2006-05-19

Final Demise of Rio Grande's Aspen Branch

Aspen is a home for the jetsetting Hollywood elite who like to ski or merely pretend they ski. They have created their paradise where everything is peaceful and serene. They would never tolerate anything like a railroad running through their town.

You'd never know it, but Aspen once wanted a railroad. They actually got two. In 1887, the Denver and Rio Grande and the Colorado Midland were in a race to reach the town and its wealth of mining ore. The Rio Grande built in from it's Tennessee Pass line through Glenwood Springs. The Midland pierced the divide west of Leadville beneath Hagerman Pass and came into the valley at Basalt and paralleled the Rio Grande's line south into town.

Today, the echoes of steam whistles have long faded from the Roaring Fork Valley. The Midland was the first to pull out in 1919 when it abandoned nearly 200 miles of track between Divide, Colorado and New Castle, west of Glenwood Springs on the Colorado River. This was an all-out abandonment of the entire line, preserving only the track between Colorado City (near Colorado Springs) and the Cripple Creek mining district as the Midland Terminal Railway.

The rumble of diesels has likewise vanished. The Rio Grande continued to service the line but as the 80s and 90s wore on, little if any traffic originated on the line. The last action the line saw was a speeder excursion in 2002 by the Western Colorado Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, covered by ND Holmes of DRGW.net. For years before and after the speeder trip, Aspen's Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has been working on using up the railroad right-of-way one way or another, including proposing light rail and even an old fashioned trolley. Property owners have taken histrionics to new heights fighting off one proposal after another. Finally, it appears they have a solution: the dreaded Rails-to-Trails. Why have a light rail line to alleviate traffic on Highway 82 when you can walk, right?

According to the Vail Daily News,
A railroad salvage company, Tie Yard of Omaha, will pull up the tracks and ties beginning at the end of this month. The Authority will receive $1.6 million for track and tie salvage between the Orrison Distributing warehouse south of Glenwood Springs and Woody Creek
This scrapping of the last remnants of the Rio Grande Aspen Branch will remove the last tracks in Pitkin County, which once boasted not only the Rio Grande and the Colorado Midland, but the fabled Crystal River & San Juan Railway. The CR&SJ had the unique distinction of hauling marble for several national monuments including the Lincoln Memorial from the quarries above Carbondale.

A piece of Colorado railroading fades into memory at the end of this month. It's just not Aspen's style.