Modern history


Straight West from Denver

Denver in the 1860s was still a dusty, bawling infant of a town. In 1858, reports of a few light pans of placer gold from nearby creeks had somehow mushroomed out of proportion. Wildly overstated and nowhere near Zebulon Pike’s grand peak, the find nonetheless encouraged tens of thousands to paint “Pikes Peak or Bust!” on their wagons and head west, hopeful of duplicating the success of the California Gold Rush a decade earlier. Disappointment and despair swept many back across the plains, but enough stayed along the foothills of the Rockies to stake out a future.

A group of Kansans laid out a town site where Cherry Creek empties into the South Platte River and named it after James W. Denver, the governor of Kansas Territory, in whose jurisdiction they were. In 1861 Kansas became a state, and its far-flung western county was split off as Colorado Territory—organized less on its own merits than to permit a clean western boundary to Kansas. Four years of civil war in the East, declining placer operations in the mountains to the west, and a disastrous flood took their toll, but Denver was still there to welcome the vanguard of the postwar rush. The town quickly figured in the plans of railroads with transcontinental goals.

Arriving in Denver in May 1862 as Colorado Territory’s second governor, John Evans wasted no time in promoting a railroad connection with the East. A medical doctor by training and a real estate investor in Chicago, Evans had helped to organize the Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad in 1852. Then, as a member of Chicago’s city council, he’d been instrumental in getting its right-of-way into the city. It would not be the only time that Evans would mix politics and railroads.1

Prospects for Colorado looked quite promising, the new governor told a large gathering from the balcony of his Denver hotel upon his arrival. This was because Congress was completing the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, and it had not one but two railroads pointed toward them.

Noting that Kansas was subject to severe droughts and Nebraska occasionally beset by drowning rains, Evans claimed that the railroad bill safeguarded Colorado in either event because it provided two routes from the Missouri River—what would become the Union Pacific from Council Bluffs and the Kansas Pacific from Kansas City. “Whether famine reigns in Kansas, or drenching storms farther north, you will always have a source of supply,” Evans boasted.2

Indeed, the governor’s railroad enthusiasm knew no bounds. On one of his early trips from Denver, Evans inspected Berthoud Pass, a high passage in the Continental Divide, about 50 miles west of Denver. When a surveyor reported that a wagon road was feasible, but a railroad would require a 3.5-mile tunnel, Evans optimistically suggested that gold might be discovered during the tunnel’s construction.

A few months later, Evans was back in Chicago trying to convince the other 157 members of the unwieldy board charged with organizing the Union Pacific that the railroad should build through Colorado because of its mineral prospects. In return, he received only a gratuitous statement acknowledging that the development of settlements in all the western territories was a welcome impetus to the construction of the road. 3

By the time Evans returned to Colorado in November 1862—this time he brought his family along as permanent residents—the growing territory was on a collision course with the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes that roamed the eastern plains. Tensions culminated two years later when, without warning, army and militia units attacked a peaceful Cheyenne camp on Sand Creek, killing over 150, more than half of them women and children. The role that Governor Evans played personally in this atrocity would be long debated, and ensuing recriminations were enough to force him from office.

Despite this, Evans was only getting started with Colorado politics and its railroads. The ex-governor asked John Pierce, one of the assistants on the 1862 Berthoud Pass survey, to take a second look at the pass in the hope that a temporary track might be laid across its heights prior to the construction of a tunnel.

Sure, said Pierce, a temporary track could be run over the pass by a series of switchbacks “with no trouble,” but if Evans was determined to reach the Pacific through Colorado, there was an even better route. It would also require a tunnel under the Continental Divide, but it would be less than half the length of the Berthoud bore.

Pierce’s suggested alternative ran southwest up the South Platte River from Denver, crossed the wide basin of South Park, hopped across the upper Arkansas River, and burrowed under the divide at the headwaters of Chalk Creek. “The richness of the country and the abundance of fuel on the line through Colorado,” Pierce concluded, “… demand that these passes should at least be surveyed in a thorough manner.”

