The line across Rollins Pass (elev. 11671 ft) was built as a provisional railroad until enough money had been made to allow construction of a tunnel through the divide near MP 52.50. Initially, it was thought that after three years operational profits would permit the construction of the tunnel.
For this reason the grade was hastily aligned, very exposed and featured a continual 4% incline. The most important conditions were: “Build cheap and build quick so we can start making money for the tunnel.”
For this reason construction was continued into the winter of 1903/04. It was a tough job to find workers who would work under these conditions, so wages were then raised from 2$ to 3.43 $ per day.
The line basically followed the survey of the Denver Utah & Pacific who had tried to build over the pass (and even started a tunnel). However back in 1879 most of their workers revolted after a number of them had perished in a snowstorm.
Once the line was completed it became an operational nightmare. 41% of the entire operational income of the Moffat Road went into keeping the pass open. Trains were stuck regularly in snow drifts and avalanches. At first no steam rotary was available, so equipment had to be rented from other railroads.
During the winter months (September – May) nearly every train had to be preceded by a rotary snow plow and due to lack of adhesion and icy tracks, up to five large Mallets where used to pull a train. Other dangers included: Trains that had to stop would suddenly freeze to the rails, brake failures and resulting runaways. The task of the conductor included having to walk back through a snow shed to protect his train from a following train which might be equipped with a view obstructing steam rotary. Let’s not spend to much time thinking about the consequences of that.
Many railroaders lost their lives on the pass, but the railroad has always been proud, that not a single passenger has come to peril.
The railroad lost so much money on the pass, that it went bankrupt several times, and of course the construction of the tunnel became utopia.
Finally in 1928 (25 years later) the City Of Denver and the State financed the Moffat Tunnel thus ending the ordeal of Rollins Pass.
Construction of the Moffat Tunnel marked the end of most operations on the pass. On the western side of the pass some lumber mills were still served. The towns of Ladora and Arrow became ghost towns.
By law, the tracks had to be left in place as an emergency route. On July 8th 1928, when a few wooden planks fell from the ceiling inside Moffat Tunnel, causing it to be closed temporarily, a last unexpected run was made over Rollins Pass.
On May 14th 1935, permission was granted by the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) to dismantle the railroad tracks on the pass. In the meantime a fire had destroyed some of the snow sheds on the pass and damaged the hotel Corona. On July 18th the first rails were pulled. The tracks were in such a poor shape, that trucks had to be used to carry off usable material. The remaining snow sheds where burned down intentionally.
The land was handed over to the Forrest Service which converted the grade into a road. When Needle’s Eye Tunnel caved in and the Devil’s Slide Trestles became unstable, the road had to be closed down from a location just north of Jenny Lake to the summit.
All that remains is a legend. According to contemporaries of the time, there is a rich secret goldmine somewhere on the pass. An old hermit who lived somewhere above Yankee Doodle Lake brought “nuggets” down into the valley. All attempts to follow him and find the location of this fabled mine were in vain, as the old man would always shake off his followers. Nowadays, it is believed, that gold diggers would pass over the toll road on their way home from California loosing “nuggets” occasionally from their bags.
Today, you can drive up the pass in a 4WD (with a standard auto, it is possible however this will definitely not extend the life of your tires and shock absorbers) until the caved in Needle Eye Tunnel. From the westerly side, a fairly good dirt road leads up to the summit. You can attempt the drive between July and August. The rest of the time, you may be lucky however usually your drive will end in a large snow drift. Walking up the pass is nice but you will have to be equipped with warm jackets and firm hiking boots as the weather may change and you may find yourself suddenly in a thunderstorm or snowstorm or both. If you make it to the top for every second time you attempt to, you have reached a good average.
Even though the rails are long gone and Amtraks California Zephyr certainly has no intention of leaving its well known tracks through Moffat tunnel, here is a mile by mile description of the Rollins Pass line as it was in the years past and what can be seen of it today.
