The Georgetown Loop is a rail line running between Georgetown and Silver Plume that showcases Colorado’s mountain scenery and mining heritage. The Georgetown Loop represents a major part of Colorado’s formative history—railroad development—as well as one of the state’s strongest industries—tourism. After a revival in the 1970s, the Georgetown Loop still runs several times a day for people interested in seeing Colorado’s sights and experiencing travel by rail.
Railroad History in Georgetown
Initially founded as a gold mining center in 1859, Georgetown instead developed into a silver camp. Miners in Georgetown and other camps along Clear Creek, thirty-five miles west of Denver, knew from the outset that a railroad must reach them if their settlements were to thrive. But the process of bringing rail lines up the valley was fraught with difficulties and delays. The Colorado Central Railroad, headquartered in Golden and led by William A.H. Loveland, became the first to undertake the challenge of building a narrow-gauge line up Clear Creek to Georgetown in 1861. While riches from the mines were certainly a worthwhile prize, Loveland knew that successful crossing of the Continental Divide would also work to lure the Transcontinental Railroad—which was still being planned—through Colorado. Loveland’s ambitions were delayed by the Civil War and then thwarted again when the transcontinental route bypassed Colorado, choosing instead a flatter route through southern Wyoming.
Loveland recovered from these setbacks and in 1872 completed the Colorado Central Railroad from Golden to Black Hawk. The line then proceeded toward Georgetown via Floyd Hill before falling victim to financial difficulties in 1873. Although the line was fewer than twenty miles from Georgetown, not until August 1877 did the Colorado Central finally reach the mining community.
The railroad’s presence solidified Georgetown as the “Silver Queen of the Rockies.” As the seat of Clear Creek County, Georgetown developed as an orderly community with streets of fine Victorian homes, blooming gardens, retailers, first-class hotels, restaurants, saloons, schools, and churches. Georgetown was favored by wealthy businessmen and merchants, while two miles to the west Silver Plume was the workers’ settlement, populated by miners of various cultural backgrounds and their families.
But, as so often happened in Rocky Mountain boom towns, the next great mineral discovery stole the light from Georgetown and Silver Plume. In the autumn of 1877, discoveries of carbonite silver in Leadville, fifty miles southwest of Georgetown, spawned one of history’s greatest rushes for riches. Georgetown watched helplessly as miners left to try their luck in Leadville. Faced with this dilemma, Georgetown focused on becoming a staging point for the Leadville rush, first via hastily hacked-out stage roads and next with the railroad. After all, Leadville’s fantastic wealth could finance the tunneling of rails beneath the 14,000-foot Continental Divide and beyond, perhaps even to the Pacific.
The transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad that had bypassed Colorado and proceeded through Wyoming was now intent on capturing some of Leadville’s wealth. In 1879 Union Pacific took over the Colorado Central and the substantial task of burrowing through the mountains to Leadville. The steep and narrow Clear Creek Canyon between Georgetown and Silver Plume was a formidable obstacle. The total distance between the two towns was only two miles, but the daunting elevation gain of 638 feet would require locomotives to climb grades steeper than they were designed for.
Birth of the Georgetown Loop
Starting with a survey of the proposed line in 1879, Union Pacific engineer Jacob B. Blickensderfer and his son Thomas, also an experienced railroad construction engineer, met delays and problems at every turn. To the Blickensderfers’ disgust, the survey crew proved incompetent and inexperienced, and the preliminary surveys were riddled with mistakes. After spending long days in the field, the crew sustained several injuries, and poor morale made it increasingly difficult to keep men on the job. Harsh winters cut the planning season short, and the Blickensderfers grew impatient with the sluggish progress.
As of February 1881, Union Pacific was pleased enough with the survey to incorporate the Georgetown, Breckenridge and Leadville Railway, although actual construction of the line would not begin until the following January. Residents in Georgetown and Silver Plume eagerly followed every development as some 200 laborers began working on what was known as the High Line and its Devil’s Gate Bridge. Construction of the bridge alone took two months, beginning in late September 1883. All appeared satisfactory with the bridge until the chief engineer, Robert B. Stanton, discovered that the entire bridge had been installed backwards: the support columns for the north end of the bridge should have been on the south. Stanton refused to accept the flip-flopped bridge, and crews tore it apart and reassembled it—a six-week job in the dead of winter. Finally, on February 28, 1884, Devil’s Gate Bridge was completed.