But the Union Pacific was not interested in either route—Berthoud Pass or Chalk Creek. In fact, the Union Pacific’s chief engineer, General Grenville Dodge, had little interest in traversing Colorado by any route. John C. Frémont’s wintry folly lost in the San Juans, John Gunnison’s grim assessment of the Black Canyon as a railroad route, and Dodge’s own personal experience in a November blizzard atop Boulder Pass (now called Rollins Pass) had convinced him to stay well clear of Colorado’s mountains. No doubt the Central Pacific’s challenges in the Sierra Nevada only added to his conviction.4

Try as he might, Evans couldn’t budge the Union Pacific crowd. Its main line would be built across Wyoming and only nick the corner of Colorado Territory at Julesburg. Denver despaired, but rallied to organize the Denver Pacific Railroad to build from Denver to the Union Pacific at Cheyenne. It might have been only a short line, but Denver was determined to have a railroad with transcontinental connections. With the Kansas Pacific still deep in Kansas, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe not yet out of Topeka, a connection with the Union Pacific was the logical and most promising choice.

John Evans joined the Denver Pacific’s board of directors, and four months later, in March 1868, he was elected its president. The first task of the president of any paper railroad was to raise funds for construction. Without a federal land grant or deep-pocketed investors, the most likely source was county bonds. Local voters were asked to approve a bond issue; the county willingly exchanged its bonds for unmarketable railroad stock because it wanted a railroad built; and then the railroad sold the county bonds—marketable securities instead of unmarketable stock—to finance its construction.

There was, of course, an inherent element of lobbying in this process. Sometimes it went far beyond mere arm-twisting. When a representative of the Kansas Pacific pointedly suggested that the advancing railroad would bypass Denver and head south unless surrounding Arapahoe County floated $2 million in bonds to support it, the locals responded with outrage at the apparent blackmail.

No doubt William Jackson Palmer would have finessed the proposal better, but at the time, he was completing his western survey and brashly telling the Big Four that the Kansas Pacific planned to build to San Francisco with or without them. Indeed, that southern bent by the Kansas Pacific may have been what Denver feared most. With the Union Pacific wedded to Wyoming, if the Kansas Pacific bypassed Denver to the south, instead of two transcontinental railroads—as Governor Evans had boasted back in 1862—Denver might end up with none.

Thanks in part to the indelicate demands of the Kansas Pacific, Arapahoe County turned to the Denver Pacific as its railroad savior and voted $500,000 in bonds for the construction between Denver and Cheyenne. But even these county bonds proved difficult to sell. Eastern capital markets were salivating over the U.S. government bonds from the Central Pacific and Union Pacific with their government-guaranteed interest, and there was no rush to buy Arapahoe County bonds no matter what the yield.5

Finally, Evans went hat in hand to Sidney Dillon and Thomas Durant, who along with brothers Oakes and Oliver Ames were the principal powers building the Union Pacific. When their negotiations were complete, the fledgling Denver Pacific agreed to grade the right-of-way, provide and lay the ties, and build the bridges. Dillon and Durant, through their Crédit Mobilier construction company, would supply and lay the rails and provide the rolling stock—this for a majority of Denver Pacific stock and the lease of the road to the Union Pacific. So much for local control, but Evans and the Denver Board of Trade deemed any railroad preferable to none.

There were, however, two additional requirements in the agreement. Evans and his Denver railroad would have to build an extension toward the mining camps—that was in everyone’s best interests—but they also had to apply to Congress for a land grant for the main Denver-to-Cheyenne route. After all, for Dillon and Durant, the masters of the Crédit Mobilier, working without a land grant would have been akin to a high-wire performance without a net.

“I am very busy with my R. R. bill,” Evans wrote his wife from Washington in July 1868, but his efforts to secure the land grant were not encouraging. Bills introduced in both the Senate and the House were referred to the Committee on the Pacific Railroad and promptly died quiet deaths. Recognizing that he needed much more political clout, Evans turned to unlikely allies. He went to see John D. Perry, William Jackson Palmer, and their associates at the Kansas Pacific, which was still pondering its future in western Kansas.

The two railroads joined forces, and after some complicated legislative maneuverings, Congress granted the Denver Pacific alternate sections of land for 20 miles on either side of its right-of-way from Denver to Cheyenne and the right to sell $32,000 of bonds per mile. As part of the deal, the Kansas Pacific relinquished its prior land grant rights north of Denver in exchange for $32,000 per mile of much-needed bonds between the Kansas-Colorado line and Denver. It also received a perpetual right-of-way over the Denver Pacific tracks to be built from Denver to Cheyenne.

