The fight between the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and the Denver and Rio Grande for Raton Pass was only a prelude to a much more heavily contested affair. Transcontinental stakes were rising, and enticing regional markets further fueled the competition. Once again, the rugged landscape of the American West would play a major role in how this battle was fought and won.
For 55 miles above Cañon City, Colorado, the Arkansas River cuts a twisting canyon. The narrowest, deepest, and most spectacular section is the 8 miles immediately upstream from the mouth of Grape Creek, which empties into the Arkansas about a mile above Cañon City. Here the canyon walls rise more than 1,000 feet above the river and in places constrict it to a rocky defile less than 50 feet wide. While initially labeled the Grand Cañon of the Arkansas, this slender passage has long been called the Royal Gorge.1
Explorer Zebulon Pike peered into the eastern end of the gorge late in 1806 and promptly detoured around it—only mistakenly to follow the Arkansas River back downstream to it a few weeks later. Subsequent travelers also avoided the gorge. In time a wagon road was built around it over Eight Mile Hill, so named because it was eight miles from Cañon City.
But the direct route through the Royal Gorge held one undeniable attraction for a railroad. Yes, the gorge was narrow; yes, construction would be difficult. But the river through the gorge led 100-some miles upstream to the mines of Leadville on an uncannily constant water grade of about 1 percent. Even through the Royal Gorge itself, the river dropped less than 500 feet in 8 miles and permitted a 1.4 percent grade. Whether one was hauling ore out of the mountains or tons of supplies into them, such a modest gradient put smiles on the faces of construction engineers and locomotive engineers alike.
And even if it didn’t, what other choices were there? North of the Royal Gorge, the grassy bowl of South Park was itself as high as Leadville. South of the gorge, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains formed a picket-fenced barrier until one reached La Veta Pass. The Denver and Rio Grande had managed to lay track across La Veta, but it was more than 100 miles south of the Arkansas Canyon and in the opposite direction from Leadville. All this fixed covetous eyes on the Royal Gorge.
There is little argument that William Jackson Palmer had his eyes on the gorge first. As early as his 1867 survey for the Kansas Pacific, Palmer considered the gorge a possible avenue west. Two years later, while Palmer was still in the employ of the Kansas Pacific, the general hired W. H. Greenwood to make a further survey of the entire Arkansas canyon and estimate construction costs. Even then, with Palmer’s Denver and Rio Grande not yet a dream and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe still struggling to get out of Topeka, Greenwood seems to have appreciated fully the secrecy that would envelope so many western railroad expansions.
“I will run a line through the cañon so that I can make a fair estimate of the cost of construction,” Greenwood reported to Palmer. But first he was off to Raton Pass, Greenwood explained, “to look at that pass, but in reality to throw people out there off the track.”2
After the Denver and Rio Grande was operational, Palmer scouted the Arkansas canyon himself in August 1871, while returning from a wider trip that included Raton Pass. Somewhere in the canyon, several of his party’s mules rolled down a steep cliff. The animals emerged from the fall badly bruised but alive, and the experience reminded Palmer of the loss of his horse in the Verde canyon while on the Kansas Pacific survey.
“Our experience in the cañon was the most exciting and exhausting of any I have had since the Indian fight on the Verde in Arizona,” Palmer wrote to his wife, Queen, from Cañon City. This time, it was only a battle with natural obstacles, but Palmer nonetheless described the canyon as “a fearful gorge.”3
That same year, Denver and Rio Grande engineers J. A. McMurtrie and Ray Morley—the latter not yet working for the Santa Fe—staked a preliminary line through the gorge. During 1872 and 1873, they again inspected the canyon and rode the entire route from Cañon City to the Leadville area. But for all their activity in the field, Denver and Rio Grande officials did not comply with the provisions of the Right-of-Way Act after it became law in 1875. No one filed the required plat with the General Land Office to perfect the Rio Grande’s priority claim to the Royal Gorge.
What Palmer and his associates did do was again run afoul of local sentiment. In the fall of 1872, the Denver and Rio Grande built 36 miles west from Pueblo to Labran (present-day Florence) to tap coal deposits. The railroad graded another 7 miles to the outskirts of Cañon City but did not lay rails, citing deteriorating economic conditions on the brink of the panic of 1873.
If that was indeed the case—construction throughout the West was sputtering to a halt—no one could fault the railroad. But Cañon City businessmen, who desperately wanted the railhead in their downtown, found it difficult to believe that the Denver and Rio Grande could grade 43 miles of roadbed from Pueblo, lay iron on 36 miles of it, and then profess poverty when it came to laying the remaining 7 miles of track. They looked around for the skunk.
The smell was coming from the county bond issues that Palmer and his associates routinely required as conditions for extending their road. Cañon City and surrounding Frémont County had in fact offered such an inducement as early as March 1871, if the Denver and Rio Grande would build directly from Colorado Springs to Cañon City instead of going to Pueblo.
