The long autumn of Tennessee Pass

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, August 16, 2012

Does Minturn, Colo., mean anything to you? To some it raises goosebumps. Others of us get teary thinking of what used to be. Minturn (pronounced “Min’urn”) was until 1997 a gritty railroad town situated between ritzy Vail and Beaver Creek, skiing destinations of those who own private aircraft. To call Minturn hardscrabble — a thorn between two roses — is appropriate even today, although it, too, is becoming a bit gentrified. It was in Minturn that eastbound freights of Denver & Rio Grande Western (and later Southern Pacific) paused for fresh crews and sets of helper locomotives before tackling the grade whose summit separates the headwaters of the Arkansas and Eagle rivers and is known as Tennessee Pass. Those 20 miles of mostly 3 percent grade, from Minturn to Tennessee Pass tunnel, were as brutal a stretch of heavy-duty, high-density railroad as you will find anywhere.

I visited Minturn on April 1, 1996, with friends Steve Patterson and Joe McMillan. Unofficial railroad headquarters was the Turntable Restaurant, next door to the motel that served as crew lodging and yard office. The SP supervisors hung out at the cafe, as did the crews waiting for their calls back home. The atmosphere then was sad, tense. Just five weeks earlier a student engineer lost control of a westbound freight descending the pass, resulting in a pileup that killed him and the regular engineer and seriously injured the conductor. At the time we were there, road foremen of engines were required to ride every train coming down Tennessee Pass.

Going down was the dangerous direction, of course. Just 15 months earlier a train of taconite had also gotten out of control, careening down the grade at 60 mph before spilling 51 of the 54 cars on a 10-degree curve. That time, no one died.

Naturally, I focused on going up the grade: less dangerous, more exiting. We watched eastbound coal trains. They’d leave Grand Junction, Colo., with three of the new SP AC-44CW locomotives on the head end. At Glenwood Springs, Colo., a helper crew with two more AC-44CW’s would attach to the rear for the climb alongside the Colorado and Eagle rivers to Minturn, 60 or so miles east. That’s one of Steve Patterson’s photos of an eastbound coal train entering Minturn and passing its mid-train helpers, the day we were there.

Yes, at Minturn a third crew sliced a second, three-unit set of those AC-44CW helpers about midway in the train. All of this and the subsequent brake tests were accompanied by a cacophony of radio chatter. Then the three enginemen would whistle off and in unison excite their horses. Not for another two hours would they reach the summit.

This was the traditional, preferred route for Rio Grande freight. East of Pueblo, Colo., the favored connection was Missouri Pacific, to Kansas City and points east. When MoPac was bought by Union Pacific in 1923, Rio Grande got from the Interstate Commerce Commission trackage rights from Pueblo to Kansas City, protecting its ability to compete with UP by reaching friendly connections.

It all ended when Union Pacific bought Southern Pacific a few months after my visit. In July 1997, the railroad hosted a Denver-Pueblo-Salt Lake City excursion for fans over Tennessee Pass, fronted by 4-8-4 locomotive 844. The next month, all through traffic was diverted from the Minturn route and soon Tennessee Pass was mothballed, as it remains to this day, neither used nor abandoned.

The decision made sense to me then, and still does. Its steep grade make this a high-cost route. The traffic that flowed over Tennessee Pass could be absorbed on UP’s Overland Route line via Cheyenne, Wyo., and North Platte, Neb., or in the case of Western Colorado coal, sent through Denver on the Moffat Tunnel Subdivision and to points east on UP’s old Kansas City-Denver line, heavily rebuilt for this purpose.

So now 15 years have gone by. Today I visited the yard at Minturn; see the bottom four photos. At the west end, the paint is almost gone from the station sign on the signal box. The home signal for the lead track is hollowed out, the bulb, reflector, and backing long gone. There is probably not an ounce of copper left for 50 miles in either direction, thieves long since having ripped it out. The few yard tracks are a breeding ground for thistles.

I asked my Union Pacific friends what the story was, then and now. Then, they say, the railroad wasn’t sure it could really divert the Tennessee Pass business reliably. Could the Moffat Tunnel absorb those coal trains? What if new business came, traffic patterns shifted, new alliances arose? At the time, there was talk of a new north-south bypass line around Denver, to the east, benefiting both UP and BNSF Railway. Maybe the TP line would be a part of that.

The upshot was that Union Pacific hedged its bets and just let Tennessee Pass sit. Once you let go of an asset like this, it is gone forever. Five or so years ago, a land development company proposed a new resort city near Leadville, Colo., that would have justified reopening the line from one direction or the other, but the Great Recession killed that idea. As they say, hope springs eternal. Just this past week, the Vail Daily reports the reopening of a mine near Leadville that will produce more than 600 tons a day of refined molybdenum. I can’t help but think that the mine has been talking to Union Pacific.

“I still think the right opportunity will come up,” says one of my Union Pacific friends, speaking only for himself. “Yes, it will be expensive to reopen and expensive to operate, but it is not impossible, and it is far cheaper than building a new line, if that is even possible, which I do not believe it is.”

Minturn is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area, to imagine what once was and marvel at the sight of a railroad line’s slow physical decay. But cheer up! The Turntable Restaurant still serves chili that will have you asking for a second bowl. And if you’re tired, the building that once housed Rio Grande and SP crews on layovers rents rooms for $39.95 a night. — Fred W. Frailey

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