Wait a minute, said Dillon and Durant. Competitive Kansas Pacific trains operating over its planned Denver Pacific subsidiary was not what they had in mind. The specter of traffic east of Cheyenne being split between the Union Pacific to Omaha and the competing Kansas Pacific to Kansas City via Denver was frightening. But Dillon and Durant were themselves broke at the moment as they raced the Central Pacific to Utah. They had no way to stop Evans from working with the Kansas Pacific. Instead they backed out of the Denver Pacific construction deal. The result for the Union Pacific was that it would wring its hands over Kansas Pacific competition for the next decade.6

As Dillon and Durant bowed out, the Denver Pacific’s board of directors collectively threw up its hands and offered John Evans all the road’s assets and full control if he would just get the road built. Evans agreed and formed a construction company that soon assigned a half interest to R. E. Carr, a director of the Kansas Pacific, who then parceled that half out among Kansas Pacific backers, including a 7 percent interest to Palmer.

The result was that the Denver Pacific was once again a subsidiary, but this time the controlling interest was the Kansas Pacific, not the Union Pacific. Evans remained president of the Denver Pacific, but its reorganized board of directors counted many Kansas Pacific men, including J. Edgar Thomson, Thomas A. Scott, and Palmer.

With Kansas Pacific support, the rails of the Denver Pacific started south from the Union Pacific line at Cheyenne on September 13, 1869, and were completed to Denver for last spike ceremonies on June 24, 1870. “Everybody and wife, sweetheart, etc. etc., was there” to watch the construction of the last few miles into town. Meanwhile, the Kansas Pacific, with Palmer as its construction superintendent, rushed its completion to Denver from the east.7

The Kansas Pacific started west from Sheridan, Kansas, with a vengeance late in the fall of 1869 after the Evans-Carr construction arrangement was finally completed. “Our long agony of negotiation with Gov. Evans is over and the contract agreed upon,” Palmer sighed, as the Kansas Pacific advertised for 50,000 to 75,000 ties to be delivered to its railhead. That was only a fraction of the 2,500 ties per mile that would ultimately be needed, and on the largely treeless plains, they had to come from hundreds of miles away in Colorado’s foothills.

Located just east of present-day Sharon Springs, Sheridan had enjoyed the boom of being a railhead while the Kansas Pacific paused there and negotiated the Denver deals. But once the Kansas Pacific line crossed into Colorado and reached the towns of Cheyenne Wells and Kit Carson in March 1870, Sheridan soon disappeared. “Poor Sheridan!” wrote Palmer to his fiancée. “There is very little of it left now and there will be less on your arrival. It has gradually and silently taken wings and flown away to Kit Carson.”

Kit Carson boomed as a railhead and had a “brisk and lively appearance,” but the new town was not without its problems. “The water about town is scarce and bad, and is the very worst I have ever had to drink in my life,” a correspondent for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reported. “It makes one pause before he washes his face in the morning, and leaves him as dirty as before; renders your coffee black and dark, spoils the color and flavor of your tea, obscures the brilliancy of your morning ‘cock tail,’ ruins the taste of our whisky, and as a beverage, generally, is unpalatable, unhealthy, and disgusting. May a kind providence preserve those who have to use it this summer.”8

By mid-April, the telegraph line along the Kansas Pacific right-of-way had reached Denver. As the rails followed it west from Kit Carson, it was reported, “the business men of the town don’t like this,” but the railhead was moving on.

Ties and rails were always in short supply, but now the Plains Indians made a last gasp effort to stop the iron horse. Palmer reported “fighting along our line,” and in one attack west of Kit Carson, eleven graders were killed and another nineteen wounded. Several days later, a raiding party tore down the Kansas Pacific water tank 4 miles east of town. Among the troops hastily assigned to protect the construction crews were cavalry from Fort Wallace (near Sheridan) under the command of George Armstrong Custer.9

By the end of May, the threat had eased, and with the Denver Pacific closing in on Denver from the north, grading crews began work east from there to meet the advancing Kansas Pacific. Completion was in sight by early August, but the final rush of materiel to the converging railheads was not without mishap. About ten o’clock at night on August 9, a fourteen-car construction train eastbound from Denver and loaded with rails got away from the engineer of number 31. Reportedly, his two brakemen were unable to club down the brakes on the flatcars because the iron rails had been stacked in such a way that it was impossible to operate the brake wheels fully.

The runaway train raced downgrade at an estimated speed of forty miles per hour, with the engineer frantically whistling “down brakes” to no avail. Up ahead, a string of worker-filled boarding cars was parked in a cut near the end of track. Here the grade reversed and ran uphill, but the combined weight of the iron and the speed of the train were too much to control. The engineer threw his locomotive into reverse and jumped.

