacks from there down to Ironton. The greatest of engineering skill was necessary to accomplish such an undertaking.
The first necessity, of course, was a locomotive. So the company purchased the D. & R. G.’s No. 42, a Baldwin of 30 tons, called 60 class. It was overhauled and given the number “100” and the name “Ouray”. The number may be seen on the old-fashioned kerosene headlight in a picture herein.
The 5.3 miles of railroad from Silverton to Burro Bridge must have been constructed in the summer of 1887 for it is known to have been in operation by the first of June of the next year. In 1888 Charles W. Gibbs, who had served under Mr. Wigglesworth on a number of projects, became the locating and construction engineer. He started late in May at Burro Bridge and in early November had completed 11.2 miles through Red Mountain and to Ironton. Only 11.2 miles in over five months! But anyone acquainted with the country is not surprised.
Spurs then or later were laid to the Yankee Girl, Vanderbilt, North Star, Silver Bell, Guston and Treasury Tunnel. The map here included was made by Mr. Gibbs and appeared in a September 1890 Bulletin of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Mr. Gibbs built the 1.5 miles from Ironton to Albany in 1889. Albany was the Saratoga mill which stood against the east hill of Ironton Park. His report notes 5% grades, 30° curves, 3-foot gauge and 30-lb. rail. No reliable figures for the cost of construction are available but ordinarily a railroad of that kind at that time ate up about $25,000 to the mile.
In 1888 Mr. Gibbs was writing love letters to Miss Adeline Hammon of Colorado Springs and the next year they were married. She has kept his letters all these years from which these excerpts, dealing with the construction of the railroad from Burro Bridge to Ironton, are taken.
“Chattanooga, June 10, 1888. Arrived here bag and baggage about three 3weeks ago and have my headquarters 10,200 feet above sea level and my next camp will be still higher, about 11,000 feet. More than 100 Mexican workers camped nearby.”
“Gustine Mine, July 22, 1888. I am occupying the house of a former mine superintendent and have many conveniences not found in a railroad camp. Went to Silverton on the passenger train last night and returned this morning. Regular trains are running to where my first camp was (Chattanooga) and in a month’s time will be here and maybe they will get track laid before that as the grading will be done in two weeks time. About 400 Mexicans working.”
“Gustine Mine, August 11, 1888. Work is getting along splendidly and during this week I will get surveys made to Ironton which is as far as the line will be built this year. By the middle of next week the work will be only two miles from here and in a very short time at my door.”
“Gustine Mine, September 16, 1888. Construction work will be done in about five weeks; then I shall go to Telluride to make a short survey for a three foot gauge road.” (This became the Rio Grande Southern.)
“Ironton, October 3, 1888. Since writing you I have moved from the Gustine Mine to Ironton and we are living in a large vacant hotel, lots of room but not the conveniences we had at the mine.”
“Ironton, October 29, 1888. Since my last letter to you I discharged all my men but one and moved to Silverton but was put in charge of the work train and the track laying outfit so am back in the grader’s camp but will be done here in about a week.”
Wyes were placed at Sheridan Junction, Red Mountain and Ironton in 1888 and at Albany the next year. That of the D. & R. G. was used at Silverton. Very little room was available at Red Mountain and so only the smallest kind of wye could be made—one just big enough to accommodate an engine and a car and the depot had to be set inside of it.
Not counting the wyes there was only one switchback, that at Corkscrew Gulch, the most famous in the world as it contained a housed-over turntable.
Curvature was almost continuous. Four curves were particularly sharp—those at Chattanooga, Red Mountain, Joker Tunnel and Ironton. Steep grades 4were also almost continuous, some as much as 5%. Some maps have shown the grade at Chattanooga as 7%. This is an error. Mr. Gibbs, the builder, stated it was 5% and a recent survey has substantiated his figure.
Bridges, as compared to those on the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, were very small, there being, outside of water boxes and culverts, only three. Two were on the main line, one where the railroad crossed Mineral Creek at Chattanooga and the other where the railroad crossed Red Mountain Creek at Joker Tunnel. The other one was on the Treasury Tunnel Branch.
The name of Burro Bridge for the station at milepost 5.3 is very misleading since the railroad sported no span at all at that point. The supposition is that the word applied to the wagon-road bridge across Mineral Creek somewhat below and away from the railroad. This road branched off from the main Silverton-Red Mountain highway about five and one-half miles north of Silverton, crossed Mineral Creek and made its way up Middle Fork Gulch and across Ophir Pass to Ophir. This, first a burro trail and later a very rugged wagon road, was in use for perhaps fifteen years before the advent of the rail line. Since the Silverton Railroad unloaded freight for Ophir in the neighborhood of Burro Bridge it is assumed that this was the reason for the adoption of the name for the station.
The town of Chattanooga eventually grew up to the left of the location shown on the map in order to avoid Mineral Creek floods.
No account of the arrival of the first train in Red Mountain has been found but it is known to have occurred on September 17, 1888. A picture herein shows the train with Engine 100 and Mears standing beside the pilot. It can be assumed that it was a gala occasion, especially for the mines, for here was an efficacious way of getting supplies and of shipping ore.
The unloading of freight on the Silverton Railroad was quite informal. Outside of Red Mountain the line maintained no bona fide stations or agents. Therefore, materials were dropped off, especially for the mines, at the most convenient points.
So far the railroad owned only one locomotive, Number 100, and so had to rent from the D. & R. G. The same was true of cars and coaches.
The railroad had been projected to Ouray, 26.6 miles in all. Mears might have used his toll road but that was, in some places, 19 per cent grade, out of the question for a railroad. The steepest ever attempted in Colorado was 7.6%. Construction from Ironton to the foot of Ironton Park would have been easy but there the canon began where the greater part of six miles would have had to be blasted out of solid rock, where slide rock could have been quite bothersome, where snow blockades would have been continuous for a long winter and where snowslides, two in particular, the Riverside and the Mother Cline, that ran every year, would have been almost impossible to conquer. The Riverside slide that came from two sides, filling the canon and burying the wagon road, often had to be tunnelled to accommodate the summer traffic. The writer, with her parents, was through one in the summer of 1903 or ’04.
At the same time surveys were made for another branch of the system, one that was to go up the Animas River from Silverton to Mineral Point, 19 miles, and possibly across the divide to Lake City.
Through operation to Ironton began in June 1889. The claim that two daily passenger trains ran there has generally been disbelieved but the following table for 1889, copied from the Official Railway Guide of May 1891, proves the point.