Trains to cars to hikers: Gold Camp Road charts colorful past
by Don Ellis
First it was a railroad. Next it was a toll road. Then it was a public road. In the future it will be ...? |
On July 7 from 4 to 8 p.m., at the Cheyenne Mountain High School, the U.S. Forest Service will hold a meeting at which it will display several alternatives for its future Gold Camp Road Plan and solicit public input which will help to shape the final plan.
Some people feel passionately that the 8.5 miles above High Drive which was closed to automobile traffic in 1988 should remain so. Others feel passionately that the entire road should be reopened to automobile traffic. While the epicenter of this controversy is in Cheyenne Canyon, it is the Westside more than any other part of Colorado Springs which is heir to the history and heritage of the Gold Camp Road.
So, faithful Westsider, let us share that colorful and complicated history:
The Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District Railway
In 1896 Spencer Penrose, Charles Tutt, Charlie MacNiell and various investors formed the Colorado-Philadelphia Reduction Company, which built the Colorado-Philadelphia Mill just south of the Colorado Midland Railroad tracks near Colorado City. They had reasoned that it was less expensive to ship ore from Cripple Creek than it was to ship coal to Cripple Creek to power a mill in the mining district. The recently completed Midland Terminal Railroad between Divide and Cripple Creek connected to the Colorado Midland and made it practical to ship ore to the new mill. And, the mill's chlorination process was the best process available at the time for processing Cripple Creek ore.
So the Colorado-Philadelphia became extremely successful and, with it, the Midland Terminal. In just a few years, at least half of the ore that was mined in Cripple Creek was milled by the Colorado-Philadelphia. The ore was shipped from Cripple Creek on the Midland Terminal Railroad. And, it was transported from the mines to the railhead by A. E. Carlton's Colorado Trading and Transfer Company wagons.
Handling the bulk of the transportation and milling of Cripple Creek ore were Colorado Trading and Transfer, the Midland Terminal, and the Colorado-Philadelphia. These entities increased their charges to whatever they thought the traffic would bear.
This didn't sit well with the mine owners who paid the charges.
Irving Howbert had conceived the Colorado Midland Railroad in 1884 to create a rail link between Colorado City and the mining districts of Leadville and Aspen, but he was no longer associated with the railroad (which had been sold to the Santa Fe). Beginning in 1896, Howbert and various investors began to survey possible routes for a railroad connecting the Cripple Creek district to Colorado Springs around the south flank of Pikes Peak.
In 1899, just weeks after the Low Line electric railway was completed, the Cripple Creek District Railway Company - which operated the Low Line and High Line routes between Cripple Creek and Victor - was purchased by a syndicate of mine owners and investors organized by Howbert.
The name of the Cripple Creek District Railway was changed to the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District Railway, and Howbert announced that the syndicate would build a new railroad from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek, connecting it to the High Line and Low Line tracks. On January 4, 1900, Jimmie Burns, who owned the Portland Mine, turned the first shovelful of dirt for the new railway, which was promoted as the Short Line to Cripple Creek.
While the Florence & Cripple Creek and Midland Terminal railroads to Cripple Creek had been built with meager budgets, the $3.5 million Short Line was a class act, one of the finest mountain railroads on earth, with 200 freight cars, modern locomotives and elegant club cars. Regular service on the Short Line began in April 1901, just 15 months after construction had begun,
Besides its railroad, the syndicate also built a new mill, the Portland, near Colorado City at what is now the site of the Penrose Equestrian Center. And, by the middle of 1902, spurs from the Short Line served other mills near Colorado City as well.
The Short Line was a very scenic route, far more so than the Midland Terminal, and it became a popular excursion. In August of 1901, then Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt rode the Short Line and proclaimed it, “the one day trip that bankrupts the English language.”
The Midland Terminal and the Colorado Trading and Transfer Company fought the new competitor with reduced freight rates, exclusive transfer agreements and reduced passenger fares. This competitive situation made the Short Line highly unprofitable.
