Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Last ride of Midland
“A railroad is like a lie, you have to keep building it to make it stand.”
__ Mark Twain
“One of the things the government can't do is run anything. The only things our government runs are the post office and the railroads, and both of them are bankrupt.”
__ Lee Iacocca
It was a serious pain to switch from standard gauge down to the narrow gauge to get through the mountains. Making transfers to different rolling stock (on both ends of the journey), smaller payloads, special equipment required, and other elements were problematic. But building a full width track, through twisting canyons and on precipitous rock walls, up nearly impossible grades, was a daunting task for early railroad track engineers.
The Colorado Midland claims the title for being the first standard-gauge line to be built through the Rockies. Like Bunyan’s blue ox Babe’s measurements between the eyes, the tracks were two axe handles and a plug of chewing tobacco wide, (four feet, eight inches) compared to the narrow gauge’s conservative 3 foot span. Organized in 1884 by area pioneer banker Irving Howbert and implemented and guided by the sheer will of businessman James J. Hagerman in its infancy, the line pressed on up through the Ute Pass and eventually made it as far as Grand Junction. Originally, they intended going on to Salt Lake City but with the discovery of gold in Cripple Creek, the strategy shifted to a branch line leaving from Divide, headed south to the mining district. That effort became a tangled mess with construction delays that eventually stopped it dead in its tracks. Some of the original investors formed a new company called the Midland Terminal Railway and it carried its first cargo into and out of the district, (at least as far as Gillette Flats) in 1894.
Other railroads followed suit and by the turn of the century, multiple roads were servicing the district but their success was short-lived. During World War I, railroads were nationalized and by 1918, one competitor, “The Short Line” had shut down. The Colorado Midland stopped service shortly afterward but its track, from Colorado Springs to Divide was assimilated by the Midland Terminal Railroad, which by that time, the majority of ownership was in the hands of Spencer Penrose and A.E. Carlton and tied to mining efforts in region. They used it mostly to transport ore to the Golden Cycle Mill in Old Colorado City from the mines in Victor, Cripple Creek and the other mining hamlets in the District.
Regularly scheduled passenger trains ran on the line until 1931 but according rail expert Mel McFarland, two terminals on ‘the Westside’ burnt in the winter of ‘31. The train continued to run until the Golden Cycle ceased operation at their Westside mill in 1949.
One last passenger train ran in February of 1949. Such notables as former Gov. Ralph Carr and legendary radio announcer and newsman Lowell Thomas attended that last ride.
In the late 1980s, John Graham, owner, publisher and editor of the Pikes Peak Journal and his staff completed the following project about the last run of the Midland Terminal Railroad.
Winter wasn't the proper season for such an event, but it couldn't wait until spring. By then, all the locomotives would be gone.
So despite the chilly weather, a sizable crowd turned out on the morning of Feb. 6, 1949, at the Midland Terminal Railway yards on 21st Street to help write a page of history. The last passenger train from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek was scheduled to leave on its final trip.
Ed Chonka, a Westside resident who was born and raised near Bott Street next to the sprawling, 500-acre mill and railroad complex operated by Golden Cycle Corporation, was one of the many people who felt the emptiness associated with the railroad's impending demise. He showed up with his camera to document the Midland Terminal's last hooray.
"I wish I had taken even more pictures than I did," said Chonka. "But it was real sad. It was such a change. Suddenly the railroad wouldn't be there anymore. It was like someone dying."
Before the day ended, Chonka recorded scenes of Engine 59, one of railroad's oldest war horses, pulling four passenger cars up Ute Pass en route to Cripple Creek and the once generous gold fields which gave birth to the Midland Terminal 54 years earlier.
Chonka, riding in a car driven by his brother Chuck, took pictures of the train as it chugged its way past many landmarks and stations which are only memories today - Becker's Spur, Manitou Iron Springs, Lime Rock, Crags, Bison, Edlowe, and Ice House Spur.
Hoot Sullivan, an engineer who had worked his way up through the ranks after starting as a worker on a section crew, was also on hand that February day in 1949.
"I felt so badly about it," the Westside resident recalls. "It was like having the rug pulled out from under me. I was young and thought I had everything I wanted. I was an engineer. Suddenly, there was nothing to look forward to."
