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The Pike’s Peak Rack Railway

The Story of a Line Which Climbs a Mountain 14,417 Feet High




WHEN, in 1806, Captain Zebulon M. Pike first beheld from afar the majestic proportions of the peak which now bears his name, rising above the dishevelled mountainous knot found in the State of Colorado, naturally he sought to scale its topmost heights. But his determination and endurance proved insufficient for the task. This is not surprising, seeing that he was not equipped for an exacting mountaineering expedition, whilst this hoary old man of the American Rockies is no mean crest, seeing that it beetles 14,147 feet into the clouds.

After the conquest of the Rigi and other Alpine crests in Europe, enterprising Americans, resolved not to be eclipsed by the Old World, suggested the railway subjugation of Pike’s Peak. The proposal was startling, as this is a remarkable mountain. It is not a mere jagged nose of rock thrusting itself higher from its fellows into the sky, but lifts its head above a broad expansive plain. As a coign of vantage its crest is difficult to surpass in North America, because wonderful vistas of unparalleled magnificence are unfolded over an area of 60,000 square miles.

From the viewpoint of the railway engineer it possesses many attractions, inasmuch as it not only indicates the highest point between the two poles to which the rack railway has been carried for tourist purposes, but the consummation of the task bristled with extraordinary difficulties.

The engineer was spurred to its mastery with the ribbon of steel by the striking stories of beautiful panoramas which were related by the few mountaineers who toiled afoot to its summit. Could the requisite financial assistance be raised to carry a line from base to crest? That was the problem. There was no anxiety about sufficient traffic being forthcoming to render the undertaking remunerative. If the crest were brought within the reach of the masses, who are not prepared to experience the hardship and peril of climbing among ugly crags, and braving the unpropitious elements, thousands would avail themselves of the opportunity to proceed to the top by rail, providing the element of safety were above suspicion.

So reasoned an enterprising engineer in 1884. He succeeded in infusing a number of colleagues with his enthusiasm and a start was made. The promoters of the scheme essayed to scale the mountain with a maximum grade of 1 in 20, and to achieve this end plotted a circuitous route 30 miles in length, in which distance 7,518 feet in altitude were to be overcome, Manitou, the starting point, being at an elevation of 6,629 feet above sea level.

The railway was forthwith commenced, but when it had been graded a distance of eight miles, and was ready to receive the metals, the scheme was assailed vigorously on technical grounds. This unexpected criticism dried up the fount of financial support; the project had to be abandoned.

The triumphs of the Swiss engineers with the rack railway and the widespread successes, from the commercial point of view, that were rail being reaped by the provision of transportation facilities to inaccessible heights caused the Pike’s Peak project to be resuscitated. But the new project was vastly dissimilar from that originally evolved. The fathers of the new idea decided to follow the shortest practicable route between the base and crest of the mountain. The maximum gradient would be steep: that, however, was of secondary importance, seeing that the cog-wheel system could be adopted.

The preliminary surveys were run in 1888, the greater part of the year being occupied in this initial task. The little band of men spent a racking time among the precipitous cliffs, over which they were slung by chains to toil upon narrow ledges scarcely wide enough to permit one to turn round, scrambling over ragged crags, facing biting winds, blinding snows and lashing rains. Their physical endurance and nerve were taxed to the utmost; accidents were frequent, and thrilling escapes numerous. But they completed their work successfully, and the sum of their efforts showed that there were no insuperable reasons why the two extremities of the peak should not be connected by a steel link some nine miles in length.

The surveyors emphasised one drawback. “There will be snow, and plenty of it, against which to contend”. This factor had been brought home to them with painful reality. Banks 30 and 40 feet in depth were by no means uncommon. Often they had been forced to tunnel their way through the heavy white blanket which wreathes Pike’s Peak for more than six months in the year.

The trials and tribulations that would confront the navvies in the higher reaches were not exaggerated, but they were fully indicated. The rarefied atmosphere taxes the lungs when one is engaged in physical exertion. On the summit the barometer stands at about 17 inches, and water boils at 184°, instead of 212° F. It was realised that labour would be very exhausting, but the promoters concluded that by handling the men carefully this disadvantage could be mitigated very appreciably.



It was decided to use the Abt rack system, which had proved so successful in Europe, upon the plans outlined by the surveyors, but the apprehensions of the timid were not overlooked. “There must be no suspicion of danger”, urged the guiding spirit of the enterprise. “The line must be built as strongly as possible; every device to ensure unquestionable safety in travelling must be adopted regardless of expense, so that the most nervous passenger may feel just as secure when climbing up a bank of 1 in 4 as when riding over level ground in a railway car”. This adjuration was carried out to the letter. Nothing was left to chance; nothing completed in a perfunctory manner. The Pike’s Peak Railway stands among the most substantially built lines of its class in the world. The United States tourist is not so familiar with mountaineering by rail as travellers in Europe, and the idea of crawling to a height of 14,147 feet above sea level, while fascinating, inevitably provoked certain misgivings in the early days.