At the time, Palmer refused the proffered $50,000 and headed for Pueblo, but two years later, with nothing but 7 miles of graded right-of-way separating his end of track from Cañon City, he demanded double that amount. The general insisted on $100,000 of bonds, claiming that the Denver and Rio Grande could easily secure Cañon City’s business at Florence without the expense of the extension.
The despotic power of a railroad to make or break a town in those days is evidenced by the fact that Frémont County acquiesced to a long list of Palmer demands and voted $100,000 in bonds on May 21, 1873. In exchange, the Denver and Rio Grande promised to build to within three-quarters of a mile of Fourth and Main streets in downtown Cañon City within six months. But suddenly the county commissioners decided that despite the majority vote, there was not sufficient reason to take on the increased indebtedness.
A year passed while Florence enjoyed the economic boom of being a railhead. Cañon City merchants were forced to haul freight between their town and the end of track. Finally, the town of Cañon City—as opposed to surrounding Frémont County—voted $50,000 of town bonds, plus deeds to $50,000 of town real estate, if the Denver and Rio Grande would lay the remaining 7 miles of rail.
After this vote was taken in April 1874, the railroad promptly laid track from Florence. But instead of continuing into downtown Cañon City and being met with belated cheers, the Denver and Rio Grande built to precisely three-quarters of a mile from Fourth and Main streets—that point to which they were legally obligated by the bond issue—and not a single tie farther.
The result was predictable. The bond issue lands that the Denver and Rio Grande acquired near the new railhead increased in value faster than the downtown area, much to the chagrin of the town’s established businessmen, who still had to haul passengers and freight some distance by wagon. Consequently, just as folks in Trinidad had looked to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe as their savior after the Rio Grande’s halt at El Moro, so too did the people of Cañon City search for another railroad. Since the Santa Fe was at Pueblo, they didn’t have far to look.4
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe had ample reasons of its own to build to the rescue. If the railroad’s only interest had been in racing through Colorado for transcontinental destinations, it might have built from La Junta directly to Trinidad and over Raton Pass in 1875 instead of continuing up the Arkansas River to Pueblo. Now, in 1877, the Santa Fe eyed the Royal Gorge as a plausible route directly west. It led not only to Colorado’s developing mining country but also toward Salt Lake City and a likely connection with the Big Four’s Central Pacific.
Cañon City was doing a rush of business with Leadville even though the silver camp was still only on the cusp of its boom. With the enthusiastic blessing of Cañon City businessmen, the Santa Fe organized a subsidiary—the Cañon City and San Juan Railway Company—in February 1877. Its stated goal was to build to Leadville and the budding mining camps of Colorado’s Western Slope.
The Santa Fe made the Cañon City and San Juan more than just another paper railroad when it quickly surveyed and staked the first 20 miles of the route through the Royal Gorge and up the Arkansas Canyon. The Santa Fe’s surveyor, H. R. Holbrook, later testified that he had found old Rio Grande survey stakes in the gorge and in some places had in fact run his line fifty feet below them.
Nonetheless, the Santa Fe used Holbrook’s survey to file the plat required by the Right-of-Way Act of 1875, and the General Land Office accepted it on June 22, 1877. Since there was enough room through this narrow canyon for only one railroad—and even then passage would require a famous “hanging bridge”—it appeared that the Santa Fe had won the day.5
By the end of the summer of 1877, the Leadville boom had broken wide open. Never mind the usual excitement of rich mining strikes; here, by some accounts, was the greatest El Dorado of them all. Negligent though Palmer may have been in adhering to the 1875 filing requirements, he certainly had never abandoned the gorge route, nor had he given up the promise of the Leadville trade. Now, mushrooming freighting receipts to and from the silver bonanza showed just how costly its loss would be to the Denver and Rio Grande.
Early in September 1877, Palmer was back in the Royal Gorge in person. Accompanied by J. A. McMurtrie, the general spent eight days making a thorough inspection of the main route to Leadville and adjacent routes to South Park, the Wet Mountains, and the San Luis Valley. Afterward Palmer reported to Charles B. Lamborn, an old Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry comrade who was then the Rio Grande’s treasurer, that he was considering an alternative route that would eliminate the line through the gorge.
Even as he did so, however, Palmer gave Lamborn an exhaustive list of the benefits of the Royal Gorge route. He noted the “low gradient per mile, good water, freedom from snow, fertile lands, abundant timber, and rich mineral sources all the way to Leadville.” The general also appreciated that the route’s magnificent scenery might become a valuable tourist attraction. In Palmer’s words, the Royal Gorge would bring the “Manitou frequenters and those from Denver” over the entire line from Denver to Leadville.
But the driving reason for Palmer’s determination to seize the gorge seems to have been competition. With one line, Palmer saw the chance to block the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe on his southern flank and John Evans’s Denver, South Park and Pacific to the north. Seize the corridor to Leadville, and tentacles could spread from that line as it raced through Tennessee Pass toward Salt Lake City.