The locomotive struck the first car of the boarding train, and it telescoped into the next two cars. Six tracklayers—including four workers who were sleeping under the cars—were killed and eleven others injured. A special train carrying three doctors, including pioneer Denver physician Frederick J. Bancroft, raced to the scene from Denver.

Surviving tracklayers were quick to blame the engineer and conductor for the crash. Loose talk of hanging them inched toward action until construction superintendent Leonard Eicholtz intervened and eventually convinced the angry workers that the accident had been “unavoidable.” A hurriedly convened coroner’s jury concurred with that verdict.10

By the next morning, a wrecker from Denver had the locomotive back on the track and the tangled mess of cars off the main line. Tracklayers continued laying rail eastward and reached Bennett on the morning of August 11. Two days later, crews building westward paused at Bijou (soon renamed Byers) because of a shortage of rails. Now only 10.25 miles remained between the two railheads.

It would have been a simple matter to keep laying rail eastward from Bennett, but superintendent Eicholtz had something else in mind. The year before, he had witnessed the Central Pacific’s tracklaying record in its final sprint to meet the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit—10 miles and 56 feet of track in less than twelve hours—on April 28, 1869. Determined to beat it, Eicholtz had teamsters haul iron to the eastern end of the gap while his tracklayers got a Sunday to rest.

Early on Monday morning, August 15, 1870, an American flag—and by some reports, a keg of whiskey—was placed at the midway point. At five in the morning, with dawn just lighting the eastern sky, the two crews went to work. Eicholtz personally directed the western crew, but by midmorning, they were a half mile behind their eastern competitors. An hour later, the eastern crew was ahead 4 miles to 3.

Inexplicably, Eicholtz’s team on the western end lost more time when it ran out of rail shortly after noon. More iron was hurried forward while the pace on the eastern end slowed as its own supply of iron grew thin. Finally, at 2:53 p.m., the rails touched at Comanche Crossing, just east of present-day Strasburg. No record remains of who claimed the keg—if indeed there was one—but the westbound workers had laid 5.25 miles and 400 feet of track, and their eastbound cohorts, 5 miles, less 400 feet. The Kansas Pacific was complete to Denver, and Eicholtz’s tracklaying record secured: 10.25 miles in less than ten hours.

With unbridled enthusiasm, John D. Perry wired General Palmer congratulations from St. Louis. “In the name of the company, I thank you and those under you for the able manner in which the important work under your charge has been brought to a successful terminus. I do not know of anything in the history of railroad construction in this or any other country to equal the splendid success exhibited by you yesterday,” Perry concluded, as he made plans to host an opening excursion gala from St. Louis to Denver.

“The coach has given way before the palace car, and staging for the overland traveler is a thing of the past,” the Rocky Mountain News proclaimed. “For eleven years these coaches have been run with a regularity unparalleled, and afforded our only means of travel … But ‘their occupation is gone.’ The bright coaches will soon be dusty, the shining harness will soon become rusty, and the handsome prancing fours in-hand will descend to the more common-place position of farm or draft horses. The ‘overland boys’ will be known no more for they too will have become scattered.”

Alongside this nostalgic obituary, there were advertisements boasting the new Kansas Pacific Railway. Its Smoky Hill route was pronounced the best connection to the East and “the only road that has unbroken connections with all points East via the great iron bridge over the Missouri River at Kansas City.” Not only would passengers save time by using the Kansas Pacific instead of journeying northward to the Union Pacific, the railroad claimed, but also they would avoid the expense and annoyance of crossing the Missouri River by boat.11

By boat? Yes, it was true. The claim of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific to have completed the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, contained several qualifiers. To be sure, it was a grand achievement, but one could not yet ride rails without interruption from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There was a 1,500-foot gap across the Missouri River between Omaha, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, and another gap between Sacramento and Oakland, California.

While the Union Pacific ferried passengers and freight across the Missouri at Omaha, the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad (soon to become part of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy) completed its tracks into Kansas City via a bridge across the Missouri on June 30, 1869. (At the time, this was the only bridge across the Missouri from the Mississippi upstream to Fort Benton, Montana.) At Kansas City, the Hannibal and St. Joseph linked up with the Kansas Pacific and provided uninterrupted rail service eastward into Chicago, crossing the Mississippi over a bridge at Quincy, Illinois.

A few months later, the California gap on the Central Pacific was closed when the Big Four–controlled San Francisco and Alameda Railroad completed rails into Oakland. That left the 1,500-foot span on the Union Pacific across the Missouri. This gap was closed for sixty-six days in January and February 1870, when temporary track was laid across the frozen river. That lasted until the ice broke up on March 14, and ferry service was resumed. A similar arrangement was made during the winters of 1871 and 1872. The Union Pacific did not complete its massive $2.87 million bridge across the Missouri River at Omaha until March 22, 1872.

