An Isolated Empire: A History of Northwest Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter IX:

David Halliday Moffat came to Colorado in 1863 from Omaha, Nebraska, penniless, having lost his fortune in a promotional scheme in that city. Arriving in Denver, he worked among the miners and soon found that there was a need for banking in the newly created city. In partnership with John Evans, Moffat went to work for the First National Bank of Denver. Nearly every railroad scheme from the Colorado Central to the Rio Grande had Moffat involved in it. Moffat also became interested in mining to the extent that he had holdings in Caribou, Leadville, Central City, and other major mining centers of Colorado. From these ventures, Moffat amassed a fortune that was estimated at some $9 million by 1902. [1]

In his sixties Moffat decided that the final project of his career would be the building of a standard gauge railroad directly through the Rocky Mountains, across the northwestern corner of the state, and on to Salt Lake City. Construction was begun in 1903 with a line built toward Coal Creek Canyon. Then Moffat had to make a decision; either he could build a major tunnel (about three miles long) through the mountains at an estimated cost of $7,000,000, which would exhaust his fortune and end the railroad, or he could go over the Continental Divide and conserve his resources. He chose the latter course. In doing so, Moffat built over Rollins Pass and down into Middle Park. The railroad, the Denver Northwestern and Pacific, reached the Park by 1905, and for the first time cheap transportation was available. [2] The citizens of Kremmling, Hot Sulphur Springs, Fraser, Granby, and Grand Lake were delirious with pleasure at the road's arrival; however, the joy was short-lived when the road ran into financial problems.

When the railroad reached Hot Sulphur Springs, Moffat found that more capital was needed. He appealed to his friends in Denver who, while sympathetic, could not help him. He needed some $100 million in fresh capital. Moffat then went to New York where he tried to raise money; this effort was unsuccessful, thanks to the machinations of men like Jay Gould, who saw a threat in the new road. With eastern capital shut off, Moffat tried to get Belgian money involved, but to no avail. The Moffat Road was stopped at Hot Sulphur Springs in 1907, and the long-sought Yampa coal fields were still fifty miles distant. [3] Moffat managed to raise enough money to continue construction through the Gore Canyon, up the Yampa Valley, and on to Oak Creek where the first real revenues for the road were tapped. Coal began to flow east toward Denver and the road seemed financially safer. The line was then extended north to Steamboat Springs, arriving at that city in 1909. The citizens of the region flocked to the outskirts of town, where they swarmed over the first train to use the new tracks. A brass band played patriotic tunes, and the town gave the railroad its station. [4]

Steamboat Springs became the terminus of the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific, for at this point the railroad ran out of money. It had cost $12,544,573.55 to get to Steamboat Springs, and Moffat had exhausted all of his resources. [5] He died in 1913, penniless, and with a railroad that went nowhere. The Yampa coal fields were the only real potential sources of revenue for the road.

In that year Newman Erb, a well-known railroad manager from the east, became General Manager of the re-incorporated Denver and Salt Lake Railroad. Under his leadership the Moffat Road was able to keep rolling. In fact, Erb extended the mainline to Craig, Colorado, arriving at that town in 1913. While it was a valiant effort at extension, the Craig line could not save the road. The only real benefit was that the Yampa Valley was served by rail, and Craig became the new cattle shipping center.

The D & SL was saved by World War I. By August, 1917, the road had gone into receivership, and things were so bad that in January, 1918, the men walked off their jobs, refusing to return until back wages were paid. [6] However, the war and the demand for Yampa coal kept the railroad alive until 1919. Revenues were high, and the wartime United States Railway Administration (a board that "nationalized" United States railways) pumped millions of dollars into the dying Moffat road. [7]

In 1921 the railroad applied for abandonment, but was refused, mostly because of the outcries of the population of northwestern Colorado. The Denver and Salt Lake remained in bankruptcy. There were many reasons for the poor condition of the road: the most important factor was that coal revenues never met expenses. Additionally, many cattlemen soon found that shipping to Denver was dangerous; cattle died along the way from cold and poor service. The most serious problem faced by the Moffat Road was Rollins Pass; at nearly 12,000 feet, this was one of the most difficult rail passes in the world, and during the winter it was virtually impossible to keep open. The Rollins Pass route was the cause of cattle kills (in stock cars), accidents, passengers being stranded for days, and any number of other problems. Middle Parkers were constantly being called out to help dig out stranded trains. It was clear that Rollins Pass had to be eliminated.

The idea of a tunnel was hardly new. However, it was considered too expensive to drill through the Rockies. A tunnel bond issue came up in 1919 and was narrowly defeated by Colorado voters. This seemed to end the demand for a rail tunnel. The Pueblo flood of 1921 stimulated new interest in a tunnel. Flood control was needed and supporters maintained that a diversion tunnel could help in this effort. Further, water from the Colorado River was needed to keep Denver alive; hence, the citizens of Denver were convinced that a combination tunnel would be useful. [8] In 1922 a new bond issue was floated in the sum of $9,000,000 and passed. The Moffat Tunnel was authorized and the western slope "boomed" again.