“It is the shortest and cheapest single line,” Palmer concluded, “which will at the same time tend to keep both the Atchison company and the Denver and South Park company from our territory; while certainly paying from the start.” He suggested that the entire route could be built in winter just as readily as in summer and be completed in six months. 6
As usual, Palmer was overly optimistic. Initial construction in the gorge by either the Rio Grande or the Santa Fe was delayed by winter weather and shortages of supplies and operating cash, as well as the uncertainty of what would transpire between the two roads at Raton Pass. William Barstow Strong’s subsequent quick seizure of Raton for the Santa Fe rattled Palmer and was done amidst mounting evidence that the Denver and Rio Grande’s standard gauge competitor would become far more aggressive. On March 23, 1878, the Rio Grande’s traffic agent gave Palmer equally disturbing news about increasing ore shipments from the Harrison Reduction Works smelter at Leadville.
“Harrison goes east via the Santa Fe at the invitation of Mr. Strong,” he reported. “They are determined to get his shipments of ore if possible. Mr. Strong is getting all the information he can with regard to that section [Cañon City to Leadville], and I believe intends to make a move in that direction.”
When Rio Grande construction superintendent Robert F. Weitbrec asked chief engineer McMurtrie to join him in mid-April in yet another look at the Arkansas Canyon, McMurtrie told Palmer that he would rather not go. “All my movements are watched,” he explained, “and should I go, I am afraid Atchison will know of it and take it that we mean to move in that direction and to stop us, jump into the Canon and commence work at once.”
McMurtrie’s fears were confirmed when he began to bring men off the futile efforts along Chicken Creek at Raton Pass. Santa Fe engineer A. A. Robinson telegraphed Strong that rather than merely an abandonment of Raton, McMurtrie’s moves appeared to be a redeployment in force. Robinson surmised correctly that McMurtrie’s destination was Cañon City. Strong replied at once and told his engineer to “see to it that we do not ‘get left’ in occupying the Grand Canyon.”7
Palmer was indeed making his move. Ignoring the Santa Fe’s filed plat, the general sent a telegram in cipher to McMurtrie that he should assemble a work crew and head for the gorge. Shortly after midnight on the morning of April 19, 1878, McMurtrie and about 150 men left El Moro bound for Pueblo on a heavy Denver and Rio Grande construction train that included carloads of mules and grading equipment. Robinson watched them go and immediately wired Ray Morley, who was at La Junta, to get to Cañon City first and once again beat the Rio Grande to the key portion of ground.
Morley commandeered a special Santa Fe train for the run from La Junta to Pueblo and later that morning boarded the regularly scheduled Rio Grande passenger train from Pueblo to Cañon City. Not surprisingly, the Rio Grande conductor recognized Morley as a rival. While McMurtrie and his crew chugged toward Cañon City with their construction train, the Rio Grande passenger train sat quietly at the Pueblo station. It did not depart on schedule, nor did it show any sign of departing at all. Finally, Morley realized that the Rio Grande was stalling to his detriment, and the Santa Fe engineer saddled his horse and hurriedly rode the 35 miles from Pueblo to Cañon City.
If the affair at Raton Pass has many conflicting versions, the battle for the Royal Gorge has it beat in spades. Partisans of the Santa Fe made Morley a hero and compared his Pueblo to Cañon City ride with Union general Phil Sheridan’s famous dash from Winchester during the Civil War. Denver and Rio Grande partisans insisted that Morley had cruelly ridden his horse to death, a charge that was later met with considerable indignation by Morley’s descendants, “as it suggested poor horsemanship on Grandfather’s part.”
Whatever the truth, Ray Morley arrived in Cañon City about noon on April 19, having passed the slow-moving construction train. Even though he was alone and seemingly outnumbered, Morley enlisted the assistance of Cañon City locals, who were all too willing to help the Santa Fe best the Rio Grande. Downtown merchants still smarting over the Rio Grande’s halt on the outskirts donated tools, and every available man and boy in the city shouldered a shovel, gun, or pick and was ferried to the mouth of the gorge in a line of hacks and wagons.
Thirty minutes after Morley’s arrival in Cañon City, McMurtrie’s Rio Grande construction train came to a halt on the eastern edge of town. McMurtrie and his surveyors disembarked and fairly flew through town on a dead run, chaining the ground and setting survey stakes as fast as they could from the depot to the mouth of the gorge. But by then, Morley’s hastily assembled forces were turning shovels of dirt and had managed to scrape at least one hundred feet of grade. For McMurtrie and his Rio Grande crew, it was a scene depressingly reminiscent of Raton Pass just six weeks before.
But this time, McMurtrie did not pause. Instead his party of surveyors rushed on, setting their stakes atop the Santa Fe’s newly dug grade and creating considerable uncertainty over which railroad was the first to reach the point where the canyon narrowed and there was room for only one set of tracks.
