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Vol. 2
No. 3

Go to magazine Table of Contents...

January
1926

 

Taming a Wilderness

The Romance of Rio Grande Rails -
An Epic Intertwined With the
History of Western Empire Building

IN 1541, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led a band of Spaniards through the Golden West in search of the seven wealthy cities of Cibola, which were supposed to have streets paved with turquoise and houses of gold.

After many weary months of aimless wanderings fraught with the hardships and privations of a barren wilderness, Coronado and those of his cavalcade who had not perished, returned to Mexico disgraced for failure to find what has since literally come to pass.

The wooden crosses which had been sent to Mexico by Scout Estevan to prove that the cities existed, and the wonderful tales of an Indian, El Turco who had filled Coronado's ears with glowing accounts of Gran Quivera, the greatest of the seven wealthy cities, had led but to disillusionment. Ere he was put to death, El Turco confessed that it was but a trick to lead the rapacious Spaniards to death in the wilderness.

Today there are many Gran Quiveras in Colorado and New Mexico, almost within the shadows of the Mount of Holy Cross, where perpetual snows have fashioned, in the God-made ravines in its side, a perfect cross-the symbol of promise to the Golden West. While their streets are not paved with turquois, or their houses built of gold, the inexhaustible treasures that Coronado and his band of Conquistadores failed to find in this wilderness, have
truly built them. The Land of Promise that the last of the great Conquistadores found but a wilderness of desolation, of barren plains and forbidding mountains, has yielded to a modern and more powerful means of conquest- the indomitable conquest of iron and steam, the locomotive.

Since June 23, 1870, when the first locomotive, manned by rugged pioneers, rolled into the little frontier village of Denver over iron rails that had crossed the Indian infested plains to give this fertile wilderness permanent and rapid intercommunication with the civilized world, the vitalizing effect of their iron embrace has developed "Gran Quiveras" by the score.

It was a great day for Denver when the little Denver Pacific train arrived from the north at the humble stone passenger and freight depot that had been built on Wazee, between "K" and "L" streets. The hardships that had been suffered by the builders of this connecting link line between the trunk line at Cheyenne and Denver, was partially repaid by the demonstration of the town's entire population who were out to welcome the primitive locomotive with its huge funnel-shaped smokestack and big, square kerosene-burning headlight when it wheezed into the station in a cloud of billowing smoke. Bands played, people cheered. Horses hitched to broughams, surreys, berlins, sulkeys and phaetons pranced and snorted nervously.

All the territory surrounding Denver was interested in this transportation event. Prior to this the only transportation facilities were stage lines. The "Smokey Hill" route from Kansas, the Platte and South Platte were the routes of overland travel. A line from Denver south to Pueblo connected that little Mexican village with three stages each way a week, serving Colorado City, the only intermediate point of any consequence.

The first stage coach of the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express Company arrived in Denver May 7, 1859. The first post office collected twenty-five cents per letter from or to the outside world. This charge was paid in gold dust, the only currency of the country at that time. Clerks weighed out the payment on scales.

From 25 to 100 letters constituted the daily receipts of the post office. After the coming of the railroads this increased to 700 to 800 letters daily.

A pony express carried the news of Lincoln's election to Denver from St. Joseph, a distance of nearly 700 miles. We are told that the trip was made in 69 hours, and that the last stage of the journey, a distance of ten miles, was made in thirty-one minutes.

A letter by Pony Express cost $5.00. This was the swiftest means of communication for Denver with the outside world up to 1861, when the Pacific Overland Telegraph Company strung a line from Omaha to San Francisco. Denver's messages for a time had to be relayed by Pony Express from Julesburg, as the telegraph wires only came that close to Denver. The first telegraph wire to reach Denver was ready for business October 10, 1863. Mayor Amos Steck received the first message over it, which was a congratulatory wire from the mayor of Omaha. The message rates for ten words were $7 to St. Louis, and $9.00 to New York or Boston.

Denver's real growth, its greatest forward strides, began in 1870, when the tentacles of railroad transportation with its iron horses replaced the sturdy little broncos that had so faithfully moved its passenger, freight and mail traffic up to that time.

There were only 1500 buildings in Denver in 1870, when the Denver Pacific completed its line from Cheyenne. The population was less than 5,000, trappers, miners, tradesmen and a few idle speculators and gamblers who had answered the call of gold. A population that was held back in the way of commercial and industrial progress by the lack of adequate transportation facilities.

When a railroad was built across the plains toward the coast through Nebraska and Wyoming in 1869, it left Denver isolated 106 miles to the south. The Denver Board of Trade, which was organized by Governor John Evans, and the city's first Chamber of Commerce, called a mass meeting of citizens.

An issue of bonds to raise funds to build a railroad of Denver's own, from Denver to Cheyenne to connect with the line from the East, was heartily endorsed at this meeting. Arapahoe County voted $500,000 of bonds for this purpose, and in the fall of 1867 a company was organized to build the road. Capitalists from abroad were interested, and in all $4,000,000 was raised. The road was completed in June 1870, the first train run over it on June 23, which was met with the reception described previously in this article.

Among the directors and officers of the Denver Pacific whose names stand out in Colorado's history as the builders of their state, were John Evans, D. H. Moffat, Walter S. Cheesman, General William J. Palmer.

