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All aboard! Train through Royal Gorge debuted 140 years ago

Located about two and a half hours south of Denver, the Royal Gorge treats visitors to unique granite rock formations alongside gorgeous views of the Rocky Mountains.
Credit: Denver Public Library archives
View from the Arkansas River up at men, women, and children posing by a Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad passenger train at Hanging Bridge

CAÑON CITY, Colo. — The first passenger train to travel through Colorado’s famous Royal Gorge debuted 140 years ago this week. 

Located just west of Canon City in central Colorado, the 10-mile canyon offers stunning views of 1,000-foot red granite cliffs. Known as the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River, the narrow, deep gorge is only about 50 feet wide, and it's long been a popular spot for visitors from all around the world. 

In 1806, Zebulon Pike was the first to record an exploration of the gorge. But it was a fight over the rights to build through it that first thrust the canyon into the spotlight. According to a Facebook post from History Colorado, the train through the canyon (which still operates today) made its inaugural trip on May 7, 1879 following a struggle between two railroad companies over terrain that could only hold one train. 

When silver and lead were discovered in Colorado's upper Arkansas Valley, the area started to boom with miners hoping to make it rich. That led to an argument over railroad turf that lasted more than two years. 

“The rich discovery of silver in Leadville propelled a race to gain quick access to the booming mining town, and led to a two-year long battle known as the Royal Gorge War between the Santa Fe and the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RG),” the History Colorado post reads. "While the level of violence was low, the conflict was ultimately decided in court, where the “Treaty of Boston” granted primary right to the D&RG to build through the gorge."

And build they did. During the the 1890s, four transcontinental passenger trains on average passed through the gorge each day. 

"The railways were instrumental in the growth and prosperity of the nation for both personal passage and industrial industry between the 1880s-1920s with over 190,000 miles of railway added in only 60 years," the post continues.

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Credit: Denver Public Library archives
Men and women pose on observation deck of Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad eastbound passenger train

One of the most significant engineering feats of the process was the construction of the hanging bridge. It was built in a section of the gorge that is only 30 feet wide with sheer cliff faces on either side, meaning the railroad needed to be suspended over the river. 

The same suspension system used to build the bridge is still holding up today, though improvements have been made over the years. Hanging at a whopping 956 feet above the Arkansas River, the bridge is one of the highest in the country.

In 2013, a wildfire ravaged the park and destroyed 48 out of the 52 structures inside the park. Incredibly, the bridge remained intact, and just over a year later, the park was able to reopen. 

Royal Gorge bridge

These days, a 360-acre amusement park is located along the edge of the gorge around both ends of the bridge. Royal Gorge Bridge & Park boasts ziplines, gondolas, concerts and most recently -- The Royal Gorge Via Ferrata where guests can hike and climb the granite rocks surrounding the gorge alongside trained mountain guides.

Train service at the Royal Gorge was temporarily discontinued in in 1967, but was reestablished in the fall of 1998 as the Royal Gorge Route railroad. It has since grown to be a popular tourist attraction that carries over 100,000 guests through the gorge each year.

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