After all of the worry, speculation, and expense—$254,700 to be exact—the line turned out to be the railroad to nowhere. Passing Silver Plume, the line only made it four more miles westward, halting at Bakerville in the shadow of Grays and Torreys Peaks, both over 14,000 feet tall. The Union Pacific had finally found an easier way into Leadville—coming up through South Park instead—and the Georgetown, Breckenridge and Leadville Railroad sat at a dead end. The Georgetown Loop thus never fulfilled its original purpose of transporting riches from the silver mines of Leadville. Rather, it now stood to mine a different sort of treasure—tourist revenue. The Loop’s construction coincided with a growing craze for railroad excursions, and it became popular with vacationers who came to Georgetown to view the natural and man-made wonders along the line. The daring could even walk over the high bridge to the delight of other train passengers. Beginning with famous images of the Georgetown Loop taken by William Henry Jackson immediately after the line’s completion in March 1884, the bridge became among the most famous postcard views of Colorado.
Even though thousands of visitors rode the Loop each year, the line consistently failed to turn a profit. But the rails were about all that Georgetown and Silver Plume had left after 1893, when the devaluation of silver forced closure of the mines and smelters. The Loop struggled along until World War I. Then, improvements in automobiles and roads were making it easier for tourists to explore the mountains on their own. During the 1920s and 1930s the number of passenger trains along the Loop gradually decreased, and Georgetown and Silver Plume fell into a long slumber. The railroad line was finally abandoned in 1939, and its parts were salvaged until the railroad’s very presence began to disappear from the Clear Creek Valley. The Devil’s Gate Bridge was purchased for a paltry $600 by the Silver Plume Mine and Mill Company, which used it as part of its mining trestles.
In the late 1950s forces converged to resurrect the Georgetown Loop Railroad. One of the first to begin planning for its reconstruction was Georgetown summer resident Jared Morse, who was interested in preserving the area’s mining history. The greatest impetus to the project came when Denver attorney Stanley T. Wallbank donated nearly 100 acres of old mining claims and mill sites in the heart of the Loop district. At the urging of the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado), the state highway department began planning its Interstate 70 route higher than was intended along the hillside of the Clear Creek Valley, thus assuring preservation of the original path of the Georgetown Loop Railroad. At the same time, growth along Colorado’s Front Range of the Rockies began to prompt interest in the mountain towns to the west. Georgetown and Silver Plume reawakened as their citizens rallied to preserve and interpret their mining heritage for the growing number of Colorado-bound tourists. In 1966 the National Park Service created the Georgetown-Silver Plume National Historic Landmark District, galvanizing a variety of partners to restore the towns to their former glory.
By 1977 the new track started downward from Silver Plume and reached the upper end of Devil’s Gate. The Georgetown Loop Railroad company began running trains along the limited line during the summer months, allowing visitors to chart the progress of the reconstruction. In 1978 the renovated Lebanon Mine and Mill complex opened along the line, providing a chance for rail travelers to explore the innards of a silver mine.
The remaining elements of the restored line that included the Devil’s Gate Bridge and track extension along the old rail bed toward Georgetown required massive funding. In 1982 the Boettcher Foundation donated $1 million to reconstruct the bridge. The next summer the bridge was rebuilt much like the historic original, except for modifications for increased engine loads and safety considerations. Even with modern cranes and bulldozers, construction of the bridge was considered a remarkable feat. A century after its 1884 construction, the new Devil’s Gate Bridge was tested on June 1, 1984. The test was successful, and dedication day for the bridge arrived on Colorado Day, August 1. Governor Richard Lamm dedicated the bridge, and then attendees boarded two trains for the inaugural steam locomotive ride on the revitalized Loop.
In a partnership maintained since the reconstruction, the Georgetown Loop Railroad company continues to operate the line for History Colorado, which oversees the mine and mill and maintains the entire property. The relationship has resulted in the revival of a treasured part of Colorado rail, mining, and tourism history that almost became lost.
Adapted from Dianna Litvak, “Colorado’s Railroad to Nowhere: Building and Rebuilding the Georgetown Loop,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 19, no. 2 (1999).