When passengers rode along the Front Range

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, September 18, 2020

CB&Q's Pioneer Zephyr pauses at Boulder, Colo., during its October 1949–April 1950 spell on Colorado & Southern trains 31-32 between Denver and Cheyenne. Leslie O. Merrill
Trains News Wire item caught my eye not long ago: “Front Range rail line could carry 3 million annually,” said the headline.

In a report to the Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, the Colorado Department of Transportation estimated such a corridor — with trains running the 179 miles between Pueblo and Fort Collins, with Denver in the middle — would see upwards of 9,200 riders every weekday.

It’s an exciting proposition. But it’s not going to happen anytime soon. A subsequent story in the Denver Post, headlined “Front Range Railway Not Close,” was a dose of reality. With estimates running between $5 billion and $15 billion, it’s hard to see how Coloradans will muster the necessary political will, no matter how congested traffic is along Interstate 25. 

A Pacific ambles past the bungalows lining Mason Street in Fort Collins with C&S's Cheyenne–Denver train 32 in 1947. Union Carbide & Carbon Corp.
Still, it’s fun to speculate just how useful Front Range passenger service could be. And that got me to thinking, how good was Pueblo–Fort Collins passenger service in the decades before Amtrak? Specifically, the postwar era? 

One thing it wasn’t was a corridor. Oh, passenger trains ran up and down the face of the Rockies, but most weren’t regional in nature, being either feeder services to more important trains or incidental portions of longer cross-country overnight schedules. There were plenty of players: Union Pacific, Burlington Route's Colorado & Southern subsidiary (C&S), plus Denver & Rio Grande Western and Santa Fe sharing the two directional-running tracks of the Joint Line between Pueblo and Denver. But any resemblance to a corridor-type operation was an accident. If the trains weren’t convenient, you were obligated to suck it up and drive the mostly two-lane U.S. 85/87. 

Not that there weren’t interesting trains on the Front Range. My curiosity about this subject prompted me to head out to the Classic Trains library and see what I could find in the way of photographs, with my June 1954 Official Guide serving as my usual reference.

There wasn’t much. Railroad photographers who a) shot passenger trains in central Colorado, and b) bothered to send them to Trains magazine generally skipped the north-south action, concentrating, it seems, almost exclusively on what the Burlington was running into Denver from Chicago. Thus, there are oodles of photos of the Denver Zephyr, the Exposition Flyer, and its successor the California Zephyr.

Union Pacific 4-6-2 208 hustles out of Denver with local train 57 for Greeley on July 4, 1952. R. H. Kindig
Still, I did find one shot in the Burlington file, taken improbably by a photographer named Leslie O. Merrill of Delgany County, Ireland. It shows CB&Q 9900, the famous Pioneer Zephyr, taken in Boulder during the streamliner’s brief (October 1949–April 1950) tenure on Colorado & Southern’s Denver–Cheyenne local trains 31 and 32. 

By 1954, C&S’s only service appeared to be the overnight Denver–Billings (Mont.) service via Fort Collins and Casper and Cody, Wyo., an extension of the Omaha–Denver Coloradoan. For a Fort Collins passenger, the schedule wasn’t terribly convenient, with a 9:20 p.m. departure at Denver and a 12:20 a.m. arrival. Southbound the train departed Fort Collins at 5:24 a.m. and arrived in Denver at 7:30 a.m. The train was equipped with a sleeping car and a diner, but neither was likely of any use to a local passenger. Alas, I couldn’t find a single photo of this train.

UP train 9, the City of St. Louis, departs Denver en route to Los Angeles in February 1953. It ran on the Wabash east of Kansas City. Wallace W. Abbey
Speaking of Fort Collins, I did have some luck finding another picture. Taken by a Union Carbide & Carbon Corp. photographer in 1947, it depicts a squat C&S 4-6-2, a 1910 Baldwin, creeping down the city’s Mason Street with a short passenger train, presumably Denver-bound train 32, after installation of a half-mile of “pressure-welded rail.” Much to the chagrin of locals, long BNSF freights still trundle down Mason Street today. 

