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COBWEB CORNERS: The first railroad in Colorado

By Mel McFarland

        I get asked now and then about the first railroad in Colorado. That is an unusual story, and I will share it today. On June 25, 1867, the first rails were laid in Colorado during the building of the Union Pacific's part of the transcontinental railroad.
       The track layers were following the South Platte River from Nebraska. The line had been surveyed a year or more in advance of these workmen. The next day the tracklayers were back in Nebraska! Only a couple miles of the railroad actually crossed Colorado land. It then worked into Wyoming and that started one of the most famous railroad towns in the west, Cheyenne.
       In Denver there was a state of alarm. Certainly the town was doomed. Denver had to be on the transcontinental railroad, after all it was an important mining town. The men were in panic mode. The camp, not even ten years old, was surely important enough. The business leaders decided to build their own railroad to Cheyenne. This brought one of the men who would change Colorado's history. This is where General William Palmer comes back to Colorado.
       The general, on his first visit, only crossed from the east to the south, exploring a route for the Union Pacific railroad's Eastern Division (later the Kansas Pacific Railway). His expedition generally followed the Arkansas River to the mountains, then south to New Mexico and California.
       When Palmer returned to Kansas, he found the railroad owners had given up the California scheme, and were going to build to Denver to help connect with Cheyenne. Palmer went to Denver to help organize and build a railroad which when finished would connect with a line coming through Kansas. Service started to Cheyenne in July 1870.
       Soon after that he founded Colorado Springs and started a railroad of his own. I have told that story here before.
       The rail lines that General Palmer built from Kansas to Denver and from Denver to Cheyenne are still there, but they're now owned by the Union Pacific. I think he would be surprised to see that even his Denver and Rio Grande has also become part of that big company.
       The folks at Strasburg, Colorado like to point out that in 1870 their town was where America's east and the west railroads were really joined. The Kansas Pacific linked by rail to the east over bridges on the Mississippi River in Missouri, while the Union Pacific crossed the Mississippi using barges at that time.

(Posted 2/8/15; Opinion: Cobweb Corners)


       Editor's note: Local historian Mel McFarland has been writing his Cobweb Corners column in the Westside Pioneer since early 2004. To see past columns, go to the Pioneer's Archives. Either look for desired articles under the Cobweb Corners category for any year, or search by keywords in the Find box.

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