At 11,612 feet, the Alpine Tunnel Historic District preserves what was once North America’s highest narrow-gauge railroad tunnel. Completed in 1881 a few miles northeast of the small town of Pitkin, the tunnel helped connect Denver with the silver mines of the Gunnison region via the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad (DSP&P). The Alpine Tunnel remained in operation until 1910. Today the Tunnel District draws hikers, snowshoers, and campers with the promise of scenic backcountry adventures.
An Ill-Fated Rail Venture
Begun in January 1880 and completed in July 1881, the Alpine Tunnel became the first to bore through Colorado’s portion of the Continental Divide. But the project faced difficulties from the start. The DSP&P originally chose the route because it was the shortest path to silver mines in the Gunnison region. The DSP&P unwittingly chose to build its line through the traditional hunting grounds of the Tabeguache Utes, and its hard-headed approach to managing this conflict resulted in the hanging of at least one railroad worker.
Moreover, the eighteen-month construction of the Alpine Tunnel was neither easy nor cheap. More than 10,000 men ultimately labored to complete the tunnel, with a crew of 400 working at any one time. Men who moved earth with picks and shovels earned $3.50 per day, while those with the courage and expertise to work on the explosives team brought home $5 for a day’s work. Because the tunnel was bored through relatively unstable granite, completion was delayed while workers buttressed the walls with California redwood. West of the tunnel, workers had to lay track along a section of steep rocky cliffs known as the Palisades. Ultimately, the tunnel cost around $300,000, far exceeding original budget estimates and making it the most expensive narrow-gauge railroad tunnel in the world to date.
Despite these problems, and over Ute objections, Gunnison residents welcomed the first train to arrive through the tunnel in 1882. Upon its completion, the Alpine Tunnel opened new economic opportunities for the remote mining towns that lay along the new rail line. At the railroad’s western end, the town of Quartz had been founded in 1879 as part of the Quartz Creek Mining District. The railroad’s arrival kicked off a construction boom in Quartz, which quickly added new hotels, saloons, and shops. Closer to the Continental Divide, in the small mining town of Woodstock (1881), the new railroad line brought growth and new amenities. But Woodstock was destroyed by an avalanche in March 1884 and never rebuilt. Just around the bend from Woodstock, the Sherrod mining site supported silver miners from 1903 to 1906. Finally, at the eastern portal, the town of Hancock supported rail workers during the tunnel’s construction. Hancock remained sparsely populated, even after the closing of the tunnel, until the area’s last silver mine went bust in 1926.
The focal point of railroad operations in the area was the Alpine Tunnel station complex, which stood just west of the tunnel itself. Constructed as the tunnel neared completion in 1881, the complex initially consisted of an engine house—including buildings for water and coal storage as well as a locomotive maintenance area—and a section house containing rooms for dining and sleeping. By 1883 a telegraph station had been added to the complex, while a boarding house and underground storage cellar were added in 1906.
The Alpine Tunnel saw about six years of relatively uninterrupted rail service before the DSP&P found itself perilously close to bankruptcy in 1888. Adding to the company’s financial woes, the region experienced a years-long stretch of severe weather. Heavy winter snowfall closed the tunnel for months at a time between 1888 and 1895. When workers did manage to reopen the line after an 1894 avalanche killed fourteen people and plugged up the tunnel, three train operators and an engineer were killed by inhaling too much train exhaust in the tunnel’s tight confines. Partially as a result of these troubles, the station complex was abandoned in 1896, prior to being destroyed by fire in 1906. In 1910, after more disasters and further loss of life, as well as several precipitous declines in the price of silver, the Alpine Tunnel was permanently closed to rail traffic.
The remnants of the old DSP&P narrow-gauge track to the Alpine Tunnel sat in place until the 1950s, when they were pulled up and the old line was converted into a four-wheel-drive road. To this day, keen observers can see the remains of support structures and long-abandoned small mountain towns along the route. Visitors to the abandoned towns of Hancock, Sherrod, Woodstock, and Quartz can still see the foundations of various buildings that once stood along the railroad line. Portions of decaying telegraph poles that were once sources of vital information intermittently dot the road, while the station house and old station complex have been renovated and partially restored. The Palisades, that treacherous section of rail blasted from the cliffs on the west side of the tunnel, are still the crown jewel of the area. Backed by stunning cliffs and a majestic view of the surrounding mountains, the Palisades remain in nearly their original condition today.
The Alpine Tunnel Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in April 1996. That year the Alpine Tunnel Historic Association was founded to help restore and maintain the tunnel district. Since then, several informal restoration projects have taken place, including the Mile-Hi Jeep Club’s efforts to clear downed trees. The Gunnison County Lodging Tax Panel, the Alpine Tunnel Historic Association, and the US Forest Service are sponsoring a planned project to restore the station complex to its original working condition.
Originally built to allow access to some of Colorado’s most productive mines, the Alpine Tunnel continues to spur economic development in one of the state’s most remote areas. The Alpine Tunnel Historic District is home to some of the best backcountry areas in Colorado, including parts of the Gunnison and San Isabel National Forests. The district’s proximity to natural mineral springs in Buena Vista makes it an enticing attraction for visitors looking to get away from Colorado’s busy Front Range. The traditional recreation season runs from July 4 through Labor Day, with backcountry campers as well as ATV, Jeep, and adventure motorcycle enthusiasts bringing tourist dollars to the area. The tunnel’s shift from mining boomtown maker to tourist attraction mirrored the larger shift in the Centennial State’s economy, as much of Colorado now depends on outdoor recreation in places originally developed by mining and industry.