The rise and fall of the railroad in Breckenridge
IF YOU GO
What: Author meet and book signing for “Summit County’s Narrow-Gauge Railroads”
When: Friday, Nov. 18; 3–6 p.m.
Where: Frisco Historic Park & Museum; 120 Main St., Frisco
Over a century ago, the now ghost town of Como was a central staging area for railroads as the industry came into play during the second mining boom. The rise of the railroad changed the living conditions for high-mountain residents, and became intimately tied with the mining economy.
A new book by Fairplay resident Bob Schoppe and part-time Summit resident Sandra Mather tells the story of the two railroads that fought for dominance in the mountains of Colorado during this time period. “Summit County’s Narrow-Gauge Railroads” was released on Nov. 7, a collaboration of the two authors to tell the history of the Denver, South Park & Pacific and the Denver & Rio Grande, two railroads that ran through the county in the late 1800s and early 1900s. On Friday, Nov. 18, from 3–6 p.m., the Frisco Historic Park & Museum will present a meet the author and book launch party. The event will kick off with a 30-minute lecture and presentation in the Log Chapel, which will provide a snapshot of the book. This will be followed by a reception, book signing and a chance to meet the authors in the Frisco Schoolhouse Museum, where light refreshments will be served.
Filled with images from local collections and archives, the book focuses on the history of how the railroad propelled the mining industry, and the challenges it faced traveling through the rugged high-altitude terrain.
“Things were moving in slow motion as far as freight wagons and stage coaches, and although they were probably pretty fast for the day, the railroad ushered in a whole new era of efficient and quick transportation,” Schoppe said.
MINING AND RAILROADS GO HAND-IN-HAND
Two narrow-gauge railroads served Summit County, providing miners and residents with an immensely more efficient way to bring goods in and out of the high-mountain towns. According to the book, the president of the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG), William Jackson Palmer, felt that a “population engaged in mining is by far the most profitable of any for a railroad,” and because of this, the Leadville & Ten Mile Narrow Gauge Railroad was built in 1880, running from Leadville through the Tenmile Canyon. It served Robinson and Kokomo, and by 1881, it was in Wheeler. It halted in Dillon in 1882 due to a lack of funds.
The other railroad competing for Summit County business, the Denver, South Park & Pacific, became part of the Union Pacific rail system in 1880. The company began laying track in Como in 1881, moving over Boreas Pass, into Breckenridge, and eventually into Dillon and continuing through the Tenmile Canyon until arriving in Leadville in 1884. The two lines were competitors for several years until 1911, when the D&RG stopped operating their trains on the line from Leadville to Dillon.
“If one guy found a gold nugget some place, the next thing you know, there’s a boom town popping up, and everybody wanted the railroad to come,” Schoppe said. “And part of the railroads gambling, or research, had to try to figure out what’s a flashing of hand versus what’s going to be a sustained development like Breckenridge or Leadville or Cripple Creek. So many promising mining towns are just a footnote in history today.”
Most of the development was based on low-grade ore, Schoppe said.
“Before the railroads came, they could freight wagon out high-grade ore and still make money, but the low-grade ore just wasn’t economical,” he said. “The railroad changed all that.”
Mountain communities depended on the railroad to bring in goods the people needed to survive, on top of mining equipment. The railroad also brought about the beginnings of tourism, Mather said.
It wasn’t easy for the railroads to get through the mountains, however. Construction was difficult, and it was challenging to keep the railroad operational through the winter months in harsh climates.
Intimately tied to the mining economy, when that industry went south, so did the railroad.
“Mining succeeded because of the railroad, and when the railroad pulled out, mining died, and when mining died, the railroads pulled out,” Mather said.
Sandra F. Mather, Ph.D., is a professor emerita in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at West Chester University in Pennsylvania where she taught geology and meteorology before retiring in May 1999. She has written numerous books about geologic, geographic and historic landscapes in Summit County, such as “Behind Swinging Doors, the Saloons of Breckenridge and Summit County, Colorado—1859 to 1900,” “Frisco and the Ten Mile Canyon” and “They weren’t all Prostitutes and Gamblers,” among others. Mather spends summers in Summit County, and is president of the Summit Historical Society.
Schoppe is president of the Denver South Park & Pacific Historical Society. This is Schoppe’s second book on Colorado railroad history, and he regularly writes articles for the historical society. His love for trains started as a young boy, before he can even remember, he said, “most little boys grow out of it, some never do and I was one that never did.”
“I own every Colorado railroad book that I’m aware of that exists,” he said.
The authors both hope the new book helps keep the history of Summit County alive for future generations.
“I believe in the old adage, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” Schoppe said. “I think it’s really important that kids, growing up, learn the history of the land they are growing up on.”
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