Construction on the Moffat Tunnel began in 1923, with a camp being built at East Portal, Colorado. From there the Rockies were penetrated. It took four years and over $40,000,000 to drill a six-mile tunnel to carry both water and rail traffic. The Moffat Tunnel provided more direct and certainly more reliable transportation into the northwest corner of the state. [9]

The Denver and Salt Lake Railroad, while having little invested in the Moffat Tunnel, was still in serious trouble. During the 1920's the trackage was leased by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Service into the northwest continued, but not nearly on the scale that had been projected. In 1931 the Denver and Rio Grande got permission to build the Dotsero Cutoff, running from Bond, Colorado to the Rio Grande's mainline at the mouth of Glenwood Canyon. With this short-cut, the Rio Grande had a direct mainline from Denver to Salt Lake City.

railroad opening
The Dotsero Cutoff Was Officially Opened June 16, 1934 and the Denver and Rio Grande and Salt Lake Railroads Were United. Colorado State Historical Society.

The use of the Moffat Road saved 181 miles. The line into Craig became a branch service line and northwestern Colorado languished once again. [10]

One of the most interesting factors in the coming of a railroad to northwestern Colorado was the excitement that occurred. As was typical of Colorado, the promise of opening the corner caused a "boom". From 1906 until the late 1920's, constant efforts were made to promote the region.

Thomas Tonge, a Denver promoter of Colorado, wrote in 1906 that "the Yampa and White Rivers in northwestern Colorado have as yet only been very partially utilized for irrigation purposes, but with the advent of the Moffat Road, now being built from Denver to Salt Lake City, and the settling up of the tributary country, irrigation systems will be constructed." [11] Clearly, Tonge was trying to promote agriculture in the area. He provided statistics that showed the great potential of the corner, while at the same time pointing out that only the railroad would make development possible. [12] The Denver, Northwestern and Pacific hired the eminent geologist, R. D. George, to study the coal fields of the Yampa Valley and Moffat County. George concluded that there were minerals such as coal, clay, copper, carnotite (uranium), asphaltic sands, gold, gypsum, iron, oil and gas throughout the region, and all that was needed was transportation. Naturally, the railroad was delighted to use such information for its promotions. [13] A series of USGS reports were put out between 1915 and 1925 which were used to help promote the region. The USGS made a careful study of the land and concluded that there was great potential, but little transportation. [14]

Another "boom" occurred when the Moffat Tunnel was proposed. The citizens of the Yampa Valley saw the tunnel as the answer to all their problems; with a tunnel, the line to Salt Lake would be completed. With this in mind Steamboat Springs, under the leadership of Charles Leckenby, began a promotional campaign to lure people into the valley. A booklet entitled, "An Imperial Empire: Northwestern Colorado" described the area as having major mining at Oak Creek, an oil gusher at Hamilton, and head lettuce being raised in the Yampa Valley and the Granby areas. The town of Oak Creek was cited as being so progressive that it had a soft drink bottling plant, a cigar factory, and a packing house, in addition to a saw mill and a creamery. It was noted that Kremmling had a new high school, and that Granby was a major agricultural area. [15]

In 1925 the Moffat Tunnel League was founded to promote the area. Not only was the tunnel considered important, but so was the commercial promotion of the Yampa Valley. In 1925 the league put out a "Resource Edition" of the Moffat Tunnel District Development Association's publication. In it the dairy, oil, cattle, sheep, lettuce, and mineral industries were heavily promoted. The next year's "Resource Edition" pushed many of the same things that the 1924 edition had "boomed", even Oak Creek put out a "Centennial Issue" which was a copy of the 1926 "Resource Edition". [16]

Other towns got into the act. As early as 1912, the town of Hayden published a booklet that touted that city as the "center of Northwest Colorado". Agriculture, mining and cattle raising were said to be the major industries, and Hayden could provide all necessary services. The Moffat Road, said Hayden, would provide the needed transportation. [17]

As usual, the intensive promotion of the region did little good, for while agriculture remained stable, the lettuce industry collapsed, and the coal boom gave out - causing a series of towns such as Phippsburg, Oak Creek, and Yampa to lose population. The Upper Yampa Valley fell into a depression during the 1920's.

One of the benefits of the coming of the Moffat Road was that subsidiary industries developed to help supply the construction crews. Towns such as Fraser, Tabernash, Granby, Kremmling, Hot Sulphur Springs, and the Yampa Valley towns became supply centers, and by and large gained their present populations at this time. An example of this trend was seen in the development of a timber industry in Middle Park. A number of companies were formed to provide bridge timbers, ties, and other needs for the railroad. Charles Wolcott, in 1905, founded the Rocky Mountain Lumber Company. It was capitalized at $100,000 and the town of Monarch, Colorado, grew out of the company. Also in 1905 the Rocky Mountain Railway Company was incorporated to carry lumber from Granby to Monarch. [18]

After the railroad went through into the Yampa Valley, the lumber business gave out in Middle Park. In 1908 Rocky Mountain Lumber went out of business after a fire destroyed the mill; the fate of most of the other lumber companies that came with the Moffat Road was as dismal. [19] The supply towns tended to languish, but they never entirely faded away. Land development took place and it seemed as if the region would develop, but this was only a dream.

Map 9. The Moffat Road (click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008