Copyright © 2004 Henrietta W. Hay
Rocky Mountain Tunnels
July 9, 2004
With gasoline approaching the luxury classification this summer, many
Coloradans are using their vacations to explore the wonders of our
state. My parents and I did a lot of that back in the twenties. One of
the wonders we discovered was that there were tunnels burrowing 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
tunnels and the railroad men came along and dug bigger tunnels for the
The Carleton Tunnel 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
The thought of riding through those early holes in the ground behind a
huffing narrow g7auge steam engine leaves me cold and smoky. But in my
youth on the eastern slope, it was exciting to ride through one of them
in the faithful old Hudson.
Sometime in the twenties, on a summer afternoon we started out from
Leadville and climbed up to 11,528 feet, the portal of the old Carleton
Tunnel. We had to pay a dollar to go through it ($1.50 round trip but
once was enough). Traffic was one way, eastbound in the morning and
westbound in the afternoon. Inside, it was dark and wet and nearly two
endless miles long.
But eventually we emerged into the sunshine to find ourselves
surrounded by sheep, sheep as far as we could see. 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 way through the sheep to Basalt and on to Glenwood Springs, probably
with a stop for Dad to catch a fish or two 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 RR. 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 11,523.7 feet
above sea level, achieving the highest section of adhesion (not cog)
railroad on earth...”
Before the turn of the century, travelers could ride the train from
Denver to Gunnison City via the Alpine Tunnel for $11.50. They had a
very exciting ride as the train twisted and curved and climbed through
I didn't get to take that ride, but I know a woman who did. Lucy Ela,
who died several years ago at the age of 101, made the trip as a little
girl. One day she told me about riding the train through the Alpine
Tunnel. She said it was the most exciting train ride she ever took.
I believe it.
Most of the old tunnels have collapsed and are filled with dirt and
rock. Today trains and cars speed over the ground instead of under it
most of the time. But there are still wonderful adventures in our
for today's kids.