The railway builders started on their task from Manitou in 1889. The first stretch was comparatively easy, as it ran among the foothills, but as the mountain flank proper was attacked, the difficulties became greater and greater. In the lower levels the route threads dense timber expanses, where the right-of-way was found littered with huge piles of logs and trees which had been brought to the ground by the enraged elements. Official requirements stipulated for a road-bed varying from 15 to 20 feet in width, down the centre of which the track was laid. This is of the standard gauge, the side rails carrying the wheels which guide and support the weight of the trains weighing 40 pounds per yard. By making the road-bed the foregoing width there is ample clearance on either side of the coaches. The permanent way is of the most solid description. Where culverts were required to span some little rivulet or creek, stone was used; where bridges were necessary to traverse a larger cleft in the mountain side, steel was employed. No timber trestling whatever was introduced. The road-bed itself is laid upon the solid rock, and is ballasted heavily to secure complete rigidity for the metals, so that they may not be displaced easily by any of the disturbing influences of Nature, which sweep the peak continually, and which are especially severe during the winter.

The rack-rail itself is made from the finest Bessemer steel, with the teeth cut from the solid mass of metal by machines which were designed and built specially for the purpose. It is built up in lengths of 80 inches, and varies in weight from 63 to 95 pounds per yard, or an average of 98 tons per mile. The specifications insisted that each tooth of the rack when cut should be within one-fiftieth of an inch of the size stipulated.

The rack-track comprises two of these rails laid side by side centrally between the outer metals, and set If inches apart. The ladder is secured to the permanent way by means of four bolts - two in the centre and one at cither end of each length - to three die-forged chairs, which in turn are bolted heavily to the sleepers. These latter are of extra length and weight, and are spaced more closely together than in ordinary railway practice. The rack-rails are so laid that the joints of each length do not come in line, while the teeth of one is brought opposite the space between two teeth of the other. This ensures the two double wheels of the locomotives securing an even bearing at all times, and is conducive to smooth travelling.

The railway measures 47,992 feet in length from end to end. The average gradient is 844·8 feet per mile, the maximum rise being 25 in 100. The sharpest curves are of 16°, that is, a radius of 358 feet. In order to contribute to the rigidity and solidity of the track, and to prevent it moving or sliding under its own weight, which is enormous, or by the forces of sudden expansion and contraction of the metal, it is anchored to the solid rock at distances ranging from 200 to 1,400 feet, according to the severity of the gradient; 146 of these anchors are used throughout its entire length.

It was when the timber line was passed that the greatest trials and hardships in construction were encountered. The mountain surface was scarred in a terribly rough manner. Here projecting pinnacles, with their sides as polished as a mirror by the elements, had to be blown away; there ledges had to be cut in the side of the solid rock-face; enormous shoulders had to be rounded and defiles threaded. The men engaged in the work suffered privations innumerable. They had to clamber and toil among ragged masses of rock which strewed their path, had to face intense cold, and to stand or crouch against cutting winds, which at times sweep over this peak with tornado-like fury. Often they had to hew their way through solid masses of packed snow and ice, while the stinging hail and blinding rains repeatedly drove them to seek what little shelter they could. Camps were laid low time after time, and frequently, owing to the ravages of the elements rendering the mountain impassable, they had to subsist on meagre fare, as the bulk of their provisions became exhausted. Near the summit the prevailing low temperature, combined with the rarefied atmosphere, played sad havoc even with the strongest constitutions. Time after time, after fighting a stern uphill battle against the relentless elements for hours, the men were compelled to throw down their tools from sheer exhaustion, and were forced to seek a short respite in the lowlands to recuperate their wasted energies. Notwithstanding these heavy handicaps the last rail was laid on October 20th, 1890, and the line was opened for traffic on June 1st in the following year.

As may be supposed, the engine in making such a continuous and heavy pull towards the clouds develops an intense thirst. The water supply at places was a searching problem, but it has been met effectively by three large tanks which are provided at intervals. The locomotives are somewhat quaint-looking, albeit powerful, mechanical triumphs. They are of the four- cylinder Vauclain compound type, the high-pressure cylinders being 10 inches and the low-pressure cylinders 15 inches in diameter, the stroke being 22 inches. Steam is carried in the boiler at a pressure of 200 pounds per square inch. There are two steel cog-wheels through which the propelling effort is transmitted, and which grip, or mesh, with the rack-rail.

On such a railway, abounding with numerous steep banks, the braking arrangements necessarily are of supreme importance. From the sides of the driving cog-wheels extend four corrugated surfaces upon which the powerful steam and hand brakes are applied. Any one of these brakes is sufficient to bring the train to a standstill, even upon the steepest sections. The Le Chatlier water-brake is also fitted to the steam cylinders, these being used on the descent as air compressors to regulate the speed of the train.

