by Joy Jackson
Salida Regional Library
The push to lay rail westward hit a fever pitch in Colorado in the 1880s. To that end, the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad had a dream to build a railway tunnel in the high mountains of Colorado.
In January 1880, the railroad began the long process of digging a passage to and through the Continental Divide. By August, the DSP&P was advertising for 1,000 men to work on the Alpine Tunnel. Men, regardless of their race, answered the call.
It took a 1½ years to construct rail bed, blast rock and move earth. In July 1881, the Gunnison Daily News-Democrat made the announcement: “The Rockies Pierced: Daylight Breaks Through the Denver & South Park Railway Tunnel.”
The big question remained: Who would be the first person through? The tunnel crew got together and all agreed: DSP&P Superintendent Osborne’s child was the first person to walk through the gap that would become the Alpine Tunnel. Chief Engineer Barr had to pony up $10 before he could pass through. This money was well spent on beer for the workers.
Hundreds of men dug, blasted and scraped out this passage through the Rockies. It would take another year before the tunnel sides were shored up and track was laid. In that time, at least three men died during building.
In July 1881, a munitions worker was blasting in the tunnel when a mass of powder discharged in front of him. He was killed instantly. And in October 1881, while the tunnel workers were excavating, a large boulder dislodged and fell, killing two.
Notably, there were two instances of murder at the tunnel. One man shot and killed a fellow worker after a drunken quarrel. He was acquitted of the crime.
The other was not so fortunate. After an argument involving money, Thomas Coleman shot and killed Andrew Smith, a fellow railway worker at the tunnel. Though Coleman proclaimed it was a case of self-defense, he was judged and found guilty. On the evening before his death, he was attended by several women. A writer for the Gunnison Daily News-Democrat was there to witness. The scene was piercing:
“A moment later a group of colored women entered the room. As they did so, the condemned man approached the grating and extended his fingers through the bars. One old woman seized the extended hand, and with soft, motherly words tried to cheer and comfort him …
“‘I sent for you,’ he said slowly, ‘I wanted to thank you for coming to see me last night. It was the first time that any of my own people had come near me since I have been here … Will you be at my execution?’ he faltered.”
“When the old woman responded in the affirmative, Coleman continued: ‘I’m glad of that, and I want to ask you to sing and pray for me.’”
His hanging was a gruesome spectacle, not only because of the situation but also due to a faulty trap door that prolonged the agony. It’s detailed here by the Gunnison Daily News-Democrat:
“The suspense was awful, while Coleman cried, ‘What is the matter? Why don’t they kill me?’ … The platform was cleared, the signal was given, and Coleman was swung into eternity.”
After he was cut down, the crowd closed in to see his remains and then fought over pieces of the rope. It was Gunnison’s first public execution.
The tunnel was not cheap to build. Besides the cost of manpower, a premium California redwood was used in shoring up the tunnel interior. Heart redwood is a high-grade, durable wood that is resistant to rot. Eighty years later, when Dow Helmers dug into the tunnel to investigate, he snapped some photos showing a fairly intact tunnel. These images can be seen in his definitive book, “Historic Alpine Tunnel.”
Estimates vary, but it is safe to put a price of $300,000-$400,000 on the building of the tunnel. In today’s dollars, $300,000 would be around $7.5 million.
Hopes were high in 1882 for train service to begin. The Leadville Daily Herald reported: “The South Park branch of the Union Pacific is preparing for a grand excursion season (this) coming summer. The Gunnison branch beyond the Alpine Tunnel will be the most attractive place, besides one of the most romantic places in the mountains.”
On July 13, 1882, the first train came through the Alpine Tunnel. Newspaperman C.F.R. Hayward recalls the experience: “Chalk Creek valley, with its pine-clad slopes, stretches away to the south, abruptly ending its green way against a mountain range that stands barrier-like thirty miles distant. To the west, a granite wall. Suddenly the valley, mountain peaks, and blue sky disappear. A blackness, darker than the night, permeates everything …
“Another metamorphosis. Night has gone and day has come again. To the east, a granite wall. To the west, a wooded valley, with sparkling streams threading their way through it like flashes of sunlight.”
At an altitude of 11,500 feet, the Alpine Tunnel was the highest railway tunnel in North America and Europe. It spanned 1,700 feet in length and had a height of 17 feet. It is estimated that 450,000 feet of California heart redwood was used to shore up the interior.
A week later, the railway had built track to the tiny hamlet of Pitkin. The Elk Mountain Pilot documented the day:
“About noon on Wednesday, the tracklayers reached the town site, and at 3:30 p.m., the track was laid to the depot, and at four o’clock a construction train was run down into town amid cheers, firing of guns, and the playing of Pitkin’s cornet band. Almost the entire population turned out to greet the iron horse, and the enthusiasm and rejoicing showed it to be the greatest day within the history of Pitkin town.
“Several hundred people were upon the ground. Kegs of beer and boxes of cigars had been placed near the track by Mayor Williams and other citizens, and after a well-appointed address of welcome by Lawyer Drexilius, work was stopped and the entire railroad force invited to refreshments.”
Next time: Alpine Tunnel Tragedies.
Joy Jackson is desk clerk and archivist at Salida Regional Library. Follow twitter.com/SalidaArchive to see historic images of Salida.