MP 049.40 Newcomb
There is some mystery about the obscure slim gauge line that led to the site of the Jenkins Lumber Co. from Newcomb in 1903. Only one or two photos remain of this operation that featured tracks which “laid as they fell” into the dirt and of a homebuilt steam locomotive. This locomotive featured an upright boiler with a square box around it giving it, built to have just enough power to draw a few logging buggies for a mile uphill, past today’s East Portal and then along South Boulder Creek.
MP 051.00 Trestle Bridge
The remains of a large trestle bridge can be found at this location.
MP 051.73 Water Tower
Until 1991, a water tower stood at this location. It was unique in that it was square, an unusual shape for such a piece of equipment. It was only used during construction of the railroad and was fed by the tiny Jenny Creek.
In 1991, the winter took its toll on the structure and it fell into the ravine where it still lies today.
MP 052.00 Tunnel 31
This tunnel is completely caved in. This is one of the reasons why the road does not follow the old railroad grading but stays to the North.
The railroad grade between MP50 and MP53 is the last stretch of untouched original grade. It is located on private land and was not used as a basis for the road across the pass.
MP 052.50 Planned Tunnel 32
Originally, this was to have been the site of the 2.6 mile long tunnel through the continental divide. Financial problems of the Moffat Road caused by continued construction and the operational hazards of Rollins Pass never allowed for its construction.
MP 053.73 Ladora Overlook
The settlement of Ladora was located below this site. During construction of the railroad in 1903/04, many railroaders and lumberjacks lived here. In 1929, a year after Rollins Pass line was dismantled, the settlement became a ghost town. Today nothing is left of Ladora.
MP 054.48 Antelope & Trestle Remains
Antelope was a tiny village that seemed to have been glued to the mountain side. Only railroad workers lived here who maintained the line. In 1928, Antelope disappeared and there is nothing is left which could be seen today. There are remains of a trestle bridge that can be seen here today.
MP 055.43 Runaway Train Wreck
Mallet 201 once derailed and tumbled down the mountain after the brakes had failed. Luckily no one was injured. This is where the locomotive ended its fall – and as usual in those days, the remains were picked up and the locomotive was rebuilt.
MP 057.33 Spruce Wye
Due to the provisional character of Rollins Pass, no turntables where built. Turntables would also cause operational hazards in the cold climate and thus only wyes where built to turn around rotary plows and steam engines.
Today the original location of the wye is very easy to recognize as you look to your left and your lungs begin to tell you that you are approaching 11000 ft altitude (10990 ft to be exact).
MP 059.53 Yankee Doodle Lake
Yankee Doodle Lake is one of the most beautiful mountain lakes in the world around which the railroad used to perform a 180 degree circle. The lake is frozen solid for about 9 months of the year.
In 1879 the Denver Utah & Pacific made their first attempt at constructing a railroad across the Construction of a tunnel began at this location. There is still about 30ft of tunnel left (the remaining 270 ft are caved in) and a dam leading into the lake which was constructed from material excavated during construction of the tunnel.
There was to be another tunnel just north of Rollins Pass leading to Middle Park where the line would join the grade of today’s railroad. Proof of this was found in the form of a three foot gauge axle with wheels belonging to an abandoned construction cart by Ed Bollinger author of the book "Rails That Climb".
When most of the construction crew died in a snow storm, the remaining workers "abandoned ship" and the project was terminated.
MP 60.93 Dixie Siding
Not far from Jenny Lake (located about 150 yards above the grade), a siding called Dixie Siding was constructed.
The name was invented by a passenger from the deep south, who was so amazed by the beauty of the two lakes, that she exclaimed that if the one lake was called Yankee Doodle Lake, the other certainly had to be renamed to Dixie Lake.
From then on Jenny Lake appeared on some maps as Dixie Lake and the siding was named after the lake. However, most locals did not take a liking to the new name and eventually the lake reappeared as Jenny Lake on all maps. Only the siding kept its name.