Confusion ensued amidst volleys of threats from each side. Anxious workers kept looking over their shoulders toward Cañon City to see which side would be the first to receive reinforcements. Later that afternoon, another Rio Grande train rolled into Cañon City with one hundred more men for McMurtrie, but meanwhile, Morley had recruited additional Cañon City locals to the Santa Fe cause and dispatched them upriver to seize key points toward Leadville.8
By the next day, the lawyers got involved. The Cañon City directors of the Santa Fe’s Cañon City and San Juan Railway subsidiary sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Denver and Rio Grande from further work in the gorge. Colorado district court judge John W. Henry was on vacation, so in his absence, Frémont County judge N. A. Bain ruled in favor of the local company and granted it. Writs were promptly served on McMurtrie and other Rio Grande officials, and, without abandoning any ground, they halted work about three o’clock on the afternoon of April 20.
The Denver and Rio Grande’s attorneys immediately petitioned to move the case to federal court and out of what they deemed was the anti–Rio Grande atmosphere of Frémont County—self-induced by the Rio Grande though it may have been. But before the U.S. circuit court could issue any ruling, Judge Henry returned from vacation and held hearings to consider making the injunction permanent.
Initially Judge Henry enjoined both companies from further work. Later that same afternoon of April 27, he withdrew the injunction against the Santa Fe. But when Santa Fe workers attempted to return to the grade, they were met by armed Rio Grande guards and forced to turn back.
Meanwhile, part of the Rio Grande lawyers’ argument in federal court was that the Cañon City and San Juan Railway was but a pawn of the Santa Fe—they were right about that—and that the Santa Fe itself had no standing because it was not chartered to do business in the state. It was one more twist in a complicated legal battle.
In the most simplistic terms, the Santa Fe appeared to hold a valid claim under federal law to the first 20 miles of right-of-way through the gorge and up the Arkansas canyon based on the plat that had been approved on June 22, 1877. The Denver and Rio Grande had also belatedly filed a plat to the gorge as well as the canyon beyond, but it had been approved subsequent to the Santa Fe’s. This meant that while the Santa Fe had the priority claim through the critical 8-mile gorge and west from Cañon City—a distance of 20 miles—the Rio Grande had a priority claim through the remainder of the Arkansas canyon.
Under the right-of-way law, an opposing company was not permitted to locate and build a parallel line until the company with the priority had completed its line. Consequently, during the testy summer of 1878, the Denver and Rio Grande had its tracks into Cañon City and controlled the Arkansas Canyon west of the Royal Gorge, but the Santa Fe held its 20 miles of ground in the middle between the mouth of the gorge and a point called Spike Buck.9
There is a widely circulated photo from that summer of Rio Grande engineer J. R. DeRemer’s men at a hastily constructed breastwork of logs and dirt called “Fort DeRemer.” This is often assumed to show Rio Grande men blocking the Santa Fe at the mouth of the gorge just outside Cañon City. Actually, the site is near Spike Buck, 20-some miles above Cañon City (between present-day Parkdale and the town of Texas Creek). DeRemer’s men were intent on keeping the Santa Fe crews bottled up inside the gorge and prohibiting them from building farther up the Arkansas River. This photo may well have been staged as proof to the Santa Fe of the Rio Grande’s resolve. There is no question that tempers were short and guns supplemented shovels on both sides.
From the McClure House hotel in Cañon City, Ray Morley took a moment to write to his beloved Ada. While “the war progresses in a satisfactory manner,” he told her, “it has been prolonged further than we expected. It is a funny affair and is the death struggle of the D. & R. G., I think. They are moving heaven and earth, but we will whip them sooner or later.”
Then Morley noted what was far too obvious: “The papers are beginning to get filled with stuff, the result of ponderous lying on both sides to influence public opinion.” But he assured her, “do not, however be uneasy about me. I do not think there will be any serious fight outside of the courts.”10
Morley was right. Despite history’s shorthand of referring to the struggle as the Royal Gorge war, most of the battling was done in the courts between lawyers and not in the windswept canyons. Some secondary accounts say that men were killed in the field on both sides, but there is no proof of those claims.
Given the allegiances of the various newspapers and the frequently tongue-in-cheek journalism of the times, it is all the more difficult to separate fact from fiction. “John” Gallagher’s moment in print is a case in point. Apparently, Gallagher was fired by the Santa Fe for some indiscretion, and a few days later he proved his volatility by becoming “very abusive and making violent threats” in the Santa Fe camp at Cañon City.
To quell Gallagher’s outburst, a worker struck Gallagher on the head with an axe handle, “which fractured his skull.” The Colorado Weekly Chieftain reported on page one both that Gallagher would not live through the night and that he was in fact dead.
