The town of Leadville boomed nearly over night when Rocky Mountain gold prospectors found silver in the late 1870s. One way to reach the riches was up the Arkansas River canyon. Two railway lines—the Denver and Rio Grande (DR&G) and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe—each determined to lay track along the river bed. Trouble was, the Arkansas cut through a sheer rock canyon that climbed to more than 1,000 feet above the water and narrowed in places to only 30 feet across. One train might squeeze through the granite bottleneck, but not two.
By 1878, DR&G lines ran nearly into Cañon City, Colorado, a little mine-supply town that lay a hundred miles southeast of Leadville at the mouth of the great canyon gorge. But the Santa Fe boys beat the DR&G crews up the hill and started grading a rail bed west of town into the canyon. DR&G couldn’t get past court injunctions, so they built a few small stone-walled forts along the river’s mountain path and sabotaged Santa Fe crews by rolling down boulders, tossing tools in the river, and impeding progress any way they knew how. Eventually, both sides hired armed guards.
While road crews fought it out in the canyon, owners battled in the courts, and the DR&G won the right to build through the gorge. Not to be outdone, Santa Fe threatened to build parallel tracks in the spirit of competition. Fearing financial ruin, DR&G management offered to lease their tracks to Santa Fe for thirty years, and a brief truce ensued.
But Santa Fe finagled freight away from Denver up north, and continued to lay its own track through the gorge. DR&G sent crews to the west end of the gorge where they began work on their tracks.
As earnings dwindled, DR&G went back to court in 1879 to break the lease and stopped Santa Fe from operating on the D&RG lines. By this time, the roughs and railroad men’d had enough, and guns and rifles replaced picks and shovels.
Santa Fe hired W.B. “Bat” Masterson who was sheriff in Ford County Kansas at the time. Historians still argue over who got Masterson his U.S. Marshall’s appointment, but he brought in his friend J.H. “Doc” Holliday to hire recruits.
Sixty or so men, peppered through with several gun slingers, took up positions at the Santa Fe roundhouse in Pueblo, thirty-five miles east of Cañon City.
Determined to drive out Masterson and his boys, engineers and lawmen on the DR&G side rode to Pueblo to commandeer the cannon from the state armory. But the cannon wasn’t at the armory. It was already at the roundhouse, pointed outward by Masterson, Holliday, and heir hired guns.
History says a DR&G man met with Masterson, convinced him to surrender, and everyone went home. Some argue that Masterson left with a wad of bills, but others believe a court-ordered DR&G right-of-way through the gorge sealed the deal. Lore says one man was accidentally shot.
|Royal Gorge train
DR&G paid Santa Fe a handy sum of nearly $2 million for its work on the route and the rails reached Leadville in the summer of 1880.
But not without some help through the narrows.
In 1879, C. Shallor Smith engineered a 175-foot steel bridge that hung from one side of the canyon by girders spanning the river. It is still in service today, known as the hanging bridge.
(Read about life during the Railroad War in Branding the Wrangler’s Heart, release date May 2014 from Heartsong Presents.)
When the handsome, dark-eyed cowboy sauntered into Davalynn Spencer’s life, the gate to adventure swung wide. So began her journey writing for national rodeo markets and winning awards in the process. Her passion for words has also taken her from the city crime beat of a mid-size daily newspaper to publication with David C. Cook, Standard, Chicken Soup for the Soul and others.