The coaches are of the American observation Pullman pattern, and for such a railway are luxurious. The seats are not tilted but arranged in such a way that the passenger always has a level position Each car is able to accommodate fifty passengers, and if necessary it can descend the mountain without the aid of the locomotive, because each bogie carries cogwheels engaging with the rack, through which powerful individual braking can be applied to secure complete control. This enables the coach to be stopped instantly and independently of the locomotive. As is usual upon rack railways, the engine pushes the coach up hill, and precedes it on the descent, the two never being coupled together.



Between the two terminal points there are six intermediate stations, each of which provides facilities for viewing some scenic spectacle. After the timber line is passed at 11,578 feet, the railway enters upon its steepest, and at the same time the wildest part of its journey, to the summit station, beside the Government signal station. One very curious effect often is observed when climbing the mountain. Every inch of the road is uphill, and yet after toiling up a steep bank, and when about to enter a stretch of more moderate gradient, the road ahead appears to run downhill. The round journey - up and down the mountain - a distance of approximately 18 miles, occupies some three hours.

Though innumerable obstacles had to be overcome to bring about the realisation of the Manitou and Pike’s Peak Railway, they are equalled fully by the herculean efforts that have to be put forth to open and maintain the line during the season.

“Snow,” narrated Mr. Sells, the chief engineer, to me, “is our greatest bugbear, and it is of a nature seldom experienced upon any other railway. On the upper five miles it runs from 3 to 35 feet in depth, and it packs as hard as masonry. Running through the banks are stratae of ice, representing the packing of the heavy snows during the winter. It is these frozen layers which tax our efforts so severely. There is no mechanical appliance which can cope with them. What we do is to cut trenches so that the mass is divided into blocks about 9 feet square. These are then transferred to a flat car by a scoop-nose plough, which we have designed specially to deal with this work, and pushed by one of the locomotives. We can get two of these blocks on a car at a time. The train with its load then drops back along the line until it reaches a point where the railway overlooks a ravine. After cutting an opening through the solid off-side wall of icy snow beside the track, the men, by means of large wooden levers, prise the blocks off the deck-car to send them tumbling down the mountain side. It is slow, trying work, often accomplished in the face of a biting wind, but it is the only way in which we can get the line open for traffic.”

“Above the timber line the snow drifts easily, as there are no obstacles to its scudding race over the mountain slopes. In some seasons we have had to open the line as many as fifteen times. June 1st is the scheduled day on which the first train runs to the summit, and as a rule we are not troubled with snow after the 15th of that month. But occasionally we have to haul out our snow-clearing tackle throughout July, during which month, sometimes, very heavy falls take place.”

Despite these drawbacks, and although the railway is open only for a very brief period, it is a hot favourite with tourists. During the height of the season the company maintains what it calls a semi-night train service. One leaves the lower terminus late in the afternoon and reaches the summit in time to witness the gorgeous spectacle of the setting sun, and, spending the night at the comfortable Summit Hotel, is able to view the equally enthralling dawn of another day. One of the most popular trips is the weekly “Sunrise Excursion”, which, leaving the lower terminus at midnight, lands the travellers at the crest in time to see Old Sol creep over the Eastern horizon. In fact, this special service has developed to such a degree that often the entire equipment of the railway has to be impressed to cope with the crowds.

Notwithstanding the complete success of the Pike’s Peak Railway, the rack system has not been utilised very extensively in the United States. Even the first railway of this type, that up Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, is doomed. Another

route has been surveyed, and it is intended to lay down an electric road working throughout by adhesion purely and simply. Still, the Pike’s Peak line possesses a unique distinction. It is the longest continuous road built upon this principle in the world. In view of the fact that the rack railway is being superseded, at all events for mountaineering purposes, by cheaper systems for achieving the same end, it is very doubtful whether this line ever will be eclipsed.

The total cost of the undertaking was £200,000, representing an average of £22,000 per mile, so that it ranks as one of the most expensive rack lines which has been laid down in any part of the world. Since its completion in 1890 it has been the means of conveying thousands of travellers to the mountain top. From the European point of view, and bearing in mind the comparatively low fares charged on the Swiss mountain rack railways, the ascent of Pike’s Peak by this medium appears somewhat expensive, the return journey costing 20s., or over 1s. 1d. per mile. But bearing in mind the cost of construction, the heavy maintenance expenses, and the brief period of the running season, in conjunction with the fact that it is essentially a pleasure line, the fare is by no means excessive.

THE CREST OF PIKE’S PEAK Railway“Since this line was opened,” proudly confesses the engineer, “we have never had a single personal injury arising from its operation. It cost a lot to build, but absolute and unquestionable safety was the factor which guided its consummation, so that not even the most timid need entertain the slightest apprehensions. ‘A substantial road’ was our watchword, and the policy has been repaid amply by the complete financial success of its operation.”


[From Part 9 of Railway Wonders of the World by Frederick A. Talbot, 1913]

You can read more on “Rack Rail Locomotives, “The Rigi Railway” and “Wonderful Alpine Ascents” on this website.