But the following week, the Chieftain made a retraction—even if the newspaper put it on page four and had initially confused the man’s first name: “Mr. James Gallagher, the man reported killed by Curly, showed up at the Chieftain office yesterday, one of the liveliest corpses we have seen for many a day. He has an ugly bump on his head, but will soon re-cover.”11
Occasionally, misinformation was blamed on the telegraph lines that clicked in and out of Cañon City. “Yesterday where I said there were no marement [merriment] except in high wines,” corrected one correspondent, “the telegraph made me say high winds. Today it has been whiskey straight on every side …”12
Indeed, if another story is to be believed, time wore heavily on the hands of the idle men holding the lines in the gorge, and they were not above a practical joke or two. Without saying which railroaders were the pranksters, the Chieftain reported that forty or fifty men dressed and painted as Indians “charged with a war whoop down one of the arroyos [gullies] on a party of tenderfeet, who were holding a point in the canon.” The surprised workers beat a hasty retreat, and the Chieftain captured the tenor of sentiments on both sides by noting, “both sides, as usual, of course, claim the victory.”13
Even during those periods when the courts permitted work on various sections of the right-of-way, the construction was not without controversy. Both railroads attempted to recruit manpower from as far away as the San Luis Valley and Denver. One grading firm was awarded contracts by both the Rio Grande and the Santa Fe. As a result, the company frequently shifted its crews from one line to the other. This may account for the reminiscences of some who worked in the canyon that “they worked for one railroad company in the day time and the other at night and drew pay from each one.”14
As the summer dragged on, the question for the Denver and Rio Grande became whether there was a way that might bypass the gorge. Construction superintendent Robert F. Weitbrec came up with four possibilities—none of them good. The shortest and most logical ran up Grape Creek through Temple Canyon and circled back to the Arkansas River just above where it entered the gorge (the present-day Parkdale Bridge). This point was still within the Santa Fe’s 20-mile plat, but Weitbrec thought that upstream from here, the canyon might accommodate two lines.
A second alternative climbed out of Grape Creek along the same route but went west and descended back to the Arkansas down Texas Creek, well upriver of the Santa Fe’s domain. The other two alternatives followed Grape Creek upstream farther—no small feat given that this canyon has as many twists and turns as it has rattlesnakes. An area called “the Tights” forms what might be called a miniature Royal Gorge, and it would have required many bridges before these routes also returned to the Arkansas River near Texas Creek.15
If nothing else, the Denver and Rio Grande’s quest to control alternate routes and all conceivable branch lines provided fodder for more lines of facetious journalism. When Palmer associates incorporated the Upper Arkansas, San Juan and Pacific Railroad Company in late May 1878 and listed routes up every major tributary of the upper Arkansas and then some, a correspondent to the Chieftain—possibly Cañon City’s B. F. Rockafellow—proved a quick wit:
“This great continental, chain lightning railway, with forked adjuncts to every ranch and prospect hole in the southwest, will also extend from Salt Lake to the northwest passage, via the lava beds,” the reporter teased. “From Ouray it will extend to Tampa Town and Stone’s Hill, via the extinct Arizona diamond fields, also to Gulliverville and Munchausonville. They will hold at all hazards for fifty years, all of the known or suspected passes covered by said routes, after the manner of its illustrious prototype, the Denver and Rio Grande Railway.”16
As Palmer and the Denver and Rio Grande pondered their options, William Barstow Strong and the Santa Fe ratcheted up their game. The traffic pooling agreement between the two roads along the Front Range was long since dead. As the resolution of the Royal Gorge right-of-way sat mired in the courts, the Santa Fe aggressively renewed its threat to parallel the Denver and Rio Grande’s line from Pueblo to Denver with tracks of its own.
The Rio Grande had laid its narrow gauge tracks during a time of high costs in both construction and credit. Not only could the Santa Fe now build a competing line more cheaply and with less resulting indebtedness but also, as a standard gauge road, it could carry more tonnage at less cost.
Palmer confronted his bondholders with this threat, and the result was a humiliating defeat for the self-assured general. Rather than face economic ruin, the bondholders reluctantly leased the entire Denver and Rio Grande system to the Santa Fe in return for rather vague assurances that the combined roads would be operated as a unified system and that the Rio Grande’s indebtedness would continue to be serviced. Wall Street investors appeared to like the arrangement, and Denver and Rio Grande bonds increased from 50 percent to 90 percent of par within a few weeks.17
Although the lease agreement was made on October 19, 1878, disagreements in the field ran deep. Palmer refused to turn over control of his road until the Santa Fe’s Boston crowd of investors fulfilled certain financial guarantees. “The arrogant demand of possession before complying with the plain terms made by Strong has been repeated yesterday by Nickerson,” Palmer groused. “I have declined of course point-blank.”
Nickerson and Strong appear to have counted on their demand for possession and a mere offer to deposit security to secure the transfer, but Palmer would not be moved. “If they were to put up Boston itself now,” he steamed on, “it would not avail. The actual provisions of the papers must be carried out or they lose the lease.”
Sounding a little like Collis P. Huntington when the chips were down, Palmer asked his correspondent to keep his rant to himself, but he avowed as how “we may want to take up something else [besides railroading] now that this recent act has put things in a thoroughly antagonistic shape.”
