The Royal Gorge is a spectacular canyon along the Arkansas River near Cañon City in south-central Colorado. With a narrowest width of just 30 feet at the bottom of the canyon and a depth exceeding 1,200 feet in some places, the nearly ten-mile-long canyon is considered a world wonder of geology. With its iconic red granite formations and extreme height, the Royal Gorge was dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River by the first American explorers to see it. As an ancient wintering location for Ute Native Americans, as the site of intense and sometimes violent feuds between corporations, and now as a popular location for tourists, Colorado’s Royal Gorge stands as an iconic piece of the state’s history.
Approximately 3 million years ago, as the modern Rocky Mountain chain began to rise above the surrounding plains and deserts of the Colorado Plateau, a small trickle of water that would become the Arkansas River—one of the longest rivers in the United States—rose up with them. Through the centuries, the Rocky Mountains achieved their famous height and the Arkansas River grew in size and power, slowly cutting a deep channel through the hard granite of the emerging peaks. The Arkansas River slowly carved out the 1,250-foot deep canyon at a rate of approximately one foot every 2,500 years, resulting in the Royal Gorge’s unique rock formations, extreme height, and narrowness.
Long before permanent European settlement in Colorado, Ute people wintered in the Royal Gorge for its protection from inclement weather and the relatively mild climate of the Arkansas River Valley. The Ute people and other Indigenous groups such as the Comanche and Lakota also used the Royal Gorge to access higher mountain meadows on hunting expeditions.
In the early eighteenth century, much of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain region was claimed by the Spanish Empire. Although no known written record exists, it is likely that the conquistador expeditions launched from Mexico‑—as well as the Spanish fur trappers traveling through the Arkansas River Valley—would have seen the Royal Gorge. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson secured over 800,000 square miles of territory for the United States from France through the Louisiana Purchase, giving way to a flurry of American expeditions to the west. Among the most famous of these journeys was the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 and the Zebulon Pike expedition of 1806.
The hard-to-determine western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase ran through the heart of the Colorado Territory, and Pike was charged with exploring the Mississippi River and its tributaries, with purchasing land from Indigenous people as sites for future military posts, and with bringing back to St. Louis any Native American leaders he could. Pike and his men headed west from St. Louis on July 15, 1806.
Pike stumbled upon the Royal Gorge in December 1806 while searching for the headwaters of the Arkansas River. He recorded in his journal that his expedition had found the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River” and that his party had built a crude shelter near the canyon, where they stayed for several days. Pike and his men explored the area around the Royal Gorge and entered the canyon on horseback over the frozen Arkansas River, determining that they had indeed found its headwaters. Satisfied, Pike and his men then turned their attention to finding the headwaters of the Red River and a water route back to the Mississippi River. They left Royal Gorge on December 9, 1806. Pike’s erroneous assumption that he had found the headwaters of the Arkansas at Royal Gorge would soon come back to haunt him.
The Arkansas River did not end at the Royal Gorge; it had simply disappeared into the depths of the canyon beyond where Pike’s men had explored. Unknown to Pike and his men, the river continued to snake northwest for more than 100 miles to its true source near present-day Leadville. On December 18, the expedition encountered the river again approximately seventy miles above Royal Gorge, near present-day Buena Vista. Still believing that the Arkansas River began back at the gorge, Pike assumed that he had at last found the Red River and began to travel downstream.
Within days, their downriver trek brought them back to the Royal Gorge. To his horror, Pike realized that his men had arrived at the very point that they left on December 9. Determined not to be defeated, Pike broke his party into small detachments with various missions in and around the canyon. Pike and his men struggled up and down the treacherous landscape for nearly twelve days before finally assembling at the canyon’s eastern portal, where they remained, weathering a severe snowstorm until they left their Royal Gorge camp on January 14, 1807.
After the Mexican-American War ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the remainder of the Colorado Territory officially came under control of the United States. The territory was then opened up for settlement. With the discovery of gold, silver, lead, and other precious minerals, prospectors descended on the Colorado Territory. It was not long before lead was found in the true headwaters of the Arkansas River, an event that created the need for a railway system through Royal Gorge.