Sullivan wasn't alone. In the coming weeks, 120 Midland Terminal employees lost their jobs. Some of them later found temporary work when Commercial Metals Company of Dallas, a salvage company which hired local crews to tear out the 56 miles of rail between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek.
Two weeks after the last passenger trip, the Midland Terminal ran its final freight run to Cripple Creek, returning with 31 ore cars, 27 of them empty, and miscellaneous equipment from depots in Midland, Divide, Woodland Park, Cascade and Manitou Springs. Although all the official "good-byes" had already been said during the passenger train ceremonies, the last freight run was a more befitting tribute to the memory of the Midland Terminal. Hauling ore and freight, not passengers, was really what the railroad was all about, right from the beginning.
Born during the scramble to get to the Cripple Creek and Victor gold fields in the mid-1890s, the Midland Terminal was a survivor of an incredible and oftentimes cut-throat railroad boom which featured four other main contenders - the Colorado Midland, the Denver and Rio Grande, Florence and Cripple Creek, and the Cripple Creak and Colorado Springs.
The competition was fierce with the Colorado Midland and Midland Terminal working the northern route into the gold fields from Divide, and the D&RG and Florence and Cripple Creek teaming to work a southern route from Florence. Plying the most direct and probably most difficult line was the CC&CS, which reached the gold fields via what is today's the Gold Camp Road.
Benefiting from the booming railroad activity in the late 1890s and early 1900s was Colorado City and its ore-processing mills - Golden Cycle, Colorado-Philadelphia, Standard, and Portland. Colorado City had experienced previous boom eras because of railroad expansion, primarily in the 1880s after the Colorado Midland had carved out a route to Leadville through Ute Pass. The early gold rushes into the Colorado mountains had set the stage for Colorado City to become a staging area for workers headed for the Cripple Creek mines.
When production in the gold fields began declining after the turn of the century, the struggle for survival among the railroads and the mills intensified. More than $24 million worth of gold had been produced from ore from Cripple Creak in 1902; by 1917, that figure was down to $10 million and dropping.
The Colorado Midland went under in 1918, but the Midland Terminal acquired much of its equipment and continued operating.
"The railroad, however, was moving in a direction that spelled its own end," wrote author Mel McFarland in his book, "The Cripple Creek Road." "The Midland Terminal was becoming dependent upon the output of Golden Cycle-owned mines."
The railroad's passenger service was quickly becoming a thing of the past, thanks mainly to the automobile. The company was running in the red between 1923 and 1929, and by 1931, passenger service was essentially eliminated. A passenger car would, on occasion, be added to the daily freight runs in the summer, but the Midland Terminal was primarily in the business of hauling ore.
For 18 more years the railroad fought to stay alive and managed to overcome a number of obstacles, including devastating floods in 1935 and 1947, and a drastic decrease in mining activity during World War II. Struggling also during this time was the Golden Cycle Mill, which seldom produced at over half its capacity.
Labor problems, including a strike by workers who were seeking wage increases, added to the Midland Terminal's woes in 1948. The Golden Cycle Corporation - which by that time owned both the Midland Terminal and Golden Cycle Mill - finally decided to abandon the railroad and to close the mill in Colorado City in favor of a new facility in Elkton near Cripple Creek.
So when a final farewell trip was planned for Feb. 6, 1949, people like Ed Chonka and "Hoot" Sullivan, whose lives on the Westside were entwined with the railroad's history, turned out to get a last look.
"After the last passenger trips, I remember watching some of the locomotives being cut up with torches," Chonka recalls. "It was hard to believe. I had watched them heading back and forth to Cripple Creek since I was a kid."
One of the cruelest aspects of the Midland Terminal's demise, as far as historians and restoration groups are concerned, was its almost complete elimination in a short period of time.
A few remnants remain today, including some of the terminal building complex which is now occupied by Van Briggle Pottery (Van Briggle has recently relocated) and Ghost Town, and the tunnels along side U.S. Highway 24 in Ute Pass, but most of the physical evidence - including all the locomotives - that made the Midland Terminal an essential part of Old Colorado City and the Westside has disappeared.
"I wish the city still had the railroad around," Sullivan said. "It would be a real asset, I think, for the tourist trade. To be able to take visitors over what was once the life-line to Cripple Creek.
"It would be something."
The electronic presentation of all research materials are the property of the Old Colorado City Historical Society. Above photo belongs to the Society and is available for viewing with other materials at its site.