But also like Huntington, Palmer had railroading too deep in his blood to walk away. The Boston crowd soon provided the required bond guarantees, and the Denver and Rio Grande was finally turned over to Santa Fe control on December 14—with Palmer watching every move.18
This arrangement, however, did not halt the legal wrangles over the Royal Gorge right-of-way, and soon both railroads were also battling in the courts over the lease itself. The Rio Grande claimed that the Santa Fe’s rate system adversely affected the Rio Grande’s share of traffic and that the Santa Fe was operating the Rio Grande as if it were its own, purchasing new locomotives worth more than $100,000.
The Santa Fe also laid track through the gorge along the full 20 miles to which it had priority. Beyond that point near Spike Buck, its construction crews were still confronted by DeRemer’s humble but effective fort because Palmer claimed that the lease to the Santa Fe did not include the Rio Grande’s right-of-way upstream of the gorge. It looked as if it was going to be another long, hot summer of standoff. But then things got even wilder, and this time, Bat Masterson was indeed there.
Masterson received a telegram from officers of the Santa Fe asking him to recruit a posse from Dodge City and assist the railroad in defending its right-of-way through the gorge should the Rio Grande mount an attack. Just what authority a sheriff of a Kansas county had to lead armed men into a neighboring state and do the bidding of a private company is debatable. No one, however, doubted Bat’s relationship with the Santa Fe.
Giving Masterson the benefit of the doubt, he may have been acting in his dual role as a deputy U.S. marshal and been determined to maintain order and the status quo pending further court action. The thirty-three men who joined Masterson on this excursion were not, however, concerned with legalities. As a boastful reminiscence later put it: “… where in the whole universe were there to be found fitter men for a desperate encounter of this kind. Dodge City bred such bold, reckless men, and it was their pride and delight to be called upon to do such work.”19
DeRemer’s Rio Grande forces were quick to recruit similar rowdies to their cause, and after Bat’s little army arrived in Cañon City, it appeared that wild bedlam—if not open warfare—might break out between the two sides. But despite being the leader of what amounted to paid Santa Fe mercenaries, Masterson managed to keep an uneasy peace.
Tensions cooled in April 1879 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Denver and Rio Grande, but there was still the nagging and uncertain matter of the Rio Grande’s outright lease to the Santa Fe. While this matter was pending, Bat took his little army back to Dodge City to await further proceedings.
Early in June, in anticipation of an adverse decision on the lease, the Santa Fe sent out another call to Masterson, and he hurried back to Colorado with sixty men onboard a special train. Santa Fe reinforcements from Trinidad spread out along the Rio Grande line, and Bat assumed command of the critical Rio Grande depot and roundhouse at Pueblo.
On June 10, a Colorado state court friendly to the Denver and Rio Grande voided the Santa Fe lease and purported to return the railroad to Palmer’s control. The Santa Fe was convinced that this ruling would be overturned on appeal, and William Barstow Strong gave orders to resist where possible. At six o’clock the next morning, Palmer and his troops successfully seized the Rio Grande’s key points and took over most operations. One of the few Santa Fe holdouts was the depot and roundhouse in Pueblo, the latter of which by some accounts had by now been turned into a veritable fortress by Masterson and his compatriots.
Robert F. Weitbrec and J. A. McMurtrie of the Denver and Rio Grande conferred with Pueblo sheriff Henly R. Price to devise a plan of attack. Price was supposed to be the neutral legal authority serving the court order for Rio Grande possession. By one report, there was talk of commandeering the lone cannon from the state armory, but closer inspection determined that Masterson had already appropriated it for his own use.
McMurtrie was forced to assemble about fifty Rio Grande men in front of the Victoria Hotel and supply them with rifles and bayonets. At three o’clock that afternoon, this force marched to the depot and met Sheriff Price on the platform. A bystander was manhandled out of the way, and one of the armed Rio Grande men called out, “Come on now, let’s take the telegraph office!”
There was a scuffle at the front door, and shots rang out. The door was quickly forced, and the attackers commenced to fire through the building, as the defenders sought escape out the back. There were conflicting reports whether the Santa Fe defenders returned fire, but one of Masterson’s men, Harry Jenkins of Dodge City, was fatally shot in the back as he ran out the rear door. That left the roundhouse.
Unable to communicate with Santa Fe management, Masterson could not be sure of the exact state of the legal maneuverings. Weitbrec finally requested a parley with Bat and in the end proved persuasive. Regardless of the emotions on both sides, the current legal order required that the Santa Fe surrender its position, and Bat did so—much to the chagrin of “certain Dodge City folks, who … ‘had been hoping that the home boys would be permitted to wipe the Denver & Rio Grande off the map.’ ” When the dust settled, Palmer’s forces were in control of all points on their line, including the Pueblo roundhouse.20
Their victory was short lived, however, because the Santa Fe appeal to federal court on the lease bounced the Rio Grande back to Santa Fe control on July 16. A month later, the final shoe appeared to drop against Palmer’s road when its bondholders forced the railroad into receivership.
For the remainder of the summer of 1879, the outlook for the Denver and Rio Grande appeared grim. But later that fall, the railroad’s financial condition improved considerably when it received a sudden and sizeable investment in cash from an eastern investor who was no stranger to railroads. His name was Jay Gould, and he had already demonstrated a mastery of complicated deals. With an involvement in both the Union Pacific and the Kansas Pacific, Gould was keenly interested in railroad routes in the mountains of Colorado, particularly as they related to Leadville’s silver riches.
