Situated about 18 miles southwest of Buena Vista,
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,
November, 1879 with a construction crew working at either end to connect
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
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.
Beyond the tunnel, the Denver, South Park and Pacific tracks continued on
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
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.
Due to the high elevation and the
harsh winter conditions, the tunnel began to close during winters between
1887 and 1889 and again between 1890 and 1894. In the meantime, the
Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad went into receivership in August,
1889 and re-emerged as the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison line under control
of the Union Pacific Railroad. However, that line, too, would go into
receivership five years later.
In 1895, the tunnel faced two more
disasters when, during the reopening of the tunnel after the winter, four
crew members suffocated. Not long after, a train wreck occurred, killing
two men near the tunnel in May.
The line continued to struggle
Colorado and Southern (C&S) Railway Company was formed
with the merger of the DL&G, Union Pacific, and Denver & Gulf railroads in
The line was plagued with accidents
and storms during its 30 year life. In 1901, a train with one passenger
coach and ten loaded freight cars was completely buried by snow and in
1904, another train wreck occurred west of the tunnel. Two years later, a fire destroyed the
engine house and another collision occurred inside the tunnel.
Finally, the railroad company gave up
on the dangerous and accident prone tunnel. The last train came through in
November, 1910. A decade later, the vast majority of all of the old track
had been removed.
Today, the area is known as the
Alpine Tunnel Historic District, which consists of a two hundred foot wide right
of way along thirteen miles of original Denver, South Park and Pacific
rail bed between the town sites of Quartz and Hancock.
Though the east portal of the tunnel
collapsed many years ago and the west portal is covered by landslides, the
district still provides a vivid peek into its prosperous early years. From
Hancock westward the former rail bed is now a hiking trail. The west side
can be accessed over a very rough road, also on the rail bed, to the
restored railroad station house.
Though this 4-wheel drive trail is
listed as "easy” by many resources, when Legends of America visited in
2006, we did not find it "easy” by any means and would never make the
entire drive again in a jeep. The trail is primarily accessed today by ATV’s,
which unfortunately, make the road an even rougher ride in an any kind of
That being said, it is a great trip.
The Alpine Historical District is normally open from July to September,
where a narrow dirt road winds upward to the tunnel for about ten miles.
Start your trip northeast of Pitkin,
Colorado at the junction of the Cumberland Pass Road (FDR 765) and the
Alpine Tunnel Road (FDR 839). Though the first seven miles
or so are
rough, we had no trouble making it up the grade in a four-wheel drive
jeep. Along here you will see the old town sites of Quartz, Woodstock, and
Sherrod, as well as numerous mining remnants, a restored railroad water
tank, and remains of some of the old railroad tracks.
However, just beyond Sherrod, where
the road comes to a "Y”, with one really rocky path leading to Hancock and
the other to the Alpine Tunnel, the trail becomes very narrow, steep in
places, and extremely rocky. This is the point that we would not traverse
again in a jeep, and would recommend an ATV, mountain bike, or hiking only.
Though we are, by no means 4-wheel
drive experts, this conclusion was also drawn from several locals and
members of ATV groups in the area.
The trail, traveling
across the old narrow gauge railroad bed is very narrow in places,
especially when crossing the "Palisades," a retaining wall, built of hand-cut
stones without the use of mortar. The retaining wall is 432 feet in length
and 33 feet in height with spectacular views.
The trail continues to the Alpine
Station, where the remains of the old engine house can still be seen, as well as the restored station and telegraph office
and the old railroad roundtable. Just short of the station, no
ATV’s or vehicles are allowed, requiring visitors to walk a short distance to
the station. The entrance to the west portal of the tunnel is on down
about 1/8 of a mile.
Alpine Tunnel Historic Association
P.O. Box 515