Rollins Pass, 1909




Western Portal, 1997


jellenc@ionet.net


rollins pass and the moffat tunnel

As ancient man and animals had cut paths across the Continental Divide, so followed the indians, explorers, prospectors, and early pioneers.

The first wagon trains to cross over what is now known as Rollins Pass, was in 1862. Later in the 1870's John Rollins built a wagon road from Rollinsville across the Divide.

AS many as 12,000 cattle at a time were driven over the pass, and many wagon trains of those seeking their fortunes used this route to the western slopes.

David Moffat, a prominent Denver banker who had made his fortune in the gold fields of Florence and Cripple Creek, established the Denver Northwestern Railroad.

Moffat's plan was to build a long tunnel through the mountains...but because of the lack of financing a temporary rail bed was laid over Rollins Pass after cutting 30 plus smaller tunnels west of Moffat Station in Denver. This would be known as the Moffat Road.

David Moffat was considered a fair man by his workers. When the "enginemen" asked for a raise he was said to have turned over a blank piece of paper with his signature to them and said "write your own contract...I know that you will not cheat me"...and supposedly they never did.

It was the highest rail line ever built in North America and ran 23 miles over Rollins Pass. At Corona, the altitude was 11,600 feet. The locomotives were of Swiss design and called Mallets. Two engines beneath the boiler supplied the power needed for such a task. Sometimes 5 or 6 Mallets were used to drag freight up the steep 4% grades.

Crossing Rollins Pass could be a risky proposition in the winter months due to avalanches and heavy snow drifts. A restaurant and small accommodations were built at Corona where the Continental Divide crossed the mountains.

Extended snow sheds protected as many as 3 trains at once from the drifts. At times an avalanche or large drift could block the trains and cause a backup of smoke and gasses in the sheds...several deaths occurred from this. Rotary snow-plows on the tracks would precede the train to break through ice-pack snow. Several attempts where often needed.

It was not unlikely to be stranded for several days during the deep winter months. Some passengers even carried snow shoes and extra food just in case.

Moffat never saw his dream come true. In 1911 the company went into receivership and he died the same year. It was reorganized in 1913 by William Freeman and the name changed to the Denver Salt Lake Railroad.

Freeman saw the advantage in pursuing the construction of a tunnel to the west side of the mountains and was instrumental in establishing the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District. This encompassed towns on both sides of the mountains that would benefit most directly from the tunnel.

A smaller pioneer bore would be driven ahead of and parallel to the designated Moffat train tunnel to provide information about ground conditions.

Many citizens on the western slope felt that this was a ploy by Denver and the eastern communities to transport much needed water through this bore without bearing the brunt of the costs. Especially since a 3 mile train tunnel was originally planned at 10,000 feet but drilled at a longer, and more costly 9,000 feet to catch more water from the spring thaws.

Twenty-nine lives were lost and hundreds of injuries were reported during the building of the tunnel. Men often worked 90 hour weeks to complete the 6.2 mile tunnel.

On February 26, 1928, the first official train through the Moffat Tunnel appeared at the West Portal in Grand County.

Today thousands of skiers from the eastern slope are transported through the tunnel to the foot of the ski slopes in Winter Park.

In 1947 the Denver Salt Lake RR name was changed to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Company.

Berthoud Pass still remains the main artery for automobile travel to Grand County and other destinations on the western side of the Divide.