Editorial: New rail line near Craig is one more way to grow
Before two-lane interstate highways spread like a web across the state and country, giving the masses access to swaths of now-public lands previously never known or understood, there was the railroad.
A rail line through your town back in the 1800s meant your isolated western town didn’t just survive, it thrived. It brought people and goods in and out of isolated western towns like Craig cheaply and efficiently, and it still does. The story of the railroad in Craig and Moffat County is the story of how we conquered the west.
By the early 1900s, David Moffat was determined to connect Denver to Northwest Colorado. According to researchers at the Museum of Northwest Colorado, Moffat began construction on the Denver Northwestern & Pacific Railroad project in 1903 and planned to continue through Craig west into Salt Lake City, but he ran out of money and the line ended in Craig.
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Clay Thorp, reporter
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Good thing it did. The line connected our area farmers, cattle and sheep ranchers to markets across the US and more wool was shipped out of Craig by rail in the 1950s than almost anywhere in the world. The line also brought passenger service to the area for almost a century until the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad ended service. According to the March 29, 1968 edition of the Yampa Valley Mail, a group of sixth-graders rode the last passenger train to Craig.
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But now in 2019 David Moffat’s vision of connecting Denver to Salt Lake City via a Northwestern Colorado route may finally come to fruition. Craig has come full circle.
In a notice of intent filed June 19 with the federal Surface Transportation Board, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition in Utah announced it is considering a 185-mile stretch of railroad from Myton, Utah to Craig. The Craig route is one of two proposed alternative routes that would transport coal, crude oil, gilsonite, and other agricultural and mined products.
It should be said, the fact that the coalition’s Craig route absolutely dwarfs its other two routes serving energy interests in Utah, means the third proposed Craig route might be wishful thinking for the coalition and for Craig. Colorado’s state environmental laws are much different than those in Utah. One could argue Utah’s Uintah Basin — part of which extends into Moffat County — as an ozone non-attainment area under the Clean Air Act due to high levels of ozone pollution is evidence of that.
There are myriad creatures and animals that will be impacted by this line, so the state and federal bureaucracy could drown this project if the community and land owners don’t show their support during public comment periods in Utah and Colorado. The line will undoubtedly affect our elk migrations and other hunted species in Northwest Colorado. Perhaps the coalition could adopt land bridges like those across certain Colorado highways to ensure a green light in the project for Craig’s route.
The private-public patchwork of land that exists between Utah and Colorado’s Great Northwest would make even the most seasoned landman shiver. But it seems like the coalition is rising to meet the challenge. According to a news release last week, Rio Grande Pacific hired a stiff-spined Mark Hemphill to lead the construction and development of the project. Hemphill apparently got some of his experience helping to rebuild “the war- and looting-damaged Iraqi Republic Railways in 2005-2006,” according to the release.
If Hemphill and the coalition are successful in bringing their rail line to Craig, it will be one more way for this community and this economy to recover if or when coal tanks on the world market. The line represents a way for historic natural gas preserves locked underneath our feet to move west as part of this country’s slow, but inevitable move toward cleaner fuels. Asian markets are thirsty for American liquid natural gas. Craig could help quench that thirst.
A western connection to Union Pacific’s line ending in southern Moffat County near Craig could also open our area to other industries beyond just energy companies. Tourism is one of Colorado’s largest growing industries, so if a new line connects us to the west, it’s possible to recreate the passenger trains of the 1900s. The city and county’s joint services committee should add this to their list of things to do and projects to consider — reopening Craig and Moffat County’s vast public lands to tourists via a rail tour of Colorado’s Great Northwest. It’s a vast undertaking that will have to leverage state and federal grant dollars and donations. It might use existing rail routes or new ones.
But if the coalition’s route comes to Craig — and if we act as a community to open our rail lines to more than just big agriculture and big energy — David Moffat will look down on us with great satisfaction when we cut the ribbon on our first trip back through time riding on Colorado’s Great Northwest Train Tour.
Moffat’s deluxe Marcia Car — in all its lonely glory on Victory Way — would probably welcome being back on the very tracks where it all started almost last century.
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