Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Royal Gorge War

In the Old West, the fastest gun usually won the fight and the first to claim a right-of-way usually won the passage.

But not always.

Sometimes things escalated into war. Even a quiet one.

The Royal Gorge War, or Railroad War, was fought along Colorado’s stretch of the Arkansas River 140 years ago following the discovery of silver in Leadville. Two major railroads wanted first dibs on the commerce generated by such a find, and they raced to clear a rail bed and lay track to an elevation of more than 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.

Trouble was, the Rockies are called “rocky” for a reason.

The quickest way to wealth followed the Arkansas River through a solid-granite gorge just west of Cañon City. At its narrowest, the gorge pinched down to 30 feet with sheer rock walls rising nearly a quarter of a mile. There wasn’t room for a footpath at that point, much less two railroads.

In 1878, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway had a terminal at Pueblo, Colorado, 35 miles east of Cañon City, gateway to the gorge, referred to at the time as the Grand Canyon of the Rockies. Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad already had tracks in the Arkansas River Valley that ended much closer to Cañon City, only three-quarters of a mile east.

That spring, with silver in their sights, Santa Fe rushed a crew to the mouth of the gorge and began grading for a track bed. The D&RG frowned upon what they considered usurpation and sent crews to the same site. But it was too late. Santa Fe workers blocked their entrance into the narrowing passage, and the war was on.

Roughly 300 men worked in the gorge for Santa Fe, and the D&RG tried to thwart their progress by building stone forts at the opposite end of the gorge. A Civil War veteran by the name of James R. DeRemer designed dry-laid rock breastwork for fighting battles, and several of these DeRemer Forts cropped up along the river, including one at Texas Creek, complete with gun ports and great views of the track. D&RG sympathizers sabotaged Santa Fe graders by rolling rocks down on them and stealing tools. The guerilla-type warfare lasted nearly two years.

The courts intervened and gave D&RG the right-of-way. However, shareholders feared financial ruin and convinced management to lease the line to Santa Fe. Santa Fe built up business away from Denver, and the mood swung from bad to worse. D&RG sought to break the lease and win an injunction barring Santa Fe from operating the line. “Troops” were mustered.

ALT="Bat Masterson 1879"
U.S. Marshal, Bat Masterson, 1879
Wikipedia Public Domain
Railroad lawyers on both sides argued the case in Colorado courts, and the fracas eventually landed in the Supreme Court who ruled for D&RG. Santa Fe quietly hired a U.S. Marshal, former Kansas sheriff, W.V. “Bat” Masterson. With the help of his pal, J.H. “Doc” Holliday, Masterson gathered about 60 men (some accounts say 150), including gun slingers like Ben Thompson, “Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh and “Mysterious” Dave Mather, and took over the Santa Fe roundhouse in Pueblo.

In June 1879, R.F. Weitbrec, treasurer of the D&RG, met with Chief Engineer J.A. McMurtrie, Sheriff Henly R. Price, and Pat Desmond, a deputy with the Rocky Mountain Detective Association, seeking a way to oust Masterson and his men from the roundhouse.

A cannon at the state armory in Pueblo seemed like a logical weapon to appropriate, but the D&RG boys quickly discovered that Masterson and his bunch already had it at the roundhouse, aimed right at them.

D&RG’s McMurtrie, Price, and Desmond rounded up fifty men and passed out ammunition and rifles. History says they stormed the telegraph office on the Santa Fe station platform, crashed through the doors, and sent Masterson’s men scrambling out the back windows. Then the fifty headed for the roundhouse.

Apparently, McMurtrie and Masterson discussed the situation, and Masterson told his men to stand down.

The battle was over.

Though there was little gunfire at the roundhouse, one of Masterson’s men was allegedly shot in the back and another reportedly lost a front tooth, later replaced with a shiny gold substitute free of charge by Masterson’s compadre, Doc Holliday.

ALT="The iron bridge or hanging bridge of the Royal Gorge, 1879."
The Iron Bridge, also known as the Hanging Bridge,
suspended from the granite walls of the Royal Gorge
in 1879. Gurnsey, B. H. (Byron H.), 1833-1880,
Photographer. Wikimedia Commons

At the narrowest point in the gorge, tracks had to be suspended above the water, and an incredible piece of engineering enabled the construction of the hanging bridge, attached to shear rock walls along the north side of the gorge. Kansas engineer, C. S. Smith, designed a 175-ft. girder held by “A” frames that anchored it to the walls. Cost: just under $12,000 – a lot of money in 1879.

In 1880, both railroads signed the “Treaty of Boston.” The right-of-way went back to D&RG, and they paid Santa Fe $1.8 million for the railroad it had built in the gorge, the grading it had completed, materials, and interest.

The line reached Salida on May 20, 1880 and pushed on to Leadville in July.

A decade later, the access allowed passengers to cross the continent via rail. Over time, alternative routes opened up, and passenger service ceased in 1967.
ALT="Passengers standing along the hanging bridge of the Royal Gorge in 1908."
The Hanging Bridge at the bottom of the Royal Gorge in 1908.
(Photo: Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center)

Today, the area that prompted such struggle, both in and out of court in the 1800s, is called the Royal Gorge. The local Royal Gorge Route Railroad follows the famous route through the gorge on a two-hour round-trip train ride enjoyed by tourists from around the world and area residents alike.

The engineering marvel of the hanging bridge remains intact, and supports trains to this day (
Today's Royal  Gorge Route Railway traversing
the 139-year-old Hanging Bridge.

ALT="Book cover for Straight to My Heart"
Read how ranching families may have been affected by the Royal Gorge War in Straight to My Heart. In this second installment of The Cañon City Chronicles, old enemies might become new friends—and more—until Whit Hutton tries to tell Livvy what a woman can and cannot do on her grandfather's cattle spread.

Davalynn Spencer writes about cowboys, their business, and their brides. For more information, connect with her at


  1. I've ridden the Royal Gorge route and seen the steel girders supporting the track. Glad to know the story!