High up in the Rocky Mountains at 11,481ft, outside of Breckenridge, Colorado, sits a ghost town of long abandoned buildings. They stand astride the Continental Divide at the Boreas Pass. They’re a tribute to the railroad days of this mining area. Today the gravel road over the pass is closed in winter, but accessible to most cars in the summer. It offers splendid views of the surrounding mountains. On a summer visit to Breckenridge, a friend and I were seeking a mountain drive. On a recommendation, we headed up the road, not knowing how far we could get and not knowing of the history at the top. Unexpected history, the best kind.
The road began as a route to the gold mining area around Breckenridge for
prospectors in the 1860s. Soon it was widened to accommodate stagecoaches. In 1880, the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad began laying narrow gauge railroad tracks over a pass the project’s director named for Boreas, the ancient Greek god of the North Wind. This amazing feat of engineering was called the Highline route. It wound from Denver to Leadville, stopping in Breckenridge and Frisco. The 63 miles between Como and Leadville cost 1.1 million dollars and used about 5,500 tons of rail and 200,000 ties. The rail included 435 curves and the longest stretch of straight track was 1.6 miles!
The railroad reached the top of the pass in 1884. A small community at the summit was required to maintain the railroad. At the time it was the second highest station in the world. A few of the buildings still stand and have been restored. The section house provided lodging for the staff responsible for maintaining the railroad at the pass. At least 150 people lived in this mountainous outpost. The Boreas post office was, at the time, the highest post office in the country. An extensive line of snow fences attempted to prevent the huge snowdrifts that threatened to disrupt rail traffic.
The line operated successfully for over fifty years.The line was abandoned in 1937 and the Army Corps of Engineers eventually reconstructed it for automobile traffic in 1952.
The restored red wooden water tank named Baker tank stands four miles down from the summit. Steam engines drank huge quantities of water and the steeper the grade, the more often they needed to stop for water. Tanks were placed below natural streams and fed by gravity.
More railroad history sits down the mountain in the High Line Railroad Park in Breckenridge. Engine No. 9 is considered an icon of Colorado’s narrow-gauge railroad heritage. Nearby is an example of a rotary snowplow machine which used giant snow-blowing blades to clear snow of the tracks. It’s one of only five known narrow gauge rotaries still in existence.
I’d definitely recommend a trip up to the pass for a taste of the natural beauty of the area and the rich history (literally!) of the region. What are some other great railroad sites in the Rockies?