11,600 Feet



“...with the advent of the railroad a new era will begin. When the locomotive whistles its 'open sesame' to these rugged mountains, the cliffs of the rock will open and the hidden treasures be revealed.”


The Alpine Tunnel and its accompanying station stop is an incredible feat of engineering, regardless of the century, though one dogged with problems from the very beginning.


In 1879, former Colorado governor John Evans decided that the Denver, South Park and Pacific (DSP&P) Railroad needed to extend its tracks to Gunnison. The best way to do this? Why, bore a hole into the Continental Divide at 11,600 feet (well above timberline), of course.


Work began in 1880, and, incredibly, was completed shortly before Christmas in 1881 with no loss of life. It is said that around ten thousand workers came and went during that incredibly short time. Apparently, many couldn't handle the altitude and the resulting illness for more than a few days. By the time the project wrapped up, it had cost nearly $250,000. That would be roughly $6,568,632.42 in today's money.


The remains of the Alpine Station lay one half-mile south of the western portal. Among other necessities of life, there was a telegraph station, a turntable (a gigantic contraption used to turn train engines around), a switch, and a section house. There was also a boarding house to temporarily feed and house passengers.


Ambitious projects like the Alpine Tunnel are often beset with problems that reduce their usefulness. Sometimes the trouble isn't worth the benefit. In this case, that trouble eventually caused the demise of the tunnel and this branch of the DSPP.


Driving up costs, two very large rock palisades had to be built along the route approaching Alpine Station to keep the tracks from literally falling off the steep climb up the mountain. Snow and its accompanying hassles were a constant problem at nearly 12,000 feet. Snowsheds had to be built at both the eastern and western portals, and the cost of snow removal was far higher than anticipated. Snowslides were not uncommon. In March 1884, while approaching the station, a train engineer sounded his locomotive's whistle. The result was a slide that destroyed the town of Woodstock, which lay far below. Seventeen souls lived in Woodstock. Fourteen of them died that day.


In 1906 a fire swept through Alpine Station, destroying the entire settlement. The buildings were quickly rebuilt, but the problems persisted. In 1910, calamity struck again when the tunnel collapsed. Five workers were inside at the time. They did not die in the collapse. Instead, because the tunnel was naturally ventilated, and now suddenly wasn't, they were overcome by the gasses inside. Later that same year, a rockslide covered the tracks between Alpine Station and the palisades.


Enough was finally enough, and shortly thereafter, the line was abandoned. The Alpine Tunnel and Alpine Station faded into history.


Catastrophes aside, the Alpine Tunnel is truly a marvel of human engineering. In less than a year, human hands bored a 1,772-foot hole into the Continental Divide, and not one man died in that initial effort.


At Alpine Station today, volunteers have lovingly restored the telegraph house. The remains of the engine house and the turntable are clearly visible. The rock palisades (constructed with no mortar) still hold the road in place, and you can hike to the opening of the collapsed portal and imagine train engines emerging from a tunnel built with human grit.