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Alpine Tunnel - An Engineering Marvel

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Situated about 18 miles southwest of Buena Vista, Colorado is the historic narrow gauge Alpine Tunnel.


Once the highest railroad tunnel in the world, at an altitude of 11,523 feet, it was the first tunnel to be built through the Continental Divide. The Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad began the work of connecting St. Elmo to Pitkin, Colorado in November, 1879 with a construction crew working at either end to connect the line.


Anticipating that the mineral rich area would be the next big mining "bonanza, as many as 10,000 different men worked to build the line and the tunnel at various times. A crew of around 400 worked steadily, but turnover was quick, as the men suffered through the cold, brutal work.  Laborers, working for $3.50 per day, and explosives men, who worked for $5.00 per day, were often forced to go from their worksite to their cabins in groups in order to avoid being lost in the snow.


Train coming out of the Alpine Tunnel, Colorado

Denver Leadville and Gunnison Railroad engine number

 199 emerges from stone Alpine Tunnel. Photo taken late 1800's.





Excavation of the tunnel began in January, 1880 with plans to complete it within six months. But, those were ambitious plans, especially starting the project in the middle of winter. It would actually take the railroad more than two years to complete the tunnel and cost them far more than they had planned, coming in at about $300,000 and some $180,000 more than they had initially budgeted. Due to crumbling granite in the tunnel, over 400,000 board feet of California redwood was required to support and encase 80% of it.

The two crews met each other in the tunnel in July, 1881, but it would be another year before it was ready for the train.

When the first narrow gauge train came through in July, 1882, the tunnel was 1, 772 feet long, over two miles above sea level, 500 feet below Altman Pass (later renamed Alpine Pass) and the most expensive railroad tunnel built up until that time.

Beyond the west portal exit of the tunnel, stood the alpine Tunnel Station, the highest railroad station in the nation; as well as a turntable, water tank, stone boarding house, and engine house that was large enough to house six engines.

Alpine Tunnel Station

The rebuilt Alpine Tunnel Station today, Kathy Weiser, 2006.

This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!


Beyond the tunnel, the Denver, South Park and Pacific tracks continued on to Gunnison.


Once it was complete, the engineering marvel was a welcome relief to all of those who were previously required to haul supplies and mail back and forth over the treacherous passes of Tin Cup, Taylor and Altman.


All along the tracks were a number of small settlements, some to service the railroad and others that housed the many miners of the area. These included Woodstock, Quartz, and Sherrod, as well as Pitkin at the western end, and St. Elmo on the eastern end of the line.


Even though the weather was harsh at that elevation, especially during the long winter months, things went relatively well for the line and the tunnel for the first several years. However, in March, 1884, the town of Woodstock was completely destroyed by an avalanche, burying 18 people, 13 of whom died. Six were children. The settlement, which had as many as 200 residents was never rebuilt. Most of its residents moved to nearby Sherrod and a new water tank for the railroad was built about mile down the grade. All that remains today of Woodstock are a few stone foundations, some rotting timbers and a historic marker.


Continued Next Page 


Western Union Telegraph & Cable Office and two-story boarding house,

 taken at the time when they were owned by Colorado & Southern Railroad,

1900, courtesy Denver Public Library.





The town of Woodstock was destroyed by an avalanche

 in 1884. Photo by George E. Mellen, 1884


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