Article contributed by Tim Nicklas
For many years Denver longed for its own direct line through the continental divide, linking the city to the west coast. In the 1860s, Denver was slighted by the Union Pacific(UP), when the company chose Cheyenne as the major hub for the prized Transcontinental Railroad, before it snaked through the Rockies. Fortunately, the city fathers of Denver did not give up on making their city the center of the Rocky Mountain Empire, as they risked financial disaster by bankrolling a spur line to the main route in Cheyenne. Denver may not have had their direct route to the west and the fortunes that lay on the other side of the divide, but the city was not dead.
For Grand County, the U.P.'s decision not to penetrate the formidable barrier of Colorado's mountains had a much greater impact. As it stood Grand County had no for seeable future of gaining a rail line. This meant that the only means of transportation into or out of the county was by pack animal or foot. Furthermore, without a line to Denver, there was virtually no practical way for industry to develop in Grand County.
In 1904, Denver and Grand County's long awaited dream of a direct line through the mountains and on to Salt Lake City began to materialize. The Moffat Railroad had risen over Corona Pass and descended into the Fraser Valley. At the time Corona Pass was the highest rail pass in the world. Along with this fact came the troubles of maintaining such a wonder. The route was challenging to keep open in the summer with the violent storms that are prone at such a location. In the winter the line would close all together. Adding to the trouble of the unpredictable route was the fact that Colorado's economy of the 1870s was not the same in the early 20th century.
In the 1870s, much of Colorado's mineral wealth was centered directly west of Denver in Central City and Georgetown. By 1880 many of those mines began to play out. Furthermore, production shifted to the silver mines of Leadville and the Arkansas Valley. As a result, rail traffic favored Pueblo over Denver. Pueblo was situated on the plains as the Arkansas River exits from the mountains, eliminating the need for boring tunnels or climbing over arduous mountain passes. In addition, Pueblo was close to the coalfields that were essential to power the locomotives. Also, the city was the site of the largest steel mill west of the Mississippi, which supplied rails for the sprawling network. Finally, Pueblo's smelters boomed when many others withered after the "Silver Panic" of 1893. At the same time that depression gripped Colorado and silver was devalued, gold was discovered in Cripple Creek. Within a few short years the new gold camp would become the world's largest producer. As a result, nearby Pueblo would reap the benefits by converting from silver to gold, to become the smelting capitol of the nation.
By the early 20th century, Pueblo's status as an industrial powerhouse and rail center threatened Denver's status as Colorado's "first city." This was even further evidenced by the "powers-that-be" in the northern part of the state being unable to convince the rest of Colorado to finance a tunnel under the continental divide west of Denver. Time and again legislation that would fund the missing link between Denver and the western slope was defeated in the statehouse by those in southern Colorado who were content with their established web-link. Barring a miracle, it looked as if Denver and Grand County would have to settle for the unreliable Moffat line over Corona Pass. In 1921 that miracle would rush in, due to un-for-seen misfortune upon Colorado's "second city" in the south of the state.
The spring of 1921 started as many do in Colorado, with a drought. By June 1st the many farmers downstream in the Arkansas Valley feared disaster as crops withered with thirst. On the 2nd day of June, the farmers got the relief of rain they eagerly wanted. Unfortunately, the downpour continued until the formerly parched earth became like a sponge and the Arkansas River swelled. The streets of Pueblo were ankle deep with water by nighttime. Suddenly, with little warning, a torrent of water rushed from the upper Arkansas Valley toward the helpless "Steel City." Pueblo's streets filled with water up to rooftops. The unified rail-yard was ripped instantly. Unfortunate train passengers were tossed unaware into the maddening grip of the Arkansas, unable to escape the iron coffins in which they were riding. Families were stranded on roofs as row boats desperately searched for stranded victims. As pungent water filled the business area with filth and debris, fires broke out. Unable to do anything, citizens watched helplessly as fire and water consumed their city. As the flood receded the Rocky Mountain News headline proclaimed "201 Bodies Found, Scores Lost, Pueblo Death Total, 500 To 1,500." The Rocky Mountain News goes on to describe the scene from June 4th:
"All day long refugees, dazed, not knowing what to do, straggled
about the streets. Mothers with babes in their arms, mothers
whose arms were empty, old men and women and people of every
description wandered about until gathered up and taken to Red
Cross headquarters, where they were fed and allowed to rest."
The scene in Pueblo was like those witnessed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or the notorious San Francisco Earthquake in 1906.
As Pueblo dried out in the days that followed, plans were immediately being drafted in the statehouse to assure that the devastated city would not befall a future wrath from the Arkansas River. Seizing upon the opportunity presented by Pueblo's misery, interests in Denver, Grand County, and others in northern Colorado saw fit to take advantage. As the discussion of flood control in the south dominated state legislation the notion of a tunnel under the continental divide west of Denver resurfaced. According to Ubbelohde, Benson, and Smith's book, A Colorado History 8th Ed., a "special legislative session made history." Attached to the act that created the Pueblo Conservancy District, northern lawmakers added the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District. As a result of the passage of these two distinctly different special tax districts in a single signing by Governor Shoup, the long sought after western passage would be built. With the tunnel Grand County would finally be open to the outside world by a year round and reliable link.
The building of the Moffat Tunnel was an enormous undertaking that cost several lives and injured even more workers. Nonetheless, the tunnel from its inception has remained of vital importance to the Fraser Va