Celebrating a short-cut in Dotsero
Seventy years ago, railroad history was made in Eagle County.On June 16, 1934, over 3,000 people, including the governors of Colorado and Utah, gathered at Bond for the official opening of the Dotsero Cutoff, a span of railroad track from Bond to Dotsero. The cutoff was located entirely in Eagle County.The stretch of track was a mere 38 miles in length. However, as a chapter in railroad history, the significance of the Dotsero Cutoff was huge. The link slashed 173 track miles in the Rio Grande Railroad route from Denver to the Western Slope, reducing freight and passenger travel schedules by as much as eight hours. Combined with the train route created when the Moffat Tunnel was built in Grand County in 1922, the Dotsero Cutoff was the last connecting link that cut through the heart of the Rockies and over the Continental Divide, for the first time creating a direct route from Chicago to Denver to San Francisco. It was the realization of a decades-long dream for pioneer western railroad builders – the blazing of a new railroad trail.”Though this line is less than forty miles in length, the significance of this new railroad extension is hard to overestimate. It brings to actuality a new route from Denver to Salt Lake City that is 173 miles shorter than the present intermountain line of the Rio Grande through Colorado Springs, Pueblo, the Royal Gorge, and Tennessee Pass, and 20 miles shorter than the Union Pacific route between Denver and Ogden.”-Eagle Valley EnterpriseFeb. 2, 1934The Denver Post Sunday edition on June 17, 1934, was exuberant. The banner headline declared, all in capital letters, “First trains run over Dotsero Cutoff, marking new era of prosperity in the West.” Staff correspondent L.A. Chapin wrote a spirited interpretation of the grand opening.”The way is open and the track is clear. The Dotsero Cutoff is in operation.Denver – your Denver and mine, the capital of a region embracing one-fourth of the area and one-sixth of the population of the nation – is now off the side track for good and on the main line. That means a greater city, a greater west, a more prosperous and a happier Rocky Mountain Region, generally. It is a straight shot now from Denver to the Great Salt Lake and on to the Pacific.” -The Denver PostThat was a time when railroad ruled, and the history of the Dotsero cut-off is entwined with the intense competition between railroads. The Moffat Railroad and the Denver and Rio Grande were fierce competitors, and the key players in the Dotsero cut-off. The “Moffat Road” ran from Denver, through Fraser, to State Bridge, then north to Steamboat and Craig. The Denver and Rio Grande’s route traversed the Western Slope via Pueblo and Tennessee Pass, and on up through the Eagle Valley. According to historical records, the first official mention of the Dotsero cut-off cropped up in 1911, tucked into a bill before the state Legislature involving the issuance of bonds for the construction of the Moffat Tunnel. The two railroads, along with the Colorado and Southern and the Santa Fe, were maneuvering for dominant position in the transportation scene.In December of 1924, the Denver and Salt Lake Western, a subsidiary of the Moffat railroad, petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission to extend its tracks from Orestod, a railroad junction just west of Bond, to the original Denver and Rio Grande main line at Dotsero. The significance of that petition is that transcontinental traffic would no longer be forced to traverse Tennessee Pass, a winding, steep, 173 mile jog that was a challenge for trains.The new tracks would follow the Colorado River, and offered the advantage of an almost gradeless-line with smoother curves for high speed train operation.The proposal generated controversy across the state. Towns along the old main line, including Pueblo, feared the loss of traffic would lead to an economic decline. Communities on the main line west of Dotsero welcomed the concept, seeing the potential for more business coming their way.Entire history books have been devoted to the rivalry between the railroads. At one point, the Interstate Commerce Commission granted the Moffat line authority to build the Dotsero Cutoff, but that did not happen. In 1930, the Interstate Commerce Commission gave permission for the Denver and Rio Grande to start construction of the project. The contract stipulated that construction had to start in six months, and the work had to be finished in two years.Dotsero: boom townIn fact, given the economic forces of the Great Depression, construction of the cut-off did not start until November, 1932. Because of the project, Dotsero, the westernmost community in the Eagle Valley, became something of a construction boom town. The contract was left to three private companies who had been among the firms building the Hoover Dam, according to historical sources. Some 850 construction workers swarmed to Dotsero.Eagle resident George Yost was about 7 years old and growing up in Dotsero when the construction started. His mother, Frances Yost, was the postmistress. He remembers a booming community that was big enough to include a movie theater, drug store, three gas stations and a couple of taverns. The workers lived in tents or in shacks with dirt floors. Although the line was almost flat as it ran along the Eagle River, it had its challenges. The cut-off included 10 bridges. The first winter was severe. With little snow, and low temperatures, the deep frost line hampered workers. The track had to be run through 12 miles of Red Canyon near Burns, a narrow formation where at points there was barely room for both a road and the track.In what was unusual for the railroad, no rail equipment was used for the construction of the roadbed, although all the grading and hauling was motorized.Tunnels tended to be located in areas that could not be reached by trucks or cars. The workers turned to methods such as mixing the concrete outside the portals, then pressure pumping the stuff through a six inch pipe to the forms.Because the futures of the railroads were tied to the line, the competition between the railroads was fierce. On May 18, 1934 the Enterprise reported that the Moffat Railroad had laid the necessary tracks to make the physical connection between its established route and the cut-off. However, somebody, presumably the Rio Grande Railroad, chained large timbers to the rails at the point where they were connected with the Moffat Road, blocking access. While Moffat Railroad officials were declaring the cut-off to be completed, Rio Grande officials were issuing statements that the cut-off was not finished.The celebrationEventually, the issues were resolved. June 16, 1934 was the designated official opening of the cut-off with a ceremony at Bond. A grand celebration was planned, featuring Colorado Gov. Edwin Johnson and Utah Gov. Henry H. Blood, at the throttles of two giant Denver and Rio Grande locomotives. One train was coming into Bond from the west, and the other from the east. The plan was for the two locomotives to come nose-to-nose at Bond, symbolizing the new connection between Colorado and Utah.In total, five special trains, pulling cars containing over 3,000 passengers pulled into Bond. News reel cameras recorded the scene and radio reporters gave the event national coverage. Newspaper reporters pounded away on their typewriters.The Rio Grande employed 100 cooks to prepare and serve a noon barbecue in the yet-to-be-used new engine house. There were patriotic banners, bands and speeches by the governors, railroad executives and the mayors of Denver and Salt Lake City. An estimated 750 people were involved in organizing the celebration. Enterprise correspondent Alva A. Swain wrote that “there was more work, worry and preparation for that ceremony than was given to the ceremonies for the inauguration of Governor Johnson.”The Enterprise summed up the significance of the event in the lead paragraph of a story that appeared in the June 22, 1934 edition.”Trains are now running over the Dotsero Cutoff, a railroad line between the east and west through the heart of the Colorado Rockies, which has been the dream and ambition of railroad men for two generations.”When the work was done, Dotsero’s boom ended. Yost recalls that people just walked off and left the buildings behind. Some structures still stand, but most are gone. The boom days of Dotsero, like the heyday of the railroad and the Dotsero cut-off, are now history.
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