Stage and Rail Trail History
The Leadville Stage Roads
A much abbreviated version of the history of stage transportation to Leadville goes like this. As word of the 1860’s discoveries in California Gulch (eventually Leadville) and Cache Creek (Granite) spread, boom towns rapidly sprang up, populations rose, individual claims and large corporate mining operations and smelters (Leadville, Salida) multiplied. Inevitably there was demand for transportation routes for both freight and passengers, and that demand was met by perhaps a dozen publicly-supported or privately-developed routes and toll roads. One could get to Leadville from Denver via Tennessee Pass (Climax), Weston and Mosquito Passes from the Fairplay area and via Trout Creek Pass and Buena Vista. The stage road of interest in the ongoing study is the one which approached Leadville from the south along the Arkansas River, originating in the 1860’s way downriver in Canon City which was then the terminus of the Denver and Rio Grande and other railroads. As that terminus was gradually extended up the Royal Gorge to Salida by about 1879, stages and freight began their journey northward from there. Rapid progress of the narrow gauge D&RG resulted in train service to Buena Vista began in June, 1880 and shortly thereafter-July 17th-passengers were able to go all the way to Leadville. (The standard gauge Midland RR from Colorado Springs across South Park and Trout Creek through Buena Vista didn’t reach Leadville until 1887, although its ultimate destination was Aspen through the Hagerman Tunnel crossing the divide west of Twin Lakes.)
Passenger service along the various routes often became dominated by the stage companies who held the US Mail contracts. In the case of the Canon City to Leadville stage road, that was the legendary Barlow and Sanderson Company. Predictably, passenger stage traffic dropped precipitously soon after the D&RG reached Leadville, but in its heyday during the 1870s, a phenomenal number of stages passed through Salida and Buena Vista. For example, in 1879 the Barlow and Sanderson line carried some 16,970 passengers through Buena Vista. Most came from Canon City or Salida and the balance by coach over Trout Creek Pass from the Denver South Park and Pacific RR terminus in South Park. A stained but legible image by William Henry Jackson in Buena Vista in 1879 gives evidence of just how busy the local stage and freight terminus was!
Like many transportation routes, the Leadville Stage Road seems to have had various alternative alignments and river crossings over its history of about 1860 through 1890. The Working group has managed to find evidence of some 7 simple bridges between Salida and Leadville, for example at Cleora just south of Salida, at Fisherman’s Bridge (CR 301), another just south of Buena Vista, one north of the CR 371 tunnels, another at the AHRA Railroad Bridge Campground on CR 371, one at Pine Creek and a last, more substantial one just north of Clear Creek (see History section above). Likewise various overnight or horse-changing stations have been documented, from Bales Station south of Salida to one on the Kraft Ranch along CR 191, to Helena north of Fisherman’s Bridge. Others are referenced as being in Buena Vista, Granite and some lesser-known stops where passengers might be connecting to other routes.
Although stage traffic might have been the more documented aspect, freight movement over all or sections of the stage road played a tremendously important role in early development of both counties. Some of that traffic might have been long distance hauling to Leadville from as far away as Salida but much was timber from the forests and agricultural produce and hay (for mining operation livestock) from the developing ranches and farms around Buena Vista. Similar supply lines to Aspen were important either over Cottonwood and Taylor Passes or later, when built, Independence Pass, and those frequent horse- and mule-drawn wagons would have use pieces of the stage road.
If you’re interested in more historic details, especially for the Leadville Stage Road, see this Colorado Central Magazine article from September 2008.
The Colorado Midland Railroad
Too much has been written about the Colorado Midland to summarize here, but the basic facts are that it was the first standard gauge rail line to reach the Arkansas Valley and then cross the Continental Divide, originating in Colorado Springs in 1883 and traversing the south-central section of South Park through Hartsel, eventually crossing Trout Creek Pass to reach Buena Vista in 1886 [check]. Actually it didn’t get right in to town but, in order to save elevation for its ultimate destinations of Leadville and Aspen/Grand Junction, the Midland’s Buena Vista depot was some 200 feet above the town to the east (along modern County Road 304 overlooking Buena Vista) from which passengers and freight had to be transported by “hack road” down into town. (That hack road is the centerpiece of the modern Whipple Trail system of which Buena Vista is so proud.) From Buena Vista’s depot the Midland ran northward along the east side of the Arkansas across some pretty spectacular trestles (e.g. Hop Gulch) through the once-bustling service and watering station of Wildhorse and through the locally famous triple tunnels along modern County Road 371. The route stayed true to the east bank until Clear Creek, where on still-standing handsome sandstone supports it crossed just north of Clear Creek. Still on the west bank it passed through Granite and stayed on the west until the northern end of the Hayden Valley where it had a spur into Leadville (arriving in 1887) but ultimately left the valley westward south of Twin Lakes to rise to the spectacular and challenging Hagerman Tunnel to cross under the Continental Divide and descend into Aspen and later Grand Junction. The Colorado Midland, though “beaten” to Leadville by the D&RG by about 7 years, nonetheless successfully ran freight and popular tourist passenger service along this route into the early 1900’s. But following a series of acquisitions by other lines and pressures on transportation systems during the First World War the Midland was eventually abandoned in large part in 1918. Perhaps more than any other early Colorado line, the Midland has attracted a dedicated following of scholarly and amateur researchers and celebrants, and a great deal of material is now available in libraries and the Internet. One place to start is with the Colorado Midland Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.