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Chasm Train

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

How many times have you peered into a canyon and wondered what it might be like to be at the bottom looking up? Unless you were inclined to ride a mule or hike down the Grand
Canyon or raft the rapids, there weren’t too many opportunities to explore a deep abyss.
Since the summer of 1999, when passenger service was returned to Colorado’s Royal Gorge after an absence of 32 years, it has been possible to view this awesome canyon from the safety and comfort of a train that snakes along the bottom of the canyon. While you view some of the country’s most spectacular scenery, you are riding on tracks that made history and even today are considered an engineering marvel. While the Royal Gorge, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River, is not as deep as many other canyons, it is the steepness of the sides where the chasm narrows to a mere 30 feet that is so impressive.

In fact, it was that narrow section of the canyon that presented a monumental challenge to the railroad builders who were seeking the shortest route between Canon City and Leadville. The discovery of rich gold fields in Leadville led to the Royal Gorge War of 1878, as two railroad companies, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the Denver & Rio Grande, competed to be the first to find a way to push a route through the awesome abyss. With each one determined to be the first to reach Leadville, crews from both companies began construction in the canyon, but there was room for only one track.

During the night, crews would sabotage what their competitors had built the previous day. Both sides resorted to armed guards to protect their right-of-way and their efforts. The
conflict ended up in court and the D&RG reigned, but only after paying the Santa Fe
$1.8 million for work already completed, including the hanging bridge. As you ride through
the canyon, looking to the south, you can see the remains of a railbed left behind by the
losing company. For 70 years, it was used to carry a redwood pipe through the canyon to
deliver water to the residents of Canon City, until it was replaced with a better system in
1974. You also will see the remnants of stone forts that were used by the warring workmen
to take shots at one another. The two-hour excursion through the canyon and back begins in Canon City at the restored Santa Fe Depot, which was constructed in 1913.

It has been nicely refurbished to retain its ambiance, and encompasses a ticket window, a gift shop and a restaurant that offers tasty food. You can even order a box lunch to take on board the train. Excitement builds when two huge orange, silver and black diesel-electric locomotives pull into place, towing four passenger cars and two open observation cars. There also is a concession car. All seats in the passenger cars are reserved, and there is plenty of standing room in the open cars to view and photograph the depths of the canyon.

As the train pulls away from the station, the surrounding terrain belies what is ahead. The steep granite canyon walls seem to appear out of nowhere, and soon the train is turning and twisting along the banks of the Arkansas River. It was the carving action of this river
that cut through more than 1,000 feet of solid granite, and geologists estimate it took the
river 3 million years to reach its current depth. Today, the process continues at a rate of
2 inches each millennium. Just when it seems that the canyon can’t get any narrower, the
walls close in still more. With a blast on the whistle, the train rounds a bend to a
magnificent sight. More than 1,000 feet overhead, glistening in the sun, is the world’s
highest suspension bridge. It is the famous Royal Gorge Bridge, which has spanned the
canyon since 1929. The towers that support the bridge look tiny from the bottom, but they
actually are 150 feet high. The bridge deck is 18 feet wide and is comprised of 1,292 wood
planks. Each year, on a rotating schedule, 250 planks are replaced. Built at a cost of
$350,000, it would take more than $20 million to replace the bridge today. This vantage
point is also the place where an incline railway emerges from a side canyon, delivering
passengers to view the canyon from below while standing on a pedestrian bridge above the
railroad track. Built in 1931, the railway travels 1,550 feet down the canyon wall at a
45-degree angle. It is here that the train halts so passengers from both the Royal Gorge
train and the incline railway can wave and take photos of one another. By now, the canyon
has narrowed to 30 feet. It was this section of the canyon that presented a formidable
challenge to engineers in 1879.

There was no room to lay the track beside the river. The solution was to design a hanging bridge, 175 feet long, that is held in place by A-frame girders anchored to the canyon wall. The bridge has been carrying trains through the narrows for more than 120 years. After its stop, the train continues through the canyon, and almost as suddenly as they appeared, the canyon walls give way to surrounding meadows as the train emerges from the canyon. Yet, it has traveled only 12 miles from the station in Canon City. While stopped at the turnaround point, passengers can watch as kayakers and rafters prepare to shoot the rapids of the Arkansas River. The river looks quite innocent here, wide and placid, but this is no gentle float trip. As the canyon narrows, the turbulent water surges over rocks and into whirlpools, presenting a challenge for even the most experienced rafter.

If you were too busy looking up on your first trip through the canyon, you’ll want to watch the rafters as they plunge through the gorge. The reverse trip also provides a different view of the canyon. All too soon, the train pulls up to the station in Canon City, but the excursion doesn’t have to end. There’s still a lot more to see and do, but it’s from the top looking down into the canyon. Taking State Highway 50 west, just follow the signs 12 miles to Royal Gorge Park, which actually is owned by Canon City. If you are like most visitors, you’ll head for the bridge first. You’ll find it’s even more daunting from the top, looking down on the surging river 1,053 feet below.

If you time your visit right and listen for the whistle, you can watch the train snake its way along the bottom of the canyon. It looks like a miniature train from the canyon-top vantage point. If walking across the bridge isn’t to your liking, there is a trolley that carries passengers from one side to the other. Cars are allowed to cross the bridge. Perhaps the most thrilling way to traverse the gorge is on an aerial tramway that was opened in 1969. Passenger cabins are suspended 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River for the 2,200-foot crossing. If you really want to see the bottom of the canyon again, you can board the incline railway, from which you can photograph and exchange greetings with the train passengers. Other attractions include a 12-minute presentation on the building of the Royal Gorge Bridge and a variety of gift shops and eating establishments on both sides of the canyon. There’s also an old-fashioned carousel, a mini-railroad, and plenty of hiking and picnic areas. You’ll need a full day to explore the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park from the bottom to the top, but it is an unforgettable experience. To select a campsite for your visit, check out Good Sam Directory.

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