The Burlington Route did offer a rather robust service over the 118 miles of C&S south of Denver to Pueblo. My ’54 Guide lists four each day, running afternoons and evenings southbound and mornings and afternoons northbound, making the trip in about 2½ hours, or a 47-mph average. They included the two daily Dallas/Fort Worth–Denver overnight Texas Zephyrs. The timetable includes a notation for Colorado Springs unique to the Joint Line: “Southbound trains arrive at D&RGW station, northbound trains at C&S-AT&SF station.”

The other railroad with a major presence running north from Denver via La Salle and Greeley to the east of the C&S’s line was, of course, Union Pacific. Three name trains, the Portland RosePony Express, and City of St. Louis, plied the route from Denver north to the UP main line across southern Wyoming. Two others, the streamliner City of Denver and the National Parks Special, left the main line at Julesburg, Colo., to angle down to La Salle before heading south to the Mile High City. UP also ran a Denver­–Greeley local, Nos. 52 and 57, which covered the route’s 52 miles in 1 hour 19 minutes. Here we see 57 hustling out of Denver behind 4-6-2 No. 2908 in a mid-1952 action portrait by R. H. Kindig.

Missouri Pacific's Colorado Eagle, a Rio Grande train between Pueblo and Denver, poses for a photo north of Colorado Springs with Pike's Peak in the background. Marre-Mott collection
Colorado’s “state railroad,” as it were, was the Denver & Rio Grande Western, which, by 1954, was still running a pair of trains along the Front Range south to Pueblo and beyond. One was the Colorado Eagle, Nos. 3 and 4, a D&RGW-operated portion of Missouri Pacific’s St. Louis–Kansas City–Denver overnight limited, which gave riders out of Pueblo a morning train into Denver and an evening train back. 

The other was a more significant D&RGW icon, the Royal Gorge, which westbound served Pueblo, negotiated its namesake chasm, then continued to head west for such storied destinations as Salida, Tennessee Pass, Grand Junction, and, ultimately, Salt Lake City, 745 miles from Denver. For passengers along the Joint Line, trains 1 and 2 ran mornings out of Denver and mid-afternoons back. 

For me, the most interesting train along the Front Range belonged to the Santa Fe: trains 101 and 102, called the Centennial State, which primarily served to connect with the Chicago–Los Angeles Grand Canyon at La Junta. It featured a rather brief consist typically including two or three mail cars, a coach, a sleeper, and a café-observation.

Just south of Littleton, Santa Fe's Centennial State charges toward Denver in late 1946. Ralph E. Hallock
Maybe the Centennial State had a modest portfolio, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t noteworthy. Check out the accompanying action photo by Ralph E. Hallock, showing train 101 charging through the snow at 60 mph, just south of Littleton in November 1946. On the head end is 4-8-4 No. 3762, part of Santa Fe’s original class of 14 Northerns built by Baldwin 1927–29 and considerably improved between 1939 and 1941 with 80-inch disc drivers (up from 73 inches), new frames, and other improvements. I can’t imagine any Santa Fe train,Chief or otherwise, looking any more magnificent.

Santa Fe's Denver–La Junta train 191 stops at Colorado Springs in August 1968. The train, the last varnish south of Denver, expired with Amtrak's arrival. Steve Patterson

Santa Fe also had the distinction of being the last railroad to run a regular passenger train on the Joint Line before Amtrak’s advent on May 1, 1971. Here, photographer and longtime Santa Fe railroader Steve Patterson caught up with train 191 and its rebuilt E8 running on the traditional “southbound” side of the Joint Line, pausing at the D&RGW depot in Colorado Springs on August 9, 1968. It wouldn’t last another three years. 

In recent decades, the railroads tracing the edge of the Front Range — especially the Joint Line — have been known for heavy-duty freight, thanks to Powder River coal. But once upon a time they hosted passenger trains with distinct personalities, something to remember if Coloradans ever get around to building their corridor. 

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