In the eventful years following, Evans, Cheesman, Palmer, Jerome B. Chaffee, Henry M. Teller, an d William A. H. Loveland builded other lines that have figured largely in the development of Colorado and the West. These lines were the Denver and Boulder Valley which connected Boulder with the Denver Pacific; the Colorado Central connecting Denver with Golden later extended into the Clear Creek Mineral district the South Park, and the Union Pacific, Denver and Gulf, the latter giving Denver a direct outlet to the Gulf of Mexico.

G ENERAL PALMER was unquestionably the outstanding builder of these early times, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad which he conceived and for the most part executed has without doubt exerted a greater influence on the internal economy of Colorado, especially the southern and western parts, than any other system of railways.

When the Kansas Pacific, the second railroad to furnish rail communication with the east, reached Denver August 15, 1870, the country south and west of Denver was little more than a barren wilderness. Between Denver and Pueblo, and west and south of the latter point there was little besides open, uncultivated, undeveloped plains and mountains. There was no Colorado Springs, no Manitou, not a hamlet or town save a few struggling cabins at Colorado City and Fountain; no evidence of the remarkable resources of this region that have since been developed. Pueblo was nothing more than a village of a few hundred inhabitants, without commercial importance. There was no Minnequa, or El Moro; no coal or iron mines opened; Trinidad and Walsenburg were but small Mexican settlements; Canon City scarcely more than an abandoned townsite; the wonderful resources of Leadville undiscovered; Durango, Buena Vista, Salida, Grand Junction., Montrose, Glenwood Springs and Aspen unoccupied; the rich valleys beyond the Marshall Pass were a part of the Ute Indian Reservation; the San Juan region, though known, was comparatively unsettled; the San Luis Valley, with the exception of the Mexican towns of Conejos and Costilla in its primitive state; Santa Fe was as remote and unapproachable by lines of commerce as the City of Mexico itself.

Golden was but a settlement of a few hundred people, and Boulder was but little, if any, larger. These were the only towns of any consequence, with the exception of Denver, that existed in Colorado at that time.

We might also say, in picturing the barrenness of the New West at that time, that between the Overland Trail through Wyoming on the north and the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico on the south, there extended from the westerly margin of the Great Plains for several hundred miles westward, an unsurveyed, but little explored and apparently impenetrable mountainous area covering 120,000 square miles full of mystery and natural resources of unknown magnitude. The sole source of information concerning this region was embodied in the observations of wandering prospectors, and even these were disseminated by word of mouth and comprised only a series of disjointed and unrelated tales and narratives as full of myths as were the tales that Coronado had listened to when he came through this very region in search of Gran Quivera and the six other wealthy cities of the Cibolo.

CORONADO surveyed this wild, broken surface of the earth's crust and gave up in despair. In it he could see no promise of wealth. He looked for cities ready built with turquoise streets and houses of gold. The mountains held only terror for him and his followers. Their granites cliffs, impassible snow-swept sides, and dizzy altitudes mockingly guarded the golden treasures he and his cavalcade sought, and despairingly returned without.

General William J. Palmer surveyed this same unpromising wilderness with the eye of a conquerer. He was not seeking wealth without work, or guilded cities ready built. The mountains did not freighten him. Their dizzy heights their rugged snow-swept sides and dangerous gorges did not baffle him. Broadly comprehending their forbidding massiveness he laudably aspired to master all the latitudes and longitudes of the many intricate problems and Herculean obstacles that they presented to his mind, and make them give up their hidden treasures for the benefit of mankind.

When he publicly announced his intention to tame this wilderness with railroad iron, he was laughed at by the people at large. On October 27, 1870, he boldly organized the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Filing with the Secretary of the Territory of Colorado articles of incorporation which anticipated so much that seemed impossible to the people, his project was jeeringly called "Palmer's doubtful experiment."

The work he had mapped out in these articles of incorporation was prodigious, but Palmer set about with the greatest energy to carry out his plans, which, as they unfolded in the years following, and their benificent influence upon the settlement and progress of the barren and uninviting country his lines traversed came to be understood, the people who had laughed at him changed their attitude toward his project.

As they viewed the early scenes of his operations and the procession of great consequences which followed in the wake of his engineers and tracklayers through deep gorges and canyons; penetrating valleys and plains; surmounting what had been deemed impracticable grades; mounting to heights theretofore unattempted; regenerating and fructifying the waste places; opening mines of coal and iron and precious metals; great quarries of stone, lime and other merchantable supplies; building cities and towns that have since literally become the Gran Quiveras that Coronado searched for on his crimson trail of conquest through the Golden West, they began to see that a new and prodigious force had come among them for the universal good. They saw in him the epitome of progressive vitality, who raised millions abroad and expended them in Colorado in a time when markets were stagnant and confidence in the Far West nearing its lowest tide, and winning success with an untried experiment - the first narrow gauge railroad in America -which the orthodox builders of the time regarded with doubt and suspicion, because it was a radical innovation of established usage, having no part in their education and experience.

G E NERAL WILLIAM J. PALMER, the father of the Rio Grande, immortalized himself in the works of the West by the courageous part lie played in taming its wilderness, and our next installment will deal with his early struggles in the surmounting of physical, financial, social and industrial obstacles the parallel of which has never before occurred.

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General Palmer and Some of the Semmingly Impassible Barriers He Conguered with Iron and Steel.

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Royal Gorge

 

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Marshall Pass

 

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Animas Canyon

 

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