Vail passes: Thanks be to a major toothache |

Vail passes: Thanks be to a major toothache

Rick SpitzerVail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Rick SpitzerA Denver & Rio Grande water tank in the town of Sargents on the west side of Marshall.

The Marshall Pass road, which is dirt and well graded, travels around the south side of Mount Ouray, at the southern end of the Sawatch Mountains. This scenic route offers good views of the 13,971-foot mountain, named for the Ute Chief Ouray. Chipeta Mountain, located a mile northwest of Mount Ouray, is named for the chief’s wife.The roadbed follows the narrow gauge transcontinental railroad line that once connected Denver with Salt Lake City. A Denver and Rio Grande Railroad helper station was located at the western foot of Marshall Pass in Sargents. Helper engines – locomotives that temporarily assist trains requiring additional power to climb a grade – were added to eastbound trains at this location to help the trains cross over Marshall Pass. About all that remains of structures associated with the railroad over Marshall Pass is a water tank in the town of Sargents.

Marshall Pass is named for a man with a toothache. In 1873 Lt. William L. Marshall was surveying the San Juan area for the Wheeler Survey. His party was camped near present-day Silverton when the weather turned bad and threatened to strand the expedition. The group decided to return to Denver via its regular route over Cochetopa Pass.On the return trip, Marshall developed a toothache so severe that he was unable to eat solid foods. His blacksmith offered to pull the tooth, but Marshall would not allow it, preferring instead to return to Denver to see a regular dentist. To speed up the trip, he set out to find a shortcut. He and his packer left the main survey party and headed north with the intent of crossing the Continental Divide near what is now Independence Pass.Snow blocked the route so he decided to follow a gap that he had found earlier. They ascended what is now Marshall Pass, and he immediately realized it could make an ideal route for a road or railroad. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, he continued his survey even through his severe pain. He and the packer made it to Denver (and his dentist) four days before the main party and saved about 125 miles in the process. The dentist did remove the tooth.

In 1877 Otto Mears developed the route as a toll road to connect the Arkansas River drainage on the east to the Gunnison watershed on the west. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad bought Mears’s toll road for $13,000 and built its narrow-gauge railroad west over the pass. The first train on this route reached Gunnison in August of 1881, crossing the Continental Divide at 10,846 feet. Snow sheds were built at the summit of this and many other passes, where high winds made it impossible to keep the tracks clear during blizzardy winter months.Passenger service over Marshall Pass ended in 1940, but the line continued to carry freight, including livestock from Gunnison Country and coal from Crested Butte. However, trucks began hauling the livestock, the coal mine closed, and the railroad abandoned the line in 1953. It removed the rails in 1955. The grade became a county road in 1956. Now, it is well graded, but not kept open in the winter.

A section of the Colorado Trail crosses the summit of Marshall Pass. In 1973 the United States Forest Service envisioned a premier, scenic trail system for individuals and families who enjoyed the outdoors but did not want an extreme wilderness experience. In 1974 several focus groups organized to brainstorm and develop a trail plan. The Colorado Mountain Trails Foundation was formed. The Colorado Trail Foundation, has the responsibility for building the trail. The summers of 1986 and 1987 saw completion of the trail between Denver and Durango. The trail is made up of 28 segments, covers a distance of 482.9 miles, and gains a total of 74,975 feet, reaching a low of 5,520 feet in Waterton Canyon and a high of 13,240 feet on Coney Summit in the San Juan Mountains. It crosses, or comes close to Tennessee Pass, Kenosha Pass, Marshall Pass, Spring Creek Pass, and Molas Pass on its way across the state. It crosses the Continental Divide over 50 times. The Colorado Trail was built entirely by a volunteer effort, and volunteers continue to maintain it. For volunteer work vacation opportunities on the Colorado Trail, visit comments about this article to or visit

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