In 1905, the Colorado & Southern Railroad purchased the financially troubled Short Line, but retained Howbert as director. To reduce competition, the Colorado & Southern then entered into a joint management and operations agreement with the Cripple Creek Central Railroad. The Cripple Creek Central Railroad was Henry Blackmer's holding company, which by that time controlled both the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad and the Midland Terminal. Thus, the Cripple Creek Central Railroad company came to effectively control all of the railroads serving the Cripple Creek district, leaving it free to increases fares and freight charges at will. Following the joint management and operations agreement, the Short Line carried almost all freight traffic in and out of the Cripple Creek District.
But that changed in 1917, when the Cripple Creek Central Railroad purchased the bankrupt Colorado Midland. Because the Cripple Creek Central Railroad then had both the Midland Terminal from Cripple Creek to Divide and the Colorado Midland from Divide to Colorado City, it diverted all freight traffic from the Short Line to the Midland Terminal.
With the loss of freight traffic, the Short Line went into receivership in 1919, and in 1922 the railroad was sold at auction at the El Paso County Courthouse. Spencer Penrose believed that the scenic Short Line could benefit his Broadmoor Hotel and was prepared to bid $200,000. The only other bidder was W.D. Corley, who operated the Corley Coal Company in Colorado Springs. When W.D. Corley raised the bid to $370,000, Spencer Penrose dropped out, perhaps believing that Corley couldn't make good on his bid.
However, Corley had previously earned a fortune in Mississippi cotton, and he became the owner of the Short Line on Nov. 20, 1922.
Corley immediately announced his plan to convert the rail bed into a highway.
However, another Corley proposal, to build a road from this highway to Pikes Peak using the old Seven Steps road, was fought by Penrose, who did not relish the idea of competition with the toll road he'd built. He was also upset that he'd need to use Corley's road to get to his mountain retreat at Camp Vigil and to the Rosemont Reservoir, which supplied water to the Broadmoor. Penrose's vigorous opposition was successful: Corley's application for a right of way for the new Pikes Peak road was denied. In 1923, Corley had the Short Line tracks torn up and widened the roadbed where it was practical to do so. Then, in 1924 he obtained a special use permit to operate a toll road over the railroad grade through the national forest, and the lower section of the Corley Mountain Highway was opened that year. Conversion of the remaining railroad bed to a road was completed in 1926, and travelers were able to drive the entire Short Line Route. Corley reportedly took in as much as $400 per day during the summer tourist season, at $1 per car.
In The Book of Colorado Springs, published in 1933, Manly and Elinor Ormes stated that the Corley Mountain Highway was “maintained splendidly.” However, it was probably not so well maintained in its final years.
Corley's special use permit for the toll road across Forest Service land expired in May 1939. On May 6 of that year, the Corley Mountain Highway became a free public road.
Interestingly, Penrose's Pikes Peak toll road had become a free public road three years earlier when its federal permit also expired.
When the Corley road became a public road in 1939, El Paso County considered the part in El Paso County to be a county road. The county commissioners inspected the road, found that a great deal of repair was needed, and made initial plans to repair the road and redeck two of the bridges. In the longer term, they planned to abandon the bridges and build new road around where the bridges had been. The Commissioners also considered seeking aid from other sources to repair the road. The first significant maintenance occurred the following year, when El Paso County and the City of Colorado Springs each appropriated $1,500 to be used by crews for road repair.
Despite the poor condition of the road in 1939, it was used by thousands of motorists.
In April 1940, the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, along with the town officials of Cripple Creek and Victor, acted to have the name of the road changed to “Goldcamp Road,” stating that the change would, “prove highly beneficial ... as it calls attention to the most famous gold field of Colorado and the entire United States.” At that time, there seemed to be a good possibility that Goldcamp Road (nowadays spelled “Gold Camp Road”) could become a secondary state highway.
