Our Adventure began on the Skyline Drive just outside of Canon City. This scenic roadway was built with prison labor in 1908 and spans a hogback ridge. At the top, our view of the City of Canon City to the east and Highway 50 to the west was breathtaking! The road was quite narrow with a sheer dropoff on either side, so it’s not for the feint of heart….
All Aboard!! The first passenger train to run through the Royal Gorge at Canon City, Colorado was in the 1880’s. By 1890, four passenger trains a day passed through the Royal Gorge. With the popularity of buses and automobiles the last passenger train through the Gorge ran on July 27, 1967.
While waiting for the train to depart the station, we ordered lunch and wine from the on-board bar & grill. A glass of white zin was the perfect compliment for our turkey cheese melt sandwiches. Somehow, they even made Paige’s hot dog & bun seem gourmet.
The line was reestablished in the fall of 1998 as a tourist scenic attraction. It leaves Canon City for a 24 mile round trip to Parkdale, Colorado. The trip takes just under 2 hours.
We were told there could be big horn sheep, (which we did see) bear (we weren’t expecting to see any bear this time of year), duck, and geese. We’ve driven through the canyon many times and I had never noticed the wood stave water line hanging off the canyon wall. The train ride brought a whole new perspective.
This wood stave waterline was a steel wrapped pipeline to carry water to the town of Canon City. It was made out of redwood and the constant flow of water made the wood swell which sealed against water leakage. The steel braces prevented breakage under pressure yet kept the structure lightweight.
This is part of the remaining dam structure that diverted water to the pipeline. It was used from the early 1900’s until 1974. Commercial companies were rafting the Gorge in the ’70’s. According to the guide, rafters had to portage around the dam. You might wonder why Canon City had to pipe water that would run downhill naturally. By capturing the water at a higher elevation and piping it to town it could be naturally pressurized.
This a remnant of one out of dozen foot bridges that allowed workers to walk to the other side for maintenance on the waterline.
Because the gorge narrows to only 30 feet wide with canyon walls that rise 2600 feet above the water, a hanging bridge was constructed to hold the tracks in 1879. It was designed by a Kansas engineer, Charles Shaler Smith and cost $11,759 to build. The steel A shaped girders span the Arkansas River and are anchored to the rock wall on the other side of the river.
We saw this little structure along the route and forgot to ask the guide what he thought it was. I emailed it to a railroad expert I know and his response back was that he thought it was a valve house for the water pipeline. June 11, 2013 saw wildfire tear through the Royal Gorge. 3800 acres burned, which also shut the train down for about 5 days. At least a mile of the wood stave pipeline was burned, leaving the steel wrap behind. A cleanup effort to prevent the steel rings from polluting the river is underway. The fire also burned 48 of the 52 buildings in the park.
However, the fire did not reach the historic suspension bridge 1053 feet above the Arkansas River. The suspension bridge, which we’ve previously crossed by both car and foot, was built in 1929 at a cost of $350,000. It was originally a toll bridge. It is 1260 feet long and 18 feet wide with almost 1300 wood planks (of which 250 are replaced a year). After reconstruction of the park, it reopened to the public in March 2014.
As we pulled out of the station and returned, we passed the medium security prison on the edge of town in Canon City.
This territorial prison was built in 1868 as part of the federal prison system. After Colorado’s statehood, it became a state prison in 1876. The first inmate was John Shepler on June 13, 1871, Prisoner No. 1. This prison, still in use today, was also home to Alfred Packer (known as Colorado’s Hannibal the Cannibal) as well as Unibomber Ted Kazynski. The prison is referred to as “Old Max”.
We’ve taken this particular train ride several times and it never disappoints!
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