Gould was to dabble in the affairs of both the Denver and Rio Grande and the Denver, South Park and Pacific, but his overriding concern was to keep William Barstow Strong and the Santa Fe out of Leadville. As long as the Rio Grande was leased to the Santa Fe, Strong held the upper hand.
One tactical move was for Gould to buy into John Evans’s Denver, South Park and Pacific, which he did. Then he went to cash-strapped Palmer and bought a half interest in the Denver and Rio Grande, to cover all bases. Meanwhile, Gould arranged a traffic pool for Colorado business between his Union Pacific and the Santa Fe, “while he figured a way out of the stranglehold.”
Gould encouraged Palmer and Evans to work together to build into Leadville from a point where the South Park’s projected line out of Denver would intersect with the Rio Grande’s claimed right-of-way upstream of the Royal Gorge—a right-of-way that Palmer defiantly continued to assert was not included in the lease to the Santa Fe.
But Gould was just beginning to flex his muscles among these railroads. The Santa Fe’s threat to parallel the Denver and Rio Grande from Pueblo to Denver was a longstanding one. Now, for their own leverage, Gould and Palmer announced plans for a new railroad that would parallel the Santa Fe from connections with the Kansas Pacific deep in Kansas all the way to Pueblo. Strong and Santa Fe president Thomas Nickerson were not completely bluffed, but they had too much at stake to ignore the possibility that Gould might just pull it off, particularly in light of the increasingly favorable Denver and Rio Grande decisions that were slowly coming out of the U.S. Supreme Court.21
The Court breathed life back into the Denver and Rio Grande by ruling that the Right-of-Way Act of 1875 did not preempt the railroad’s rights under its original 1872 right-of-way grant. The Court determined that the Rio Grande surveys of 1871 and 1872 were as complete as those made in 1877 by the Cañon City and San Juan on behalf of the Santa Fe. That fact followed by its occupancy of the route amidst the construction flurry of April 19, 1878—and despite a continuing debate whether Morley or McMurtrie had gotten to the critical ground first—was sufficient in the Court’s view to give the Denver and Rio Grande the priority through the gorge.
This, of course, had been Palmer’s contention all along. It was also his excuse for not complying initially with the Right-of-Way Act of 1875, although doing so would have saved him two years of delay, expense, and uncertainty.
The Supreme Court ruled further that the federal circuit court had been in error in enjoining the Denver and Rio Grande from construction and in allowing the Santa Fe’s subsidiaries to proceed. But since the Santa Fe had incurred significant construction costs in good faith under the circuit court’s ruling, the Supreme Court directed that the Rio Grande reimburse the Santa Fe for its construction costs throughout the gorge. These were to be determined by an independent commission.
This should have settled the matter. But now the Santa Fe went to the circuit court and alleged that there were no grounds for enforcing the Supreme Court’s order to turn over the gorge because the Rio Grande had conveyed all its rights to the Santa Fe with its lease. Rather than immediately enforce the Supreme Court’s decision, the circuit court chose to examine the Santa Fe’s claims regarding the lease, including whether or not it had been intended to cover the Rio Grande’s rights to the Leadville extension upstream from the gorge.
By the end of 1879, Denver and Rio Grande attorneys had an application for a writ of mandamus (a directive to a lower authority) before the Supreme Court asking it to order the circuit court to enforce the higher court’s decision—in other words, require the Santa Fe to give up its gorge trackage to the Rio Grande. But when the Supreme Court ruled on this largely procedural matter on February 2, 1880, it denied the application on the grounds that because the lower court had exercised its judicial discretion with regard to the prior mandate, an appeal—not a writ of mandamus—was the proper remedy. It looked as if the legal posturing was going to drag on for yet another summer. 22
Finally, it was the booming Leadville trade—and Jay Gould—that brought the leaders of both railroads to their economic senses. With considerable pressure from Gould, they sought a compromise. The legal morass of two years of court battles was resolved in a series of agreements between the Santa Fe and the Denver and Rio Grande and their various subsidiaries. Collectively, these came to be called the Treaty of Boston, because their terms were agreed upon in the boardrooms of the East and not the rocky canyons of the West. But significantly, their critical terms were first spelled out in a letter from Gould to the Santa Fe after he had conferred with Palmer’s representatives, including Dr. Bell, “who happened to be in the City.”
Essentially, the lease that had caused so much angst was declared null and void and all litigation terminated. The Santa Fe agreed not to build to Denver, Leadville, or the San Juan country, or any point west of the Rio Grande’s lines for a period of ten years. In return, it was to receive half of the Rio Grande’s business in and out of Leadville and southwestern Colorado and one-quarter of its Denver traffic. (In other words, ship east from Pueblo via the Santa Fe and not from Denver via the Kansas Pacific.)
