Two Miles in the Air on a Train, Published 8 March 1937You are riding with me up into the Rockies on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway, the train is already a mile above sea level, and the second mile above the briny is a few hours down the track. We won't get that high nor that far today because where that happens we aren't even going to be on these tracks, let alone this train. So as we ride along in the sunny warmth I say sun with emphasis, for there'll be precious little warm sun after we leave Colorado, and certainly none in California let me, I repeat, sketch a little of what we are about to do.
You have just come through the Royal Gorge, and I should add that armed men fought for that pass. There was warfare, bloodshed and death, as to who would have those ten yards of gulch, and while the Santa Fe got into Canon City and seemed they tell me, to be well away to a stranglehold on this defile, the Rio Grande slipped one over when they worked all one night and built the railway up through into the Gorge. By the time the Santa Fe men had rubbed the sleep out of their eyes in the morning, there were the derisive toots of the locomotive up the canyon to tell the world the Rio Grande had the tracks and the gorge. The Santa Fe never built beyond Canon City, about seven miles east of the Gorge.
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This same enterprising Rio Grande pushed west, with its all-narrow gauge track, to Salida. and then on southwest over Marshall Pass, crossing over the Continental Divide of the Rockies there at 10,868 feet. This is the highest continental rail crossing in North America. The highest standard gauge crossing also belongs to the Rio Grande, where two long strings of Pullmans pass in each direction every day in the year at a height of 10,242 feet atop Tennessee Pass. When it comes to motive power, the Rio Grande is second to none, for if those big 16-drive-wheel engines can't shove the limiteds over the top, nothing can.
But the little narrow gauge (three feet between rails) I was to ride starts southwest from Salida, goes over the Marshall Pass to Gunnison, then on to Montrose, where the standard gauge brings the train out to Grand Junction, at which point the narrow gauge meets the standard gauge again. At one time the Rio Grande lugged its narrow gauge sleepers up over the Marshall Pass at 10,868 feet, but it now toils over the Tennessee Pass at 10.242 feet, still almost two miles high.
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Just to give you a comparative figure or two. the Santa Fe crosses the divide at Raton Tunnel (first word pronounced Ratoon) at 7,622 feet, while the Union Pacific hits the top at Sherman, 8,013 feet above ocean. The highest spot on the Rock Island-S.P. Golden State Route is Corunna, New Mexico, at 6,666 feet. The Milwaukee Road goes through Pipestone Tunnel Pass at 6,247 feet. The Great Northern's Marias Pass is 5,213 feet up, and the Northern Pacific is something better than a mile high at the summit. The Canadian roads crawl over the divide at much lower altitudes, mainly because the average elevation of Canada as one approaches the Rockies is somewhat lower. The Canadian Pacific's highest station as shown in the folder is Stephen, B.C., at 5,326 feet, but the line does reach up into the sky just a little further before falling dizzily through two spiral tunnels to land at Field, 14 miles and 1.300 feet below. Of all continental lines, the Canadian National has the easiest grades and the fewest troubles. The C.N.R. actually penetrates the Rockies via Ycllowhead Pass at Yellowhead, B.C.. at a mere 3,717 feet. Naturally, their locomotive problem is a joke compared to what the Canadian Pacific and other lines face, but that is another story. Back you go then with me to Colorado.
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Now I have given you the panorama, as it were, of tomorrow's climb over Marshall Pass, but I haven't got you there yet, for you have some people to meet and a ghost town to meet ere that.
When I jumped out into the warm, tingly air of Salida, Colorado, 7,050 feet above sea level, I was immediately met by two men. One was V. H. Mclnnis. the Rio's trainmaster at Salida, and the other was Mr. Pierce, the local ticket agent. Mr. Pierce conveyed the regrets of Passenger Manager Scofield at having missed me at Denver, and handed me a ticket for the observation car over the hump on the morrow.. Mr. Mclnnis picked up Mr. Allen, and invited us to see the sights. First of all, he took us up Tenderfoot Mountain. This eminence, about 1,200 feet above Salida, and therefore 8,200 feet above sea level, he scaled by driving round and round the mountain, till we spiralled our way to the top. We took the last corkscrew turns very carefully. On top we were rewarded with a great view, notably to the southwest, where the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Range roamed over southern Colorado and down into New Mexico. Salida of course lay below us, in bird's-eye view, and I could not help thinkng that the town or somebody showed a lot of enterprise, that this not-easy-to-build road could have been erected in a relatively sparsely populated country, and beside a town the population of Eastview.
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It was after viewing Salida from above and below that we headed up into the mountains. There was still no snow, and everybody down the line had confidently predicted there would be plenty of it. What struck me most was the warm, benign sun. When I got talking about sun, that brought a lot of interesting facts I never knew till that moment.
Mr. Mclnnis told me, for instance, of a railway crew that got sunburned at night! All right then, don't believe me. What happens is that these railroaders, who run only at night, go through this warm air. which has something or other in it, and the wind burns their faces to a crisp. The result is that the nocturnal Rio Grande brakemen, engineers, et al. on the night freights end up a dark summer season with the best sun tan money can buy! This same sun makes Indians of pale-pigmented Swedes and does it in winter. Mr. Mclnnis told of two Swedes who sawed ties down around Alamosa, Colorado, away up in the snow some place. Now bear in mind this sun is the same latitudnally as that which beams down hotly on mid-California. Northern Arkansas and Southern Virginia. But there's snow on the ground just the same. Therefore you have a semi-tropical orb blazing on a Canadian winter snow scene. These Swedes, anyway, to round out my story, turned up in the spring, red as Indians, and their pale fair hair and blue eyes forming ludicrous contrast to the Navajo-like epidermis.
It was such interesting talk as this which held me, as we started to climb up into a mountain pass. I heard tales of Leadville, at one time the only two-mile high city in North America. I asked Mr. Mclnnis if it was true, as I heard, that when the kiddies went to school in the morning, the clouds were often away below them, and Mr. Mclnnis said that as far as he knew, it was true enough. Then we got into the topic of grades and tunnels, and I think I can cite an item or two I sniped from that conversation to pass along to you. But that comes in the next Lesson. I shall take you to a ghost town, tell you about an engineer's prayer in a tunnel, and as a special note to railroaders, make some mention of a seven per cent-correct, I mean seven per cent-grade in Colorado.