In the meantime, transcontinental rail service on the Kansas Pacific via Kansas City and its bridge was about 300 miles longer than on the Union Pacific via Omaha and its river crossing. No one seems to have been too troubled by the latter, and both lines got plenty of business. However, the fact remains that the final spike of the Kansas Pacific Railway driven at Comanche Crossing, Colorado, on August 15, 1870, marked the completion of the first uninterrupted transcontinental railroad between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

It ran from the Pennsylvania Railroad at Jersey City, New Jersey, west to Chicago; the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy to Kansas City; the Kansas Pacific to Denver; the Denver Pacific to Cheyenne; the Union Pacific to Promontory Summit; and the Central Pacific to Oakland. This route remained the only complete transcontinental until the Union Pacific’s bridge opened at Omaha nineteen months later. Even so, the golden spike at Promontory Summit garners history’s accolades, while the joining of the rails at Comanche Crossing rates scarcely a footnote. At the time, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe had barely made it from Topeka to Emporia.12

With the joint Denver Pacific–Kansas Pacific line operational, neither John Evans nor William Jackson Palmer was content to rest on his laurels. Evans was still transfixed—as were many Colorado railroaders of his and the following generation—with the idea of a direct rail link straight west from Denver. The Denver Pacific ran to the north and the Kansas Pacific still eyed Santa Fe to the south, but not even the rocky heights and rugged canyons west of Denver could shake his notion that it was feasible to lay rails directly through this labyrinth.

When the Colorado Central Railroad blocked the most direct route west along Clear Creek, Evans remembered John Pierce’s description of the route up the South Platte and across South Park. Evans sold his Kansas Pacific stock, and on October 1, 1872, he incorporated the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad. Doing so put him on a collision course with his onetime Kansas Pacific ally, William Jackson Palmer.13

Palmer, too, was now looking to his own interests. Even before the completion of the Kansas Pacific to Denver, the general had served notice that he was resigning from the company. In the short term, he had personal concerns. The handsome and quite eligible bachelor was to be married to one of the East’s most alluring prospects. With wavy hair and a button nose, she was just turning nineteen when they met in a railcar in St. Louis. Her name was Mary Lincoln Mellen, but everyone called her “Queen,” a testament to how she expected to be treated.

Queen’s father was William Proctor Mellen, a former law partner of Abraham Lincoln’s first secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase, and well connected in eastern financial circles. With Queen accompanying him, Mellen was in St. Louis tending to client interests when they first met Palmer in March 1869. Mellen readily embraced the relationship and aided his future son-in-law with East Coast contacts while availing himself of western investments in Palmer’s enterprises. Palmer and Queen became engaged almost immediately—she persisted in addressing him as “General” for several months until he chastised her to do otherwise—and planned a November 1870 wedding to be followed by the requisite European honeymoon.

But in the long term, beyond romance, the general also had his own railroad in mind, and he would combine nuptial bliss with fund-raising while in Europe. The object, as he confessed to Queen, was “a little railroad of a few hundred miles in length all under one’s own control with one’s friends, to have no jealousies and contests and differing policies, but to be able to carry out unimpeded and harmoniously one’s views in regard to what ought and ought not to be done.”

Poor Palmer. To entertain such an idealistic view, he must have been severely infected by the love bug. Surely his prior experiences at J. Edgar Thomson’s elbow and throughout the Kansas Pacific campaign had taught him the folly of any such talk of railroad harmony. But Palmer was a young man on a mission, and when Queen responded enthusiastically, if somewhat naively, to what her beau characterized as his “dream at the car window,” he was off and running.

Early in February 1870, Palmer told Queen that he had “laid the smallest first flooring … for an organization independent of the Kansas Pacific” that would run north and south along the foothills of the Rockies from Denver south to Santa Fe and beyond. It would go right past their planned homestead at Monument, Colorado, “but not near enough to make it noisy … It won’t hurt—when it is our own railroad, will it?” he teased her.14

So, on October 27, 1870, in between the completion of the Kansas Pacific to Denver and his marriage to Queen Mellen, William Jackson Palmer filed the certificate of incorporation for the Denver and Rio Grande Railway. Among those joining him as a director was his soon-to-be father-in-law. The next day, the directors elected Palmer the company’s president and authorized him to contract for the construction of the road.

