Moffat County History: The last passenger train to Craig
When the Moffat Line reached Craig in 1913, the citizens rightfully were excited. They were linked to the rest of the United States by the steel ribbons that crawled across the mountains.
A few years later, the taxpayers happily took on the burden of financing the famous Moffat Tunnel that had come about through dreams, hard work and speculation. The tunnel cut the distance between Denver and Northwest Colorado by several miles, as well as making the winter blockades of the railroad a thing of the past.
The railroad provided a way for ranchers and farmers of the Northwest corner of the state to market their livestock and other products in a relatively easy manner.
When the big homesteading wave came in the 1920s to 1930s, the hopeful newcomers were able to load their possessions into rail cars to make the trek to the promised land. The railroad took weeks off the trip over the mountains for them.
Residents of the Yampa Valley were able to take the train up- or down-valley to conduct business, or travel farther east to the bright lights and more established cities on the other side of the Continental Divide.
As the years rolled past, tourists learned about the beauty of the high country and were able to board a train in New England and travel by rail all the way to the end of the line in Craig. Hunters and fishermen came, as well as those who just wanted to experience the West.
The trip was still difficult during the winter months, when enormous drifts blocked the rails. Sometimes it took several days to clear the tracks and resume service. As larger engines were put on the line, the stoppages became fewer and farther apart.
In the late 1960s, however, corporate decisions were made that would permanently change the way residents of Craig and the Yampa Valley traveled.
The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad took over the Moffat Line in 1947, including the tunnel that had been built using public funds.
The Moffat Line had been plagued with corporate embattlement since its inception at the turn of the century, and when the directors of the D&RGW decided that passenger service was no longer profitable, they set off a firestorm of public protest that brought businessmen and residents together to try to save “their” railroad.
Protests were filed with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and individuals, corporations and area governments flooded the office with resolutions and pleas to keep the passenger service running.
Taxpayers who had funded the construction of the Moffat Tunnel at a cost of $500,000 reacted when they learned that railroad companies would be able to profit from using a tunnel built by public taxes.
“The City of Craig, pursuant to the General Rules of Practice of the Public Utilities Commission, hereby notifies the Commission of its intention to intervene with the right to produce witnesses, offer testimony, cross-examine the carrier’s witnesses and have all the rights of a party in the case.
“The City of Craig protests the discontinuance of the passenger service and requests that the Public Utilities Commission make a full and complete investigation, and order the service continued” (letter dated 22 November 1967 from City of Craig to Public Utilities Commission).
James Pugh, longtime Craig lawyer and a member of the Moffat Tunnel Commission, represented the various entities attempting to stop the railroad’s actions. There was no shortage of letters requesting or demanding that the passenger rail service be continued.
There was only short notice of the proposed suspension of passenger service, but that didn’t stop the letters from coming.
“It is our opinion that these trains could be promoted, because of their scenic beauty, to a point where the traffic could be greatly increased. We have been told innumerable times that this trip is, at least, as spectacular as the narrow gauge ride between Durango and Silverton, and many think it more so” (Chas Gentry, Mgr. The Cosgriff Motor Hotel, 19 November 1967).
The Cosgriff, a Craig hotel at the time, hosted many of the passengers who rode to the end of the line to see the splendor of Northwest Colorado.
Lifelong Moffat County resident Maude Baker Eldridge, who operated two Craig hotels during her lifetime, wrote to the commission and told about trips made to Denver hospitals and doctors. The passenger train predated today’s Flight for Life helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.
“I wish to state herewith that I have been a resident of this area for 78 years; that I have been a property owner in the relation of public housing : for one half century. I was one of the enthusiastic locals who met the first Moffat Train to arrive in Craig – which was a momentous occasion.
“As you ride along this route, at every stop someone gets on that is going to a doctor, a clinic or whatever it is they need. The scope of the thing is endless. Ironically, exactly 33 years ago this day of January, my mother, a first settler in this country – was taken on a stretcher and put in the baggage car, where heat had been provided – that she might reach a hospital and surgery to save her life” (Maude Baker Eldridge letter, 16 January 1968).
Despite the citizens’ best efforts, the railroad’s plan prevailed.
The last passenger train to arrive in Craig pulled in on April 7, 1968. Ironically, it was the longest train that ever carried passengers on the Moffat Line, with ten passenger coaches and more than 150 passengers.
The crew observed a short traditional ceremony and walked away from the engine.
The next day, a special crew took the empty train back over the mountains to Denver. The battle had been hard fought, but the people lost.
Today, although trains still run on what was the Moffat Road, they carry only coal and occasionally fuel. The dead-end line stops at Colowyo Mine south of Craig.
Tourists still make their way across the Rockies and into the Yampa Valley, but they lose the ambiance that is only possible on a passenger train.
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