High country history: Clearing snow in the railroad days
December 10, 2016
Narrow-gauge railroads, including the Denver & Rio Grande and the Denver, South Park & Pacific, arrived in the high country in the early 1880s. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the railroads to the people and economy of these areas. The railroads tied sawmills, mines and ranches to distant markets and people to the families left "back home."
With the coming of the railroads, ore trains needed only one day to reach smelters in Denver. Low-grade ore could be shipped at a profit. Trains carried cattle and hay from the lower Blue River valley, sheep from Wheeler (Copper Mountain) and lumber from Keystone and Wheeler to markets in Denver and elsewhere. In addition, the railroads transported a variety of goods: food, mail, coal for the train itself as well as for homes and gold dredges, fish to stock lakes and streams, hardware, luxuries such as perfume and expensive wines, and even empty whiskey bottles sent from the Denver Hotel to Denver distilleries to be refilled with fine whiskey.
Altitude and climate worked against the railroads, however, especially in winter. Bitter cold, howling wind, blowing snow, rain, floods in spring, landslides and avalanches increased operating costs and endangered workers, riders and equipment. Keeping the tracks clear of snow, ice and rocks proved almost as difficult as laying the tracks in the first place. The companies found it very challenging to maintain winter schedules.
Snow reached such depths in the Ten Mile Canyon and over Boreas Pass that the railroads used rotary snow plows to clear the tracks. Working like a modern snow blower, the rotary snow plow chewed its way through a drift, throwing snow up to 30 feet away. A coal-fired boiler powered the plow. Because it was not self-propelled, the rotary required as many as four to six engines pushing it. Sometimes the last engine faced backward in case the rotary became stuck and the train had to back up through newly fallen snow. Shovelers lived in a boxcar outfitted for eating and sleeping, riding the tracks all winter, going wherever needed.
Avalanches, often caused by rumbling engines and shrill whistles, created problems, even for the rotary. One slide in 1886 between Kokomo and Frisco covered 7,000 feet of track. The crippling slides in the canyon had names. One slide that occurred each year near the Uneva spur had a name of "Big Tim" or "Big Mike." When the avalanche brought rocks and uprooted trees onto the tracks, the rotary could not plow through without damaging its blades. Then crews used dynamite to clear the tracks. They replaced the damaged ties and rails before service could be restored.
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Railroad men liked to tell the story about a herd of cattle that froze to death in an avalanche. When the rotary worked through the snow, the men saw frozen T-bone steaks flying through the air.
This article is part of a book that was written for the Summit Historical Society's 50th anniversary, "Windows to the Past," by Rick Hague and Sandie Mather. The books are available from Summit Historical Society in Dillon at the Dillon Schoolhouse, in Frisco at the Frisco Historic Park and Museum, and in Breckenridge through the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at the Welcome Center, Edwin Carter Museum, Barney Ford House Museum and the Gaymon Cabin. It's also available at the Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco. Or purchase directly from Hague at 970-409-7937.