The Rio Grande agreed not to build south of its existing railheads at El Moro, Colorado, or Española, New Mexico, on its San Luis Valley branch. Palmer’s original goal of El Paso was extinguished, as was that of Santa Fe. And just to appease Jay Gould in his other ventures, the Rio Grande also promised that it would not build east to St. Louis. Meanwhile, Gould’s stock in the Denver and Rio Grande went from $22 per share in the fall of 1879 to $75 in February 1880.
Finally, despite an appraisal by the court-appointed commission that the value of the Santa Fe’s construction through the Royal Gorge was $566,216.35, based on A. A. Robinson’s engineering records, the Denver and Rio Grande agreed to buy the 20 miles of line for $1.4 million. The components of the Treaty of Boston were signed as of March 27, 1880, and the first Denver and Rio Grande train ran through the Royal Gorge five days later. Its next major stop would be Leadville. Palmer’s road celebrated its arrival in the booming silver capital on July 22, with a special carrying ex-president Ulysses S. Grant.23
The Denver and Rio Grande’s payment for the Santa Fe’s construction efforts in the Royal Gorge would soon become nothing but a number on accounting ledgers. In fact, time would quickly blur the history of which company had engineered the route through this difficult passage.
At the narrowest point in the gorge, Santa Fe engineers initially constructed a wooden-decked trestle that was supported by timber bents and piles of rock. This structure was in place when the first Santa Fe excursion ran into the gorge on May 7, 1879, but the train stopped just short of what reports called “the construction bridge.”
Within weeks, a flash flood—or perhaps just the normal spring runoff—washed away the wooden structure. (Conspiracy theorists have speculated that this bridge’s collapse was somehow related to the trouble between the two roads, but there is no evidence that anyone other than Mother Nature had a hand.)
Because the right-of-way at that point was still under court orders, the Santa Fe, through its Pueblo and Arkansas Valley subsidiary, petitioned the court for permission to replace the structure with what came to be called “the hanging bridge.” Named for its construction and not some desperado act, the hanging bridge was supported in part by a rafter construction that spanned the river and was anchored on both sides to the canyon walls.
This structure passed from the Santa Fe to the Denver and Rio Grande under the Treaty of Boston along with the 20 miles of completed track. Over the years, as locomotive weights increased, the Rio Grande strengthened the bridge several times with elaborate masonry along the riverbed, and the crossbeams spanning the river became more a matter of decoration than strength.
But in the meantime, the Hanging Bridge had become a staple for tourism on the Royal Gorge route. The Denver and Rio Grande even listed a station on its timetables at the bottom of the gorge as Hanging Bridge. One of the most famous photographs of the structure shows President Theodore Roosevelt surveying the scene. Consequently, “no one in his right mind would have removed the useless supports, or admitted that the bridge did not truly hang.” Some might argue that in terms of publicity value, the Denver and Rio Grande received far more than $1.4 million from the bridge over the years.
It came to be assumed that the Denver and Rio Grande was alone responsible for this engineering marvel. When the Rio Grande’s J. R. DeRemer died about 1907, “the public press insisted on giving him the credit for designing and constructing the famous Hanging Bridge located in the still more famous Royal Gorge.”
It was left to A. A. Robinson of the Santa Fe to set the record straight. “I was chief engineer of this construction,” Robinson acknowledged in Engineering News, “and it is due to the late C. Schaler [sic] Smith of St. Louis to say that we visited the bridge site together and decided on the rafter plan of construction.… I engaged Mr. Smith to prepare the detailed plans from which the original bridge was constructed.” History had almost forgotten that the Santa Fe had left a piece of its heritage in the bottom of the narrow gorge.24
In later years, the Denver and Rio Grande would be characterized as “Colorado’s railroad” and closely identified with the Centennial State. William Jackson Palmer would be hailed as a builder of great cities. But this was far from true in the 1870s. Both Palmer and his railroad were looked at as outsiders in the towns he tried to bend to his purposes—Colorado City, Trinidad, and Cañon City among them.
If nothing else, the battle for the Royal Gorge showed how tenacious William Jackson Palmer could be when the stakes were all or nothing. Because at least for the Denver and Rio Grande, that is what the Royal Gorge war was about. If Palmer had not been successful—or had abandoned the field as quickly as he had at Raton—the main line west for the Santa Fe might have led to Leadville, over Tennessee Pass, and down the Colorado River bound for Salt Lake City. And the Denver and Rio Grande would have been choked off from the Leadville trade and left with only the marginal traffic of southwest Colorado.
“The contest for the Grand Canon,” General Palmer reported to his board of directors, “was in reality a fight for the gateway, not to Leadville only, but to the far more important, because infinitely larger, mineral fields of the Gunnison country, the Blue and Eagle Rivers and Utah.”25
For Thomas Nickerson and William Barstow Strong, the stakes had been high, but never about the Santa Fe’s very corporate survival. In the end, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe lost the battle for the Royal Gorge, but it remained to be seen whether or not it would lose the transcontinental war.