MP 063.47 Needle’s Eye Tunnel
Looking at the approaches to Needle’s Eye Tunnel and the tunnel itself, one immediately understands its name. It looks like a needle and the tunnel resembles the eye of that needle.
After the rails were taken off Rollins Pass, the grade remained in use as a pass road – like it had been before the railroad. Even though FR149 is still shown on some maps as a through road, it has not been so since 1979. In that year, the Needle’s Eye Tunnel’s ceiling caved in and rocks fell into the bore.
Rail fans tried to reopen the route in 1987 and installed anchors and nets. The road was passable once again until another cave-in occurred in 1990. Again attempts were made to reopen the tunnel. However, rocks fell from the ceiling, killing one worker and all attempts were stopped.
That was the end of Needle’s Eye Tunnel and FR149 and today a concrete barrier blocks all access to the inside of the tunnel. Please do not attempt to climb inside, the rock is very unstable. There is a small path around the tunnel, so one can walk to the other side quite easily.
You can also reach the top of the tunnel by walking up a path starting before the tunnel portal and leading to a “car park” on top. From here, you have a terrific view of Yankee Doodle Lake below.
Originally, the approaches to the tunnel from the East would have been covered by snow sheds. The remnants of these sheds are still clearly visible in the form of timbers lying along the grade and down the slope.
After coming around the curve near West Portal, a wind will meet your face with the force of a jet engine.
MP 064.55 Twin Trestles (Devils Slide Trestles)
In 1982, these bridges where closed down for passage. They are in poor shape even though one can still walk over them. According to a sign a gas pipeline runs under them. The bridges were originally named Twin trestles, as they look similar and are both placed on a steep slope leading into the valley situated about 2000 ft below.
When the first runaway brake failure accidents occurred, they usually ended up being fatal on these trestles. Both are located in a curve and consequently the locomotives would usually take the direct route over the side of the trestle and into the valley below. As a result, engineers soon renamed the trestles as Devil’s Slide Trestles.
The two bridges are one of the most renowned sights on the pass and should not be missed !
MP 064.95 Corona
The top of the pass is called Corona. Its elevation is 11671 ft. A railroad worker from Mexico, awed by the sight (or maybe the thin air ?) is said to have exclaimed “This is the most beautiful sight. This is the crown of the world !!!” Thus the name Corona which means crown in Spanish.
The latter surely is debatable, as there are a lot of (more) beautiful sights in Colorado and elsewhere, but it makes for a good story.
Corona was a popular weekend spot. Go up by train, take in the view and the altitude and go back home.
There was a station here, that included the tracks located inside a wooden shed. The shed was connected to the snow tunnels on both sides. Originally, a few disused freight cars served as a restaurant and maintenance quarters here.
In 1913, a hotel was built that was connected to the station by a tunnel. Usually, guests would just dine inside the hotel. However there were always a few that stayed over night. There were bedrooms, a common room with a fireplace and a large vista room with big windows. The construction of the hotel, which was built entirely of stone was 24000 $, quite a large sum in those days.
Due to the climate and the storms, the roof was anchored to the ground by large steel cables. Sometimes, the winds would reach 120 miles per hour, which was enough to rip off any unsecured roof.
Later a roofed over wye was added, allowing locomotives and rotaries to be turned without exposing them to snowstorms. At times trains are supposed to have been up to twelve Mallets here, waiting to help trains up and down the pass. What a sight this must have been !
As mentioned before, the approaches to the station were guarded by long snow sheds - thirteen in all, between 19 ft and 400 ft in length. Despite these snow sheds, snow would drift in between the wooden planking and make the tracks impassable. Stopping a train inside the tunnel was dangerous, as passengers were liable to suffocate from smoke inhalation and the conductor had to walk back 300 yards to place a marker to protect the train. Remember the previously mentioned rotaries ?
Outside of the tunnels, the situation was even worse, as the tracks were located in a 21 ft deep ditch inside the snow masses.
Thunderstorms created additional hazards in the summer time. In 1913 a track worker was struck by lightning.
