The Moffat Road: The Former "Hill" Route
Compiled by Dick Oakes
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"The Hill" (also called "Hell Hill") refers to the section of the original Moffat Railroad that made its arduous way up the mountainside and crossed the Continental Divide (called "Devil's Backbone") through Rollins Pass utilizing the 19th century Rollinsville and Middle Park Wagon Road. The original Army officer / detachment credited with the first wagon crossing over Rollins Pass was Captain Jacob P. Bonesteel of the 1st Colorado calvary, Company D., on their way to Hot Sulphur Springs from Denver. They left Denver on July 16, 1863, and did not reach the Springs until August 12. (From the book "Island in the Rockies" -- The History of Grand County, Colorado, by Robert C. Black III. Thanks to Gary Flauaus for the information.)
There is a monument south of the Eldora ski area on the Jenny Creek trail (in the Deadman's Gulch area) that suggests John C. Fremont's men from his 3rd expedition (1845-46) crossed over Rollins Pass either going to or returning from their California trip. The marker was placed there by the Toll family many years ago (there is a T O L L "brand" in the lower right side of the marker).
The Moffat Railroad is an example of how David Halliday Moffat Jr., in spite of incredible financial hardships, realized his dream of driving a railroad line over "The Top of the World." Moffat began the line westward from Denver to Hot Sulphur Springs in April of 1903. It was constructed to provide access to the west side of a proposed 2.6-mile tunnel under Rollins Pass at the 9,960-foot level. The line was completed in just a little over two years in June of 1905. The route required the boring of 33 small tunnels on a 2% grade along South Boulder Creek and on a 4% grade over Rollins Pass. Although intended for three or four years' use, the "Over the Hill" route served as the main line until 1929, when the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel was finally completed!
As late as the 1970s, you could drive the old route of the original Denver Northwestern & Pacific Railway and Denver & Salt Lake Railroad through the Needle's Eye Tunnel using an auto tour self-guide published by the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. Then vandals destroyed part the Eye's ceiling and a rock slide closed it in 1979. The tunnel was repaired in 1987 but another slide closed it in 1990, injuring a sightseer. Because of that closure, there is no longer a motorized route across Rollins Pass. You can still drive up either side to reach the Needle's Eye, but then you'll have to backtrack and go around to go up the other side, if you want to see most of the route.
The guide described 28 view points, starting at the junction of Highway 19 and Colorado FR 16 in Rollinsville, that were marked along the way with numbered signs, the originals of which have all now been removed by thieves, to alert the traveler to look at a particular view. The Rollins Pass Restoration Association began replacing the missing signs in 2002.
To start your tour, you set your trip meter at 00.0 at the Rollinsville Junction.
A mile from the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel was Signpost #3 at 4.8 miles, where the roadbed turned back and began its run up the mountainside. (Drive further west for a closer view of the tunnel.)
Continuing up the first grade, you come to Signpost #4 at 7.4 miles. There you could park and walk up an old grade to the right to arrive at possibly the only square Water Tower still standing in the United States.
The Ladora Overlook was indicated by Signpost #6 at 9.3 miles. Ladora, a bustling railroad crew settlement from 1903 to 1904, served as an important railroad siding, one of five on "The Hill."
A tiny railroad settlement clinging to the mountainside at 9,905 feet was Antelope, where large numbers of railroad workers made their homes. The spot was indicated by Signpost #7 at 10.0 miles. There are still ruins of a few small, crude, log cabins just below the road here.
Signpost #8 at 11.0 miles was where the 4% grade became too much for the brakes of Mallet engine 201 and a runaway Train Wreck
Less than a mile further on at 11.9 miles, Signpost #9 was where a mile-long narrow Strip of Deforested Land was meant to prevent forest fires caused by the burning cinders from the locomotives. The cut trees were used to make snowsheds.
A small, one-room, frame Log Structure, used by loggers, was situated where Signpost #10 stood at 12.3 miles.
At 13.0 miles, Signpost #11 was set at 10,990 feet to indicate the turn-around point called Spruce Wye. Tin cans and other debris found at the wye accumulated from use of a two-story building that housed telegraph operators, section men, and snowplow crews.
A much advertised popular and scenic spot was Yankee Doodle Lake at 14.7 miles, indicated by Signpost #12. The tailings pile extending into the lake is the result of an aborted 2,000-foot tunneling effort in 1879 and 1880. Remnants of cabins may still be seen here.
Up the road, Signpost #13 at 15.5 miles was the Dixie Siding below man-made Jenny Lake, the highest water stop on the line before the final four-mile, 800-foot climb to "The Top of the World." On a stalled train during a storm on November 2, 1905, a brakeman assisted a mother giving birth to a baby whose name became Jenny Lake Miller.
Because of the collapse and closure of the Needle's Eye by the Forest Service, this is where you you must turn your vehicle around and head back down the mountainside.
At 3.3 miles could be found Signpost #28 that meant you were at Pacific Siding, a passing track for the town of Arrow.
The little Chicago Wagon Road, which connected Arrow with the valley below, crosses the Moffat Road at this point. Signpost #27 at 3.9 miles is where the town of Arrow (or Arrowhead, as it was originally called) had its first rails laid 76 miles west of Denver in September, 1904. Arrow, at 9,585 feet in elevation, two miles above the Berthoud Pass Wagon Road, became the first incorporated town in Grand County the following December. Over 2,000 construction camp workers received their mail here.