Aside from its north-south axis, the Denver and Rio Grande was to be quite different from its competitors in one significant respect. For reasons that probably went back to his youthful visits to the mountainous railroads of Wales, in the United Kingdom, Palmer decided to construct the Denver and Rio Grande as a narrow gauge.

Gauge, in railroad parlance, is the distance between the inside edges of the rails and the corresponding wheel span of the locomotive and cars. Prior to the Civil War, American railroads used various gauges, the interchange of which created havoc when moving shipments from one road to another. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 mandated that the entire length of the Pacific railroad and its branches be of uniform width so that cars could be “run from the Missouri River to the Pacific coast.” The president of the United States was charged with determining what that gauge would be.

As might be expected, Lincoln came under intense lobbying from all sides. Collis P. Huntington favored a 5′ gauge because that is how the initial tracks of the Central Pacific were laid. The Mississippi and Missouri also favored the 5′ gauge. Among other roads, the New York Central and the Baltimore and Ohio advocated their own 4′ 8½″ gauge, which was widely used in Great Britain.

Lincoln called for a secret ballot among his advisors and then announced for the 5′ gauge without divulging the vote. Urged on by New York congressman Erastus Corning, who by no small coincidence was also president of the New York Central, Congress quickly overruled Lincoln and established the uniform gauge at 4′ 8½″—what thereafter was termed standard gauge.15

Technically, narrow gauge was anything smaller than standard gauge, although Palmer and others built their narrow gauge lines to a specified width of three feet. Palmer chose the narrow gauge because it could climb steeper grades, turn tighter curves, and in general was less expensive to construct than standard gauge. The flip side, of course, was that the tonnage that could be hauled on any given narrow gauge trip was less than that of comparable standard gauge trains. Time would tell whether Palmer’s decision to build “a baby road” was the correct one.

The projected routes of the Denver and Rio Grande were both decidedly linear—a direct north-south main line from Denver to El Paso and into Mexico—and territorially expansive: no less than seven branch lines spreading out like tentacles and tapping perceived local markets. Beyond Palmer’s musings to Queen about “how fine it would be to have a little railroad,” the general and his investors thought that they held a distinct competitive advantage over the east-west lines.

In addition to mining prospects in the Colorado and New Mexico mountains, Palmer foresaw a continued flow of homesteaders like those who had fueled the Kansas Pacific and Santa Fe. But Palmer also was somewhat visionary in anticipating a rush of tourists that he felt certain would seek out the region’s dry climate and grand scenery. Finally, Palmer saw his road as the logical north-south connecting link between the east-west transcontinental lines and the cities that would spring up at those junctions.16

To a large extent, Palmer was right on these counts, but he was dead wrong on his overall thesis that his little road would somehow be free from competition. If the lucrative traffic that Palmer forecast came to pass, it was simply not reasonable to assume that men like John Evans, Cyrus K. Holliday, or Collis P. Huntington would turn aside simply because one railroad had already occupied the field.

The Denver and Rio Grande Railway began grading south of Denver early in 1871. By October, its rails were complete to Colorado Springs, a town founded and developed by the same cadre of Palmer associates who controlled the railroad and its construction company. These interests sponsored an excursion for the Denver press to see the completed line and boast of the splendor of their new town. The general and his young bride were on hand to greet them, and Queen initially embraced life here. She organized a school, presided over the budding social scene—a queen indeed—and supervised the construction of the Palmer home west of town.

By the spring of 1872—the year of the Santa Fe’s sprint west from Newton to the Colorado-Kansas line—the Rio Grande had graded another 44 miles to Pueblo. Rails would reach the town that summer and then be extended west to Labran, Colorado (present-day Florence), to tap nearby coal deposits. But in the meantime, General Palmer and Queen embarked on a trip to Mexico, where Palmer began protracted negotiations with the Mexican government to secure a franchise for the line south from El Paso. It was evidence that the magnitude of Palmer’s own transcontinental plans had not diminished.17

But while Palmer looked far afield from Colorado, the Denver and Rio Grande was not nearly as free from competition as the general boasted. John Evans still had designs on the South Park region. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe stood poised to cross the Colorado border and build up the Arkansas River toward Pueblo. The Kansas Pacific was looking south from its main line at Kit Carson, once again thinking of the southern route to Santa Fe. Lastly, any railroad heading into the Southwest did so at its peril if it failed to take into account the designs of Huntington and his California cohorts. Competition was one thing of which there was plenty.

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