Holes in Colorado’s mountains have made travel easier

The state of Colorado is full of holes. If Superman, with his x-ray eyes, had flown high over Colorado in the early days of this century, he would probably have thought the state was infested with moles. There were tunnels burrowed under the Rockies in every direction.

They were dug during the gold rush, when Colorado was the richest spot in the world, or so fortune hunters thought. The gold miners dug mine holes, and the railroad men dug tunnels through the mountains for the gold-and-silver-laden trains.

The Carleton Tunnel, over 11,000 feet above sea level, was part of the Colorado Midland Rail Line between Leadville and Basalt. The 9,394 foot bore was driven through almost solid granite, and opened in 1893. The Midland did not survive the gold rush, and in 1922 the rails were torn out and the roadbed was opened to automobile travel.

That was the one I got to go through. My parents and I started out from Leadville one summer afternoon in the early 1920s, and climbed up to the portal of the old Carleton Tunnel. We had to pay a dollar to go through it. Traffic was one way, eastbound in the morning and westbound in the afternoon. Inside, it was dark and wet and nearly two miles long. That may well be the origin of my present dislike of holes in the ground.

The best part was emerging into the sunshine and finding ourselves surrounded by what seemed like a million sheep. Eventually we made our way through the sheep to Basalt and on to Glenwood Springs, probably with a stop for fishing in the Frying Pan River.

One of the most famous of the old railroad tunnels was the Alpine, part of the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad. In his book, “Historic Alpine Tunnel,” Dow Helmers waxes poetic. “Piercing the towering Saguache Range ... cradled in the majestic grandeur of the surrounding peaks is historic Alpine Tunnel, the most historic bit of railroadiana in the world. Here in 1881, east meets west in the dark confines of the first bore through the continental divide ... Through the backbone of the continent rails carry South Park trains to an altitude of 11,523 feet above sea level, achieving the highest section of adhesion (not cog) railroad on earth.”

Around the turn of the century, travelers could ride from Denver to Gunnison via the Alpine Tunnel for $11.50. They had a very exciting ride as the train twisted and curved and climbed through spectacular scenery.

I wish I could have taken that ride, but I knew a woman who did. Lucy Ela, who died a number of years ago at the age of 101, made the trip as a little girl. Her father was a naturalist and curator of the Museum of Natural History in Denver. He was always hunting new specimens, and they rode every narrow gauge train in Colorado. One day she told me about the trip through the Alpine Tunnel, and said it was the most exciting train ride she had ever taken. I believe it.

Most of the old tunnels have collapsed and are filled with dirt and rock.

The most famous tunnel in Colorado now, of course, is the Eisenhower.

When I was really little, the only way you could get from the Eastern Slope to the Western in an automobile was by way of Monarch Pass to Gunnison. That pass has been in use at least since 1821, when it was part of the Old Spanish Trail.

It wasn’t until the early years of the 20th century that they built a highway over Loveland Pass.

It is the highest mountain pass in the world that stays open in the winter and the scenery is unbelievably beautiful. By way of Loveland Pass, you could get from Denver to Grand Junction in about eight hours. But it is not for the weak of heart.

Then between 1964 and 1973 they dug the big tunnel — the Eisenhower.  Now you can get to Denver in less than four hours — if you don’t try it Sunday night during ski season.

I wonder what Superman would say about us today.

Henrietta Hay can be reached via e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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