The Dining Room eating house fronted a short side track that also had a coal tipple, engine loop, and stock yard alongside. In addition to saloons, Arrow had several restaurants, a general store, a livery stable, boardinghouses, gambling and sporting houses, and a ten-by-sixteen-foot jail built of two-by-fours. In its heyday, Arrow had two pressure-tank gasoline street lights, the likes of which were usually seen only on the boulevards of large cities.
By 1906, Arrow's population was down to sixteen and it became a ghost town when the "Hill" route was abandoned. The Arrow town site now has been re-timbered.
There were two spurs built along the line here. One, the Forest Spur at 3.9 miles, indicated by Signpost #26, was a level grade built back into the trees to allow trains to pass.
The Sawmill Spur at 4.0 miles, indicated by Signpost #25, left the main line to reach a sawmill where some of the dilapidated log buildings may still be seen. The cabins were used as emergency shelters during blizzards.
At 10,200 feet in elevation, the Ranch Creek Wye was located at 7.4 miles and indicated by Signpost #24. This short wye was the turn-around point for railroad snowplows on the west side of the mountains. A water tank, insulated with a foot of sawdust, and an operator's office were located here. At the bend in the road are the remains of Railroad Bridge #72.83 (72.83 miles from Denver). A short distance back down the road is a white Federal Aviation Agency airways beacon maintenance crew emergency storm shelter (the beacon is located on a peak near Rollins Pass).
Signpost #23 at 9.1 miles was located at the Trestle-Tunnel Bypass Junction. The uphill railroad grade from this point is impassable so a bypass road was built. Here there were two old cabins used by Moffat Road loggers. Just around the lower bend was a "landing deck" built by loggers to aid them when loading logs on flatcars.
At 9.5 miles Signpost #22 marked the Trailhead of a foot trail to the original railroad grade, about a five-minute walk. From the end of the trail, you can see ramps built down to retrieve various wrecked engines (see Signpost #19).
The Loop Trestle and Tunnel 33 were indicated by Signpost #21 at 10.8 miles. A train going through Tunnel 33 had to ascend one and a half miles of track (150 feet in elevation) that looped around a mountain peak before it reached the Loop Trestle. Nearby Trestle Campground is a good place to have a picnic and enjoy the spectacular view of Colorado's high country.
Sunnyside, an area named for its sunny exposure, was where Signpost #20 was located at 12.0 miles. Water from a small pond was used for engines. Some of the ponding structure may still be seen. Across the road is a Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) weather shelter. Beyond a range study plot, constructed from original railroad ties, are old cabins used during railroad construction.
The 12.5 mile Signpost #19 was where you could stop to see, across the valley on the mountanside, two diagonal timber cuts extending down to the lower track level. This is your Train Wrecks stop. The left ramp was used to retrieve a snowplow. Engine #210 jumped from the upper level in 1924, landing on the lower level and exploding down the hill, leaving rusted pieces of metal that still remain. The ramp on the right was built in 1922 to retrieve Mallet Engine #208, swept down the mountain with its tender in a snow slide. Coal piles still ramain from an area to the right where many coal cars were swept down the hillside.
At 12.9 miles, where Signpost #18 stood, one could see a long row of Telegraph Poles that served the Moffat Road. Snow piled so high here that men from stranded trains felt along the wires to shelter.
Higher on the road you came to Signpost #17 at 13.6 miles. In the basin to the west was Pump House Lake where a steam-generated water pump was located and where the water pump operator and his wife spent the winter, isolated except for the telegraph. The pump supplied the needs of the Corona Station and Hotel further up the line as well as railroad water tanks.
Signpost #16 located the Corona Station and Hotel at an elevation of 11,600 feet at Rollins Pass (originally called Boulder Pass and also known as Corona Pass). Corona, Spanish for "crown," is usually covered with snow from October to June from the westerly winds which sweep across the Continental Divide year round. An extensive snow shed was required to cover the main line, the wye, and the passing track here because of the 20- to 30-foot snow drifts in winter. A railroad eating house, reached by a small snow shed passageway, was built a hundred feet back from the shed to the south. Near the wye and a passing track of the main line was a steam heating plant and a water tank. Other buildings on the site were made from boxcar bodies. To the north was the beautiful Corona Hotel, whose foundation and deeply anchored cable roof supports may still be seen. Most of the structures on the Hill were dismantled for salvage in 1936. Further to the north is King's Lake where yet another aborted tunnel excavation was located.
On the east side of Rollins Pass is the Devil's Slide, 1,000 feet above Boulder Creek, which is traversed by the Twin Trestles, as pointed out by Signpost #15 at 15.7 miles. The trestles were constructed in 1904. At the west end of the higher trestle a wooden barrel was buried to catch rainwater, used to quench any flame caused by a steam engine spark. Both trestles, built onto the side of the mountain, seemingly clinging to the rock, are now considered unsafe, even for foot traffic.
Most of the information for this article came from "The Moffat Road (Former 'Hill' Route): A Self-Guiding Auto Tour" published by the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests, c. 1963, by Edward T. Bollinger and Forrest Crossen.