by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — Whether the mid-nineteenth century settlements at the present sites of Walsenburg and La Veta would have survived into the 21st century is a moot point, but the importance of having railroads cemented their longevity.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad reached Walsenburg and La Veta in 1876, connecting the two communities with the north, south, and east. A trip west as far as Fort Garland had to wait until 1877, and to Alamosa, 1878.
This was the narrow gauge line. The rails were but three feet apart, and the boxcars and passenger cars were only about four feet wide. Still, it was a railroad, it characterized progress, it transported people, merchandise and coal as well as the mails, and it was faster than four-legged oxen or even horse power.
The people of Walsenburg were delighted to have their trips to Pueblo and Denver made easier, and those in La Veta found visiting the county seat for business and shopping less tedious than spending a day driving the wagon, staying overnight in a hotel or with relatives, and spending another day returning home (all this for, say, jury duty).
The D&RG timetable of 1881 shows the distance between Walsenburg and La Veta as 18 miles, and the traveling time was, believe it or not, 47 minutes. The return trip, however, being downhill, took a mere 40 minutes. From Walsenburg to Pueblo was 56 miles, requiring two hours and 40 minutes. It cost $4.55 to get there, which meant a person earning $1.00 a day had to save up for the trip.
Now say a person wanted to go to Trinidad. First, from Walsenburg, he (or she, although most shes were accompanied by hes) would have to travel the six miles to old Cucharas, east of the city, a jaunt of just 18 minutes, and change trains. Cuchara Junction was the railroad’s name for this stop, and it was almost exactly 40 miles from there to Trinidad, a trip of three hours. In Trinidad you could get on the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe and go pretty much anywhere you wanted to go. The same was true for Pueblo and Denver, of course.
Construction over Veta Pass to Garland City was completed in late summer 1877, and the line quickly was built on to Fort Garland that fall. While there was not much reason anyone would want to find himself at old Fort Garland, the end of the line, this station opened the door to freight of livestock, timber and agriculture from the San Luis Valley to the D&RG coffers. It also heralded the tourist industry being lured to the scenic Veta Pass route.
The D&RG, being a new line in this area, took pride in its deluxe accommodations, at least for the time. Its cars offered gas lighting, Westinghouse air brakes (always a good thing, brakes), lush tapestries and expensive wood furnishings. Note there is no mention of bathrooms or dining cars, which made occasional stops necessary so passengers could take care of related vital needs.
So to take the scenic trip on these richly furnished cars, the usual tour guide would start on the prairie, wend its way to La Veta (“a pleasant village in a beautiful agricultural valley”, as one guide says, or “picturesque” with “some good buildings” in another) and begin the long climb to the summit of the Sangre de Cristos. La Veta was, in those days before dining cars, an eating stop. The two hotels competed for this business, as it was a good one in a small (but “picturesque”) town. At first, when the passenger trains were crossing the mountains during daylight hours, whichever eatery won the bid for the year was overwhelmed with customers. Later, in the 1880s, the trains became nighttime crossers and spent just three minutes in town.
From La Veta the train next stopped at Ojo so the engine could take on water. This was an eight mile journey of about 30 minutes. The next point of interest was the famous Mule Shoe, much touted by the D&RG as an engineering marvel. This three mile stretch consumed 15 minutes. Then it was on to Veta Pass, said to be the highest point to be crossed by a railroad in the entire United States. This three and a half mile run took about 40 minutes.
Placer was the next stop, 21 miles from La Veta. A traveler had now been on the train long enough to be hungry, so Placer was another eating station. The hotel there was said, in 1881, to have “an enviable popularity as a breakfast and supper station.” Not much was said about its scenery but the smelter always made it into print.
The train descended farther into the San Luis Valley to Fort Garland. Finding favorable descriptions of this spot in early days may be impossible, for a tourist guide of 1885 describes it as a typical military post of the West, “a series of low, cheap, one story buildings” with a sutler’s store, corrals, a herd of cattle and some soldiers.
One thing advertisers of the D&RG agreed on about the fort was the fine view of the Sierra Blanca, Drawings of the massif are unidentifiable to anyone familiar with its appearance, and most look to be scenes from the Himalayas. Of course, advertisers have always relied on the superlative and fantastic or why would anyone bother with their products?
The only way to enjoy the “scenic Veta Pass” and avoid ending up in Fort Garland was to take the occasional Wildflower Excursions. During the years when the passenger trains passed over in the dark, many tourists were disappointed not to see the famous Mule Shoe or other wonders of the pass. It became one of the D&RG’s most popular pastimes for day-trippers to make at least one trip each summer. Even residents of La Veta, who could hop on a horse, ride to the summit and have a picnic lunch before the train was even close, made the trip. Travelers marveled at the steepness of the route, the tight corners navigable only by narrow gauge cars, the thinness of the air, the incredible views of the Spanish Peaks, the sight of wildlife, and the carpets of wildflowers.
The Pueblo Chieftain of August 23, 1899, advised readers to take advantage of the Aug. 27th excursion, as it would be their “last chance” of doing so. It read, “Veta Pass is the most beautiful pass in Colorado, and the celebrated Mule Shoe Curve is one of the most wonderful pieces of railroad engineering in this country. In fact, it has no equal, and the scenery is the most beautiful in the Rocky Mountain country . . . and those who go will have the finest opportunity of their lives to secure a large collection of Colorado flowers. Passengers will be given over three hours on the summit”. The charge was $2.00 for all this adventure, and more than 650 people made the trip, which lasted a full 12 hours if one boarded at Pueblo (or, nine hours of travel and three more to deflower Veta Pass).
And it was the last chance. That fall, the old narrow gauge was abandoned as the new standard gauge right of way seven and a half miles south was completed in November. The new rails and cars may have been a lot more comfortable, commodious and swift, but probably not half the fun of the old narrow gauge.