Royal Gorge Route Railroad

Cañon City, Colorado | C.1878

Photo Credit: Melissa Link

There’s an American feud you likely never heard of…and a railroad that was caught in the middle of it all. In 1878, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad was established to serve miners who had traveled up to the Arkansas River valley of Colorado in search of silver. But its path to completion was mired with conflict, and a two year struggle known as the Royal Gorge War ensued.

When miners descended upon Colorado’s Arkansas River valley in search of silver, the frenzy eventually caught the attention of nearby railroad companies. Though the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) and Santa Fe Railroad had extensive rail lines laid throughout the region, both companies saw the opportunity before them. The miner settlement, known as Leadville, would need transportation.

Two railroads occupying a river valley was not a new concept, however, one geological formation posed a major problem: the Royal Gorge. As the most narrow point in the Arkansas River valley, the Royal Gorge was only wide enough to fit one rail line – so it was a race to get started.

The Sante Fe Railroad company struck first and moved to build a rail line in the mouth of the gorge, but when D&RG caught wind, they sent their crew down to build in the same area, setting in motion a feud that would last years. At first the companies turned to the courts, but after months of deliberating, conflict erupted.

Sixty vigilantes stood in defense of Sante Fe Railroad’s roundhouse building, just as the D&RG planned to seize it with a hundred of their own men, no less. Shots were fired, trains commandeered, and a cannon was stolen, but luckily – depending on your sources – no one was killed. In the end, the rival railroads signed the “Treaty of Boston”, settling all litigation and giving D&RG the railroad rights in exchange for $1.8 million. The railway reached Leadville without further conflict on July 20, 1880.

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