Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of a story from last Wednesday’s Mountain Mail.
The Alpine Tunnel had been operational for a couple of years when a series of disasters occurred.
In 1884, an avalanche swept down and completely engulfed the town of Woodstock, a small station just past the west side of the Alpine Tunnel. Not many people lived there, just 14, but the town was decimated. Thirteen were killed in the slide, and just one man escaped.
The Carbonate Chronicle reported:
“The depot building, section house and three residences, in the line of the slide, were swept from the face of the mountain and carried with the moving mass of snow a thousand feet to the valley below, and so deeply covered that it will take weeks to shovel down.”
Thirty-five feet of snow, trees and rocks covered the railroad track. A train’s snow wedge made no difference here; only dynamite and hand digging would clear the track. It was the first evidence of the high cost of keeping the tunnel open.
In January 1885, a train passing through the tunnel had the misfortune of coming out into a snowbank, effectively trapping it. One passenger, by the name of Rohlfing, was aboard the ill-fated train and decided to make the trek back into Buena Vista to get help.
Thinking that some of the station houses along the way would be open so he could warm up and get help, he proceeded to walk toward Buena Vista, 40 miles distant. Unbeknown to Rohlfing, every station house along the route was closed, so he had no choice but to keep walking through the snow, averaging about a mile an hour.
Partway through his journey, he slipped and fell through a train trestle and landed in the creek below. Rohlfing said, “I have taken cold baths, but nothing that ever compared with that.”
Struggling in the snow now with a sprained ankle, he was close to giving up, but courage rising, he crawled to the top of the embankment and limped off toward Buena Vista.
“I was frequently inclined to lay down and take a friendly nap with the snow, but realizing that the frost was getting me under its influence, I walked on. Finally, upon the afternoon of the second day, I arrived at the depot in Buena Vista, and of all the tough looking transients that ever you saw, I was the one. I couldn’t have walked another mile to have saved my life, and how I ever got through the snow drifts, with a sprained ankle, and conquered the blizzards, is something that I’ll never know.”
Snow and rock slides and the constant expense for men to clear the rail line resulted in the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad going bankrupt. The track was abandoned in 1890 and the tunnel lay in disuse for about five years.
In 1895, the Denver & South Park reorganized and became the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison Railway Co. With the new company came a new dream of reopening the tunnel.
A correspondent for the Denver Post wrote optimistically, and a little ironically, in June 1895:
“In its construction is seen one of the greatest triumphs of man over the difficulties of nature. Wild streams, yawning chasms, dizzy heights have all been overcome and for more than fourteen years the iron horse has traveled over a firm road-bed carrying men through the mountain wilds with ease and safety.”
But the reopening came with a cost. When the tunnel was built in 1881, each side, east and west, was constructed to slope down from the middle, the center of the tunnel being the highest point. In early June 1895, as an engine was backing cars into the tunnel, the front car became detached and raced backwards down the incline. Thirteen men leapt from the speeding cars; two were killed.
Later that June, four workers had entered in from the east side to begin clearing the blocked tunnel and were working in a small opening on the inside. The blockage had dammed up water from passing rainstorms, which had no way to drain from the tunnel.
An engine was brought in to pump the water out. When the scorching firebox on the engine came into proximity with the water, clouds of gas and vapor formed, choking the men. With no way out, the engineer attempted a last-ditch effort to ram the train engine through to the west side of the tunnel (keep in mind, this was still partially blocked by rock fall) to create a gap in the tunnel to let the toxic vapors escape.
It was unsuccessful. Four men died, including the engineer, “Dad” Martenis, who was found dead with his hand still on the throttle.
Trains ran until 1910, when the Alpine Tunnel was abandoned. As time passes, stones erode, timbers break, water seeps, ice cracks, and snow melts. This degradation continues to wear down the tunnel and the road through the Palisades leading up to it.
It is unclear whether Road 839 on the western side will be rebuilt since being damaged a few years back. Perhaps it will be abandoned, like the tunnel itself. For now, the road has become a pleasant, 3-mile (one-way) walk up to the tunnel.
Joy Jackson is desk clerk and archivist at Salida Regional Library. Follow twitter.com/SalidaArchive to see historic images of Salida.