The Railroad Era
Cañon City was established just east of Royal Gorge in 1860 to exploit the rich coal fields of the Arkansas River Valley. The 1877 discovery of lead in the Arkansas headwaters gave way to a flurry of mining activity and directed the attention of two railroad companies—the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF)—to Cañon City. Under normal circumstances, two railroad companies occupying the same valley—or even the same canyon—would not have been problematic, but the narrowness of Royal Gorge created a unique challenge for railroad builders.
Both railroads wanted to lay tracks through the canyon in order to quickly reach the mining fields in Leadville. But with room for only one set of tracks in the narrow canyon, the war for Royal Gorge began. Both railroad companies engaged in two years of small-scale sabotage warfare until the feud was settled by the Colorado Supreme Court on March 27, 1880. Both companies signed the so-called Treaty of Boston, which allowed the D&RG to complete construction and lease its rail line to Leadville. The track was finally finished on July 20, 1880.
Passenger service through the canyon to Leadville began the same year the track was finished and ran until July of 1967, indicating Americans’ growing preference to visit the gorge via automobile. Commercial freight service continued through Royal Gorge until 1989, when the route was finally closed. However, in 1998 two corporations, the Cañon City & Royal Gorge Railroad and Rock and Rail, Inc., joined together to form Royal Gorge Express, LLC in order to revive the abandoned railroad.
The company was awarded a construction bid from the Colorado Office of Economic Development to purchase and revive twelve miles of track running through Royal Gorge in order to preserve the rail corridor for its importance to Colorado mining history. Passenger service began again in May 1999. Today, the Royal Gorge Railroad is a major tourist attraction, carrying more than 100,000 visitors annually through the scenic canyon.
The Hanging Bridge
Building a rail line through the narrow Royal Gorge is an impressive feat, even by modern engineering standards. Perhaps the most harrowing segment of track in the canyon is the Hanging Bridge section, where the canyon narrows to just thirty feet wide. At this bottleneck, the railroad track had to be suspended over the river on the north side of the canyon where the sheer granite walls plunge nearly straight down into the river.
C. Shallor Smith, a prominent engineer from Kansas, was called upon to design a way through the formidable obstacle. Smith eventually designed a 175-foot plated girder floor, suspended on one side by a series of A-frame girders, to span the river and support the track above the rushing water. When completed in 1879, Smith’s Hanging Bridge cost $11,759, an impressive figure for the time. Adjusted for today’s economy, it would cost an estimated $20 million to complete. The Hanging Bridge has been strengthened several times but remains largely unchanged over the years.
Royal Gorge Bridge and Amusement Park
In 1906 Congress voted to give the Royal Gorge and surrounding land to Cañon City, Colorado. In 1929, Cañon City authorized the Royal Gorge Bridge and Amusement Company to build the Royal Gorge Bridge. At 1,053 feet above the river, the bridge is the highest suspension bridge in the United States and one of the highest in the world.
The project was financed by Lon P. Piper, president of the newly formed Royal Gorge Bridge and Amusement Company, with another Kansas architect, George E. Cole, who served as chief engineer of the project. Construction began on June 4, 1929 and was completed by early December 1929 at a cost of $350,000.
From start to finish, visitors came each day from across the United States to marvel at the construction of the bridge and the grandeur of the canyon. The Royal Gorge Bridge officially opened to the general public on December 8, 1929. To finance the construction and ongoing maintenance of the bridge, a toll of 75 cents per person was charged to those who wished to cross it, beginning the bridge’s long career as a preeminent tourist destination. The Royal Gorge Bridge has attracted more than 25 million visitors since opening and is the centerpiece of the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park Amusement Company’s 360-acre theme park.
In addition to the Royal Gorge Bridge, the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park Amusement Company added one of the world’s steepest incline railways in 1931. It also opened one of the world’s longest single-span aerial trams in 1969, and today operates more than twenty-one different rides, shows, and attractions, including the world’s highest zip-line. The gorge’s array of amenities, impressive engineering feats, and breathtaking scenery make it one of Colorado’s most popular tourist attractions.
Adapted from Judy Suchan, “The ‘War’ for the Royal Gorge,” Colorado Central Magazine, January 3, 2011.