The Royal Gorge revisited

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Sometime around 1900, passengers and crew pose for the camera during a stop at the famous Hanging Bridge at the bottom of the Royal Gorge, carved by the rushing Arkansas River over 3 million years. D&RGW
The view from 955 feet up can leave you breathless. You stand in the middle of an ever-so-slightly swaying suspension bridge and look down to what appears to be a tiny ribbon of fast-moving water, doing what it’s been doing for 3 million years: cutting its way through the granite uplift of the Rocky Mountains.

Alongside the river is the single track of what once upon a time was the mighty Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, from this altitude looking for all the world like a Z-scale model railroad layout.

This could only be one place: the Royal Gorge, home to one of America’s most spectacular chasms, as well as one of its most spectacular stretches of railroad. For nearly a century, the Denver & Rio Grande and its successor D&RGW called this gorge its own, running freight and passenger trains along a narrow ledge beside the Arkansas River, west of which opened up to the railroad’s fabled Tennessee Pass main line.

Almost from the moment the railroad began operating in the Gorge, it capitalized on the location, turning the sow’s ear of a tortuous stretch of track into a silk purse. Passengers on Rio Grande trains loved the place. Just look at the adjacent photo of a crowd aboard an open-air car, riding through the Gorge sometime before 1902 (and perhaps pondering the dual-gauge track). Generations of gawkers would follow, most often aboard D&RGW’s Denver–Grand Junction Royal Gorge, running in daylight through the Gorge. 

Visible behind the crowd is the famed Hanging Bridge, built in 1879 when D&RG engineer C. Shallor Smith found a way to compensate for a not-quite-impossibly narrow 30-foot stretch of canyon. His solution: a 175-foot plate girder bridge suspended on one side by novel A-frame girders. Strengthened in various ways over the years, the Hanging Bridge is substantially in its originally form, a testimonial to Smith’s skill and imagination 

The appeal of the Hanging Bridge endures more than a century later. The Royal Gorge Scenic Railroad expects to host 220,000 tourists in a variety of dome, standard, and open cars this year. Kevin P. Keefe
I had my own reunion with the Gorge and the Hanging Bridge a couple of weeks ago during a brief visit to Colorado. Alison and I were in Estes Park for a wedding and later made a quick drive down to Canon City. I wanted her to see the same thing that left me in awe more than 20 years ago when I first encountered the Gorge on a “Farewell to Tennessee Pass” excursion hauled by Union Pacific 4-8-4 844 in June 1997.

This time, the Gorge was accessible thanks to the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, the highly successful every-day-except-Christmas operation launched in 1999. After UP announced plans in 1997 to mothball most of its Tennessee Pass line, RGRR partnered with Rock & Rail LLC to purchase 12 miles of track from Canon City to Parkdale, the latter the site of a large Martin Marietta Materials Inc. aggregate quarry. The freight railroad is a Martin Marietta subsidiary.

As it has for everyone in the travel business, the past year and a half has been a bit of an ordeal for the Royal Gorge operation, although patience and persistence on the part of RGRR General Manager Mark Greksa and his team eventually eased the pain. The train voluntarily shut down in March 2020 just before Colorado’s governor issued a stay-at-home order. The railroad went dormant for a few agonizing weeks. 

“We were experiencing our best spring ever, but didn’t feel comfortable continuing to run,” says Greksa. “We laid off part-time staff, but were able to continue paying our full-time staff all the way through this time period, when Colorado was in lockdown. During this time, my wife Dawn and I were desperately trying to figure out ways in which to keep this business going, continue paying staff, and strategizing as to how to convince both the state of Colorado and the local health department that we could open safely.”

Nearly 1,000 feet below the suspension bridge spanning the canyon, 4-8-4 1803 makes a stop with D&RGW's westbound Scenic Limited so passengers can experience the Royal Gorge in 1946. Between the running rails is a guard rail to keep derailed equipment from straying into the river. Fred N. Houser
Eventually, after some scrambling to explain their operation, the railroad won a variance from Fremont County health officials and was allowed to reopen. Customer response was strong and the railroad gradually added more departures. Now, this year, the operation is going gangbusters again.

“Our best year was in 2019, where we carried 155,000 guests through the Royal Gorge,” says Greksa. “This year, we are on track to carry 220,000 guests!” The RGT schedules four trains per day, including trains for breakfast, lunch, afternoon, and dinner, with three levels of service supported by four kitchens and four bars through the 17-car train. “Historically, 60 to 70 percent of our guests ordered food and beverage. This year over 90 percent of our guests are ordering.”

I can attest to the quality of the food, the beverages, and, most of all, the service. Riding in one of the company’s four full-length domes over lunch, we always had a crisply uniformed staff member ready to fetch more of whatever we wanted. The enthusiasm with which they went about their jobs helped us feel like we got more than our money’s worth. 

Operating out of the handsome ex-Santa Fe depot just off 4th Street, the Royal Gorge train has become one of Canon City’s major employers, with 240 currently on the payroll. Greksa says he’s looking for more.

“The pandemic blew up the food and beverage industry,” he says. “That, combined with never-ending unemployment benefits, has made hiring staff extremely difficult, regardless of the fact that we are the most competitive employer in terms of pay and benefits in Canon City.” For now, the railroad is capping its passenger count per train at between 300 and 350, in an effort to spread the business out over each of the four departures.

The 10-minute stop at the Hanging Bridge was a long-standing Rio Grande tradition, observed here by an Alco PA on train 1, the Royal Gorge, in 1959. Jim Scribbins
The Royal Gorge operation has an interesting locomotive roster, with all units wearing RGRR’s version of the D&RGW yellow, black, and silver. Hauling our train were two of Royal Gorge’s current workhorses, a pair of GP40s, one at each end for bidirectional running. The company’s most famous engines — F7 403 and its B-unit companion — are brought in at random during the regular season and also are designated to haul the “Santa Express Train” in November and December. Always on the lookout for new power, Greksa told me the company recently purchased three ex-B&O SD40s, rebuilt to Dash 2 standards.

As satisfying as the trip is, it’s over all too soon. The train takes a good two-plus hours to work its way sedately through the canyon and back, giving passengers plenty of time to ponder the view of the train as it winds along riverbank, or wave to the endless stream of whitewater rafters, or merely contemplate the ancient striations of the granite walls.

Those walls say something about the late, great D&RGW, as well as the courage of the early railroad builders. Writing about the Royal Gorge Route in the March 1997 issue of Trains, journalist Mark W. Hemphill said, “Americans once believed themselves capable of anything. When they built the Western railroads, it seemed not to matter what stood in their way. Nothing was too difficult for the cliff-dwelling rails, quaking trestles, and needle-eye tunnels of a Western railroad. In that era, ‘difficult’ had little meaning.”

Riding in comfort beneath the expansive glass of dome car Buena Vista, staring up at 900 feet of sheer granite and down at the churning white water, I saw what Mark was talking about. 

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