Also known as the Moffat Road, the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway Hill Route was completed in 1904 and connected the Front Range to Middle Park via Rollins Pass. Built in part on a former Ute Indian trail and intended as a temporary route across the Continental Divide, the arduous twenty-three-mile section of railroad served for twenty-four years before the Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1928. Since the railroad ties were taken out in the 1930s, the old railroad bed has been popular with four-wheel-drive enthusiasts and other outdoor adventurers.
Before the Railroad
Long before any wagons or railroad cars crossed the Continental Divide, Ute Indians realized that what is now Rollins Pass, at an elevation of 11,660 feet, was a good place to traverse the mountains. They established a trail over the pass from South Boulder Creek to Middle Park and must have used it many times. The first documented crossings of the divide at Rollins Pass occurred in the 1860s. In August 1862 a company of American soldiers under Captain John Bonesteel crossed the pass to get to Hot Sulphur Springs. In 1865 William Byers, a group of California Volunteers, and a wagon train of Mormons all traveled over the pass.
Meanwhile a local businessman, John Quincy Adams Rollins, had established the town of Rollinsville and acquired mining and ranching properties in the area. He thought it would be good for business to have a wagon road through Rollinsville that would connect Denver and other Front Range cities to Middle Park.
In 1866 the Colorado Territorial legislature incorporated the Middle Park and South Boulder Wagon Road Company and granted Rollins, Perley Dodge, and Frederic C. Weir the right to operate a wagon road along the old Ute trail over the mountains. Known as the Rollinsville and Middle Park Wagon Road, the thirty-mile road opened in 1873 with a $2.50 toll. The road opened Middle Park for tourism and quickly increased trade between Middle Park and the Front Range. The route was difficult to maintain, however, and soon lost traffic to a rival road that Georgetown merchants built over the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass.
Building the Moffat Road
At the start of the twentieth century, the prominent Denver businessman David Moffat became determined to build a transcontinental railroad west from Denver to Salt Lake City and ultimately to the Pacific. The transcontinental railroads built in the late nineteenth century had all bypassed Denver in favor of easier routes across the mountains to the north or south. To go west from Denver would require building an expensive tunnel through the mountains or traversing the Continental Divide at a high elevation. In the 1880s the Denver, Utah & Pacific Railroad had started to build a tunnel under the divide near Rollins Pass, but the project ground to a halt before much work could be completed. Twenty years later, Moffat believed such a route would justify itself financially by opening up valuable coal, lumber, and livestock resources in northwestern Colorado.
To realize his transcontinental dream, Moffat incorporated the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railroad in July 1902. He hired Horace Sumner as the railroad’s locating engineer and established the Colorado-Utah Construction Company to build the railroad, which would go from Denver to the foothills via Leyden Mesa, then turn north and follow South Boulder Creek to the Continental Divide. The original plan called for a tunnel under the Continental Divide around Rollins Pass or James Peak to reach Middle Park. It was estimated that a tunnel under the mountains would take at least two or three years to build, however, so in the meantime the railroad decided to build a temporary route that would cross the divide at Rollins Pass.
Eventually known as the Moffat Road (or the Hill Route), the route followed the old wagon road from South Boulder Creek to Jenny Creek. It then took a longer but gentler route the rest of the way to the pass. Major landmarks along the way included Yankee Doodle Lake, which the railroad looped around to make a 180 degree turn; Needle’s Eye Tunnel; and the Devil’s Slide Twin Trestles high above the South Fork of Middle Boulder Creek. On the western side of the divide, the railroad descended via a series of switchbacks (even looping under itself at one point) to get down to the Berthoud Pass wagon road on the valley floor.
Construction along the twenty-three-mile route proceeded quickly. Rails reached Rollinsville in May 1904 and made it to Boulder Park, about four miles west, by June. That summer Denver tourists began to take the train for excursions to Mammoth, where they could escape the heat at an elevation of nearly 8,900 feet. On September 2, 1904, tracks reached the summit of Rollins Pass, and by the end of the month the railroad had made it down the west side of the divide to Arrowhead (later Arrow) at 9,585 feet. From there construction continued through Middle Park, reaching Hot Sulphur Springs in August 1905.
Although meant to be temporary, the Moffat Road operated for twenty-four years, from 1904 to 1928. In 1904 the railroad thought a tunnel would take three years and $4 million, but the project’s cost and estimated construction time continued to climb. Moffat had trouble raising money for the tunnel, in part because Edward H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad did everything he could to stop construction on a potential rival to his own transcontinental route. When Moffat died in 1911, his railroad had not yet reached Craig. It soon foundered, reorganized as the Denver & Salt Lake Railroad, and was ultimately acquired by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.
One reason for the railroad’s financial struggles was that it quickly became clear that the Moffat Road would be difficult to operate. Already in the winter of 1904–5, just a few months after the route was completed to Arrowhead, heavy snows prevented daily service. Despite long snow sheds and heavy-duty snowplows, the route continued to face extended closures, sometimes for several weeks at a time, whenever winter storms pounded the Continental Divide. By the 1920s snow clearance on the Moffat Road accounted for 41 percent of the route’s operating expenses.
Even in good weather, the trip over Rollins Pass proved arduous. After climbing at a 2 percent grade up South Boulder Creek from the foothills, the route shifted to a 4 percent grade as it turned away from the creek and climbed the sweeping switchbacks known as the Giant’s Ladder. Trains slowed to a crawl as they gained 2,500 vertical feet from South Boulder Creek to Rollins Pass and then rolled down 2,000 feet to Arrow, a journey that took at least two and a half hours in perfect conditions.
Nevertheless, the Moffat Road developed into a popular summer excursion from Denver. Trains regularly carried hundreds of visitors from Denver to Tolland (formerly Mammoth), where they enjoyed an eating house and a dance hall. Named for the Toll family, which owned land in the area and operated the popular Toll Inn, the weekend getaway soon grew to include other businesses and summer cabins.
The railroad station at Rollins Pass, known as Corona (“crown”), made for an even cooler summer destination. It was the highest standard-gauge railroad station in the United States. Down in sweltering Denver, the railroad advertised the station, which featured a hotel and restaurant, as the “top of the world” and “Colorado’s north pole.” Postcards pictured tourists making snowballs in July.
After the Moffat Tunnel
In 1922 the Colorado legislature passed a bill to fund construction of the long-planned Moffat Tunnel under the Continental Divide. The 6.2-mile tunnel started operation in 1928 and immediately made the steep and snowy twenty-three-mile Moffat Road obsolete, cutting the time for that section of the railroad to just twelve minutes.
In 1935 the old tracks and ties were removed from the Moffat Road, which began to be used for recreation. Over the next two decades the route became popular among four-wheel-drive enthusiasts and other outdoor adventurers, but it was not very well maintained until 1956, when Boulder, Gilpin, and Grand Counties joined with the Colorado Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) to improve the old railroad grade for use by passenger vehicles. At that time the counties also signed maintenance agreements with the US Forest Service.
In recent decades, however, the Moffat Road has suffered significant natural damage. A 1979 rockfall at Needle’s Eye Tunnel closed the road there until 1988. Another rockfall two years later closed that portion of the road again, and the tunnel remains unstable until further repairs are made. The Devil’s Slide Twin Trestles have also been closed to vehicular traffic since 1982. A portion of the Rollinsville and Middle Park Wagon Road has been reopened so that four-wheel-drive vehicles can continue to use the route to access Rollins Pass.
In 1980 the Moffat Road was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2012 Colorado Preservation named the route an “Endangered Place” because it had few interpretive materials, received little maintenance, and was gradually deteriorating as extreme weather took its toll.