David Halliday Moffat (1839–1911) left a lasting impression on Colorado from his involvement in many industries, including banking, mining, and railroads. Through his civic involvement in Denver, Moffat helped the city develop financially and industrially. His most significant contribution to Colorado, the Moffat Road, directly connected Denver to West Coast states by a railroad over the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and trains still use this line today.
Moffat was born July 23, 1839, in Washingtonville, New York. He was the son of a mill owner and part of a well-respected and moderately prosperous family. At the age of twelve, Moffat ran away from home to New York City to make his own way. Despite running away, he stayed in close contact with his family. He first worked as a messenger for the New York Exchange Bank, and by sixteen he became an assistant teller at a bank.
In 1855, Moffat moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where his brother Samuel lived and worked as a bank teller. A year later, he moved to Omaha and began to work as a teller at Allen’s Bank of Nebraska. During his time in Omaha, Moffat began buying and selling real estate and by 1859, at the age of twenty, he had become a millionaire. Moffat had to do business through older intermediaries as he was still a minor.
At this time, Moffat also began creating lasting friendships on his way to success. Some of his close friends in Omaha included George Kassler, William Byers, and C. C. and S. W. Woolworth, who opened a chain of bookstores in Missouri River towns. In 1860, the speculative bubble in Omaha real estate burst, causing Moffat to lose his real estate fortune, while the bank that employed him went under. Moffat stayed to pay off the bank’s creditors before a new opportunity arose.
The Woolworth brothers wanted to open a stationery store in Denver and asked Moffat to become its manager. In early 1860, Moffat left for Denver, where he began importing newspapers and other needed items from the east for the developing city. He also embarked on the lucrative business of buying raw gold from miners to ship back east.
In 1861, Moffat returned to Washingtonville to marry a childhood friend, Frances (Fanny) Buckhout. After their marriage, Moffat returned to Denver with his new bride and in 1862 Fanny gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Marcia. The family initially lived in a mansion at Seventeenth and Lincoln Streets. In 1904, Moffat purchased land at Grant Street and Eighth Avenue and constructed a mansion for his small family.
In 1862, Moffat was appointed Denver’s postmaster and later that year, a Western Union agent. Two years later, he became the adjutant general for the Colorado Territory militia under Governor John Evans.
Moffat became an influential business and community leader in Denver. In 1865, Jerome B. Chaffee and Ebenezer Smith asked Moffat to back Denver’s First National Bank as its cashier. In 1881 he became its president, a position he held until his death. This position enabled Moffat to attain the financial and community influence that he had long desired.
In the 1870s, Denver’s rapid demographic and industrial growth placed strains on the city’s water system. In 1890, Moffat—along with Walter Cheesman, Governor John Evans, and James Archer—organized the Denver Water Company, later the Denver Union Water Company. Eventually, the city bought the company from Moffat and the other organizers and following the purchase, it became the Denver Water Board.
In the late 1860s, railroad development began to escalate in Colorado. However, in 1866 the Union Pacific dealt Denver a devastating blow when the railroad chose to run its line west out of Cheyenne across the Black Hills, a much easier westward route than crossing the Colorado Rockies. Although Denver fought this decision, the Union Pacific did not change its plans. Moffat, along with other business leaders, believed the railroad could use one of several passes which existed in Colorado to build a transcontinental railroad out of Denver.
Union Pacific also refused to connect its main line to Denver. Prompting Moffat and others to amass $300,000 for the construction of the Denver Pacific Railroad (DP) to Cheyenne. Moffat served as the treasurer of the railroad, which helped to underpin rapid expansion of commerce and industry in the city after its completion in 1870.
The DP was the start of Moffat’s many railroads. In 1872, Moffat and Governor Evans organized the Denver & South Park Railroad, which eventually reached the silver mines of Leadville. Moffat also helped finance and build the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and the Boulder Valley Railroad. He also began investing in the mines the railroads served, including Leadville’s Little Pittsburg Mine, Boulder County’s Caribou Mine, and several ventures in the Cripple Creek District.
The Moffat Road
The Moffat Road, a westbound railroad out of Denver, proved to be his most famous achievement. In the early 1900s, Moffat decided to build a transcontinental railroad out of Denver and over the Rocky Mountains. Aside from conquering the Rocky Mountains, Moffat also had to contend with the two other transcontinental railroads, the Union Pacific (UP) and the Western Pacific (WP), both of which opposed a competing railway. Together, the UP and the WP attempted to block Moffat by gaining rights to a critical canyon bottleneck on Moffat’s proposed route, denying his railroad access to Denver’s Union Station, and frustrating Moffat’s attempts to link up with an existing railway line to carry his company’s trains from Utah to California. The fear of backlash from Moffat’s powerful competitors also stopped some potential investors from providing capital for the Moffat road.
Undaunted, Moffat created the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway (DN&P) in 1903 and began construction. He planned to push through the mountains and over the Continental Divide with a three-mile tunnel. The first stretch of the DN&P, completed in 1904, ran out of Denver and over Rollins Pass. By 1909, it allowed trains to reach Steamboat Springs. However, it fell short of reaching Moffat’s goal of Craig, where he hoped to invest in the timber and cattle industry to fund the remainder of his railroad. Moffat failed to secure funding to complete the needed tunnel to reach Craig. By the time of his death on March 18, 1911, in New York City, Moffat had spent his entire personal fortune on the road, but the tunnel remained unfinished.
In 1913 the Moffat Line, as Denver residents called it, finally reached Craig, but financial woes forced the railroad into reorganization on several occasions in the years that followed. In 1928, a six-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide—known ever since as the Moffat Tunnel—was completed with public assistance, including taxes and the sale of bonds. In 1934, the Moffat Line connected with the Denver & Rio Grande’s route to Salt Lake City. The line eventually became known the Denver & Rio Grande Western, and this particular route became known as the “Main Line through the Rockies.”
Moffat’s legacy includes both railroads and community leadership in early Denver. Denver’s First National Bank still conducts business in the city, while Denver Water, a descendant of the Denver Water Company, continues to provide drinking water to the city’s residents. The businessman’s name is affixed to Moffat County, as well as the town of Moffat in Saguache County. Despite the efforts of preservation groups, the Moffat Mansion was demolished in 1972. Union Pacific freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains still use the Moffat Road and the Moffat Tunnel. Although Moffat died before he could witness the realization of his dream, it has become a major part of his legacy in Colorado.