Instead, Gold Camp Road came to be maintained jointly by El Paso and Teller Counties and the U.S. Forest Service. One by one, the 31 timber railroad bridges were removed and new stretches of road were built around the canyons which the bridges had spanned.
Although the Corley road had in effect become a public road in 1939, it was not entirely publicly owned for another nine years. Those parts of the right of way which were not on public land continued to be owned by W.D. Corley and his heirs until they were deeded to the United States of America by W.D. Corley Jr., Lucy Corley and the Corley Mountain Highway Company in December 1948.
Commercial tour vehicles along with private cars used the road. When World War II brought gas rationing, the commercial tours temporarily converted from motor coaches to horse-drawn wagons.
From time to time, the road had other commercial uses, serving small mining and logging operations. I remember our family taking in an emaciated, swaybacked horse that had wandered down the road. About a week later, the horse's owner came by looking for the horse which had wandered from his logging camp up the road.
In 1957, the Forest Service said that it was not a road-maintaining agency and suggested that Gold Camp Road might again be made into a toll road. The Teller County Commis-sioners expressed a strong interest in taking over the Goldcamp Road as a toll road. However, the idea was short-lived.
Up to 1988, Gold Camp Road continued to be a favorite trip for local residents and visitors. For example, the Gazette- Telegraph of May 19, 1963, stated, “Many local residents like to take the Gold Camp Road from the Springs to Cripple Creek... A trip along this route... is one the visitor will always remember for its breath-taking thrills.”
In 1988 came the event that has changed the road's destiny to this day. Timbers in Tunnel Number 3 partially collapsed, and the Forest Service closed 8.5 miles of Gold Camp Road to Old Stage Road. The road remained open (as it is today) from Colorado Springs to its intersection with High Drive and from Victor to Old Stage Road.
At first, the blockage appeared to be temporary. The Forest Service undertook an Environmental Assessment (EA) to restore the tunnel to its historic character, and in the early 1990s funding for the work “appeared to be secured,” according to a Forest Service document. However, the money (estimated at $300,000) never was authorized, and recreational use of the closed section by hikers, bikers and motorcyclists became more and more prevalent.
Also in the '90s, a private company proposed reopening the route as a passenger rail line to Cripple Creek. In the mid-1990s, a public meeting presented the proposal. About 300 people attended the meeting. All were opposed to the proposed rail line, and the plan never materialized. Two groups which opposed the plan set up tables in the foyer to provide information and gather support. They were the Friends of Gold Camp Road, which sought reopening of the road, and the Champions of Gold Camp Trail which sought to keep the road closed.
In 1999, the group Short Line to Cripple Creek (named after the original railway) was incorporated, with the goal of restoring the tunnel. The group initiated the request, which resulted in the entire Gold Camp Road being listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The group also obtained commitments to help fund the restoration of Tunnel Number 3. Short Line remains active today, seeking the road's reopening.
Despite the lack of construction funding through the '90s, the Forest Service still had its 1990 EA calling for repair of the tunnel and reopening of the road. However, in 2000 a lawsuit was filed by Champions of Gold Camp Trail, Cheyenne Commons, Colorado Wild and others, claiming that the 1990 EA was obsolete. Rather than respond to the suit, the Forest Service chose to initiate a new process - this time to develop an Environmental Impact Statement to determine what actions are in the best public interest regarding Tunnel 3 and the road section.
That process is ongoing and is discussed in the adjoining article.
Don Ellis was born in Colorado Springs, and his family has lived on the Gold Camp Road since he was 4 years old. He attended Midland Elementary, West Junior and Colorado Springs (Palmer) High School before earning a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Colorado. Since 1987, Don has worked as an “inventor for hire” in his own business, Spiderwort Design. After returning to Colorado Springs in 1998, Don became active in the effort to preserve Red Rock Canyon Open Space, including editing its “Red Rock Rag” newsletter. Don is an avid hiker and climber and has made more than 200 ascents of 14,000-foot peaks.