Today, not much is left of Corona. The foundation of the hotel is still there. The roof of the hotel is also intact although it has been placed on the ground about 50 yards from the foundation. However in 1936, the bricks from the building have been taken by people from Tabernash and Fraser and used for house construction there.
Shortly after the railroad was denied permission to dismantle the grade, the station was mysteriously destroyed by a fire. The real cause remains unknown. However remnants of the snow tunnels still remain.
MP 066.15 Pump House Lake
There used to be a pump station here that would provide Corona with water from a small pond. The operator lived here together with his wife and during the winter months they were cut off from the outside world.
MP 067.75 Telegraph Poles
Remnants of some telegraph poles are visible here. Years back, they were sometimes the only connection to the outside world. When a train stalled, passengers occasionally had to climb out of the snow ditch and would use the telegraph wires (sticking a few inches out of the snow) as navigation aids. This was not a nice way to get to Corona in -4F and 40 mph wind.
MP 068.05 Ptarmigan Point
Several bad accidents happened on this location. In 1922, Mallet # 208 was taken down the mountain by an avalanche. The engineer survived by sheer luck. He had been crouched down and well protected inside the tender, while trying to melt snow for water when the avalanche took the locomotive down the mountain. A ramp was constructed to salvage the locomotive which is still visible today.
In 1924 Mallet # 210 went out of control and sped down the tracks. The crew jumped to safety. The locomotive left the tracks at the curve and tumbled for a few miles down the mountain where it exploded. Some pieces of the engine and some coal can still be seen near Rifle Sight Trestle.
MP 068.55 Sunnyside
Before Pump House Lake was used, water was taken from this pond to fill the locomotives.
MP 069.45 Rifle Sight Notch Trestle and Loop
This is one of the three intact wooden trestle bridges on Rollins Pass today. This is the most impressive but it is also the most frail one. Help save a piece of history and do not walk over it please.
When westbound, trains crossed the bridge from right to left, performed a loop and appeared out of the tunnel below the bridge.
Looking from below, this looked like a rifle sight notch, as you were aiming through the bridge.
MP 070.00 Tunnel 33
This is called the Rifle Sight Notch Tunnel. Although it is caved in. One can walk up the side of the former portal to the trestle bridge. About 50 yards down the grade, a path leads to the site of the #210 wreck (see Ptarmigan Point).
072.70 Ranch Creek Wye
This is another wye which was used to turn steam locomotives and rotaries. There used to be a water tower here which was insulated to prevent water from freezing.
If you have a good eyesight, coupled with an active imagination you can spot the remains of this bridge.
073.20 Morgan Spur
This is a stub track that had a make shift maintenance facility constructed at its end. This was also used for shelter when a train stalled and the passengers had to be evacuated. After warming up, passengers would walk down to Arrow.
A hermit's house was located here as well, the remains of which can still be spotted.
073.30 Forest Spur
This is where steam rotaries were parked during the summer months. The tracks were also used for train meets.
The name of this town is derived from its location. It was located around an arrow shaped rock formation.
Once this town had a registered number of 2000 inhabitants. Among them was the locally famous Doc Suzie who would later open a doctor’s office in Fraser. The town was officially incorporated in 1904 – some people say the reason for this was that alcohol could be sold. There were several saloons and the town was lit by two gas lanterns at night, a feature which was common only in Chicago at the time !!!
There was a stub track where a train could be parked but no passing siding. Unfortunately the town burned down in 1920 and became a ghost town after the railroad was abandoned.
Today, one can see several foundations of buildings that once stood here. The location of the stub track and station are still clearly visible.
MP 77.10 Pacific Siding
This was used as a passing siding for Arrow which did not have one.
MP 79.90 Irving Spur
This spur served a sawmill. This is also the western limit of the 4% grade as the tracks adopt a more moderate climb/descent from here on.
Years back there was quite a bit of lumber industry here. In fact some of it was worked by German prisoners of war during World War II and it is said that quite a number of them stayed on after the war., Obviously they liked the area.
Last Update: Mar 1st 2008
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