Copyright © 2006 Henrietta W. Hay
Tunnels in Colorado
May 5, 2006
The Legislature is approaching the end of its session and I find my blood pressure rising dangerously. So I decided to forget it for a week and remember some bits of the Colorado that was.
Today it is a four hour trip to Denver on a super highway -- well, it's super in the summer and most of the time in the winter. The
Eisenhower Tunnel cuts out the drive over Loveland Pass if you prefer headlights to spectacular scenery. A miraculous engineering project with four fast lanes lets you speed through Glenwood canyon, and all the other stretches of highway are widened and straightened. I-70 is a work of art.
'Twas not always thus.
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 burrowing under the Rockies in every direction. The moles who dug them, however, had two feet, a lot of muscles and a vision.
Most of the tunnels were dug during the Gold Rush when Colorado was the richest spot in the world, or so the fortune hunters thought. The gold miners dug mine tunnels and the railroad men came along and dug tunnels through the mountains for the gold-laden trains.
I don't especially like holes in the ground. The mere thought of riding through those early railroad tunnels behind a huffing narrow gauge steam engine leaves me cold and smoky. But in my youth on the eastern slope, I rode through one of them in an automobile.
My love of cars may have started with the old Hudson which hauled my parents and me all over Colorado back in the late twenties. It went up hills and down hills that would make a mountain goat pause, and made my flatlander mother long for the cornfields of Illinois.
On one of our jaunts from Denver to Glenwood Springs in the Hudson, we started out from Leadville one summer afternoon and climbed up to the portal of the old Carlton 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.
But it was all worth it when we emerged into the bright afternoon sunshine and found ourselves surrounded by what seemed like a million sheep. The Hudson could climb hills, but not sheep. We sat for a long time and watched the sky turn gold while wool on the hoof flowed around us. Eventually we made our slow, careful way through the sheep to Basalt and on to Glenwood Springs.
The Carleton Tunnel, over 11,000 feet high, was part of the Colorado Midland Rail line between Leadville and Basalt. The 9394 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. The tunnel itself was privately owned, which gave the owners a head start on toll roads.
Sure, I-70 is faster and safer and so are the cars. But I'll never see that many sheep again.