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Denver Colorado & Rio Grande Western Railroad

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Experience the unique history outlined below by joining us on our signature Raft-n-Rail® trip or join the historic Royal Gorge Route for a world class Dinner Train 

Miners in the Arkansas valley of Coloradoexperience at twilight through the Gorge! In the late 1870s, miners descended on the upper Arkansas valley of Colorado in search of carbonate ores rich in lead and silver. The feverish mining activity in what would become the Leadville District attracted the attention of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RGRR) and the Santa Fe Railroads, each already having tracks in the Arkansas Valley. The Santa Fe Railroad was at Pueblo and the D&RG near Cañon City some 35 miles west. Leadville was over 100 miles away. For two railroads to occupy a river valley ordinarily was not a problem, but west of Cañon City was an incredible obstacle - an obstacle that would result in a war between the railroads.

West of Cañon City the Arkansas River cuts through a high plateau of igneous rocks forming a spectacular steep-walled gorge over a thousand feet deep. At its narrowest point, shear walls on both sides plunge into the river creating an impassible barrier. On April 19, 1878, a hastily assembled construction crew from the Santa Fe began grading for a railroad just west of Cañon City in the mouth of the gorge. The D&RG raced crews to the same area but they were blocked by the Santa Fe graders in the narrow canyon. By only a few hours, they had lost the first round in what became a two-year struggle between the two railroads that would be known as the Royal Gorge War.

The D&RG tried leapfrogging the Santa Fe grading crews but were stopped by court injunctions contesting the right-of-way. The D&RG built several stone "forts" (such as Fort DeRemer at Texas Creek) upstream in an attempt to block the Santa Fe. Grading crews were harassed by rocks rolled down on them, tools thrown in the river and other acts of sabotage. Both sides hired armed guards for their crews. Rifles and pistols accompanied picks and shovels as tools. The railroads went to court with each trying to establish their primacy to the right of way. After a long legal battle that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, on April 21, 1879, the D&RG was granted the primary right to build through the gorge that in places was wide enough at best for only one railroad.

Arkansas valley scenic overlook

The Santa Fe resorted to its larger corporate power and announced it would build tracks parallel to and in competition with the existing D&RG lines. The bondholders of the D&RG, fearing financial ruin from this threat, pressured the management of the D&RG to lease the existing railroad to the Santa Fe for a 30-year period. This created a short-lived truce in the struggle. The Santa Fe soon manipulated freight rates south of Denver to favor shippers from Kansas City (over its lines to the east) to the detriment of Denver merchants and traffic over the leased D&RG lines. During this period the Santa Fe constructed the railroad through the gorge itself. The D&RG, however, continued construction in areas west of the gorge still trying to block the Santa Fe.

After months of shrinking earnings from their leased railroad, the D&RG management went to court to break the lease. An injunction from a local court restraining the Santa Fe from operating the D&RG on June 10, 1879, sparked an armed retaking of their railroad by D&RG crews - war in earnest in the old west. Trains were commandeered, depots and engine houses put under siege, bullets flew and a few men died. A final peace in the war came after the intervention of the Federal courts, and the railroad "robber baron" Jay Gould who loaned the D&RG $400,000 and announced the intention to complete a rail line in competition to the Santa Fe from St. Louis to Pueblo.

On March 27, 1880, the two railroads signed what was called the "Treaty of Boston" which settled all litigation, and gave the D&RG back its railroad. The D&RG paid the Santa Fe $1.8 million for the railroad it had built in the gorge, the grading it had completed, materials on hand and interest. The Royal Gorge War was over. D&RG construction resumed, and rails reached Leadville on July 20, 1880.

Find out more about the construction of the hanging bridge enabling railroad trains to cross the Royal Gorge above the the Arkansas River Valley in Colorado.

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