County Railroad History

by Tym Lynch

Railway Beginnings

Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862 which provided government backing for a railway (The Union Pacific) to go through Denver. It also made provisions for a second more southerly railroad that would be called Eastern Division. The Eastern Division was originally planned to turn north prior to reaching Denver. The 1866 Extension Act permitted railroad construction to Denver before the Eastern Division turned north to join the Union Pacific. However, due to lack of funds, Denver was not connected to the Union Pacific Railroad until the Denver Pacific was formed (see: Denver Pacific Railway and Telegraph Company below). Railroad construction was slow, but legislation was slower and all was encumbered by the American Civil War (1860-1865).

Julesburg and Erie are First

Railroad line at Garfield Mine, one mile south of Erie. The Garfield Mine was owned and operated by James Pallott. His nephew, William White, came to America at age 18 from England to work for his uncle Pallott. Photo by the City of Greeley Museum. In 1867 the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) laid the first railroad tracks in Colorado which consisted of 8.9 miles crossing through Colorado Territory to and from Nebraska near Julesburg, Colorado – which was at that time still in old Weld County. The UP continued on to Cheyenne and in 1869 connected to the eastbound track from California in Utah at Promontory Point, completing the transcontinental railroad. Meanwhile, Erie mine workers were laying the first railroad track in present-day Weld County in 1868, which began running coal from the mines in southwestern Weld County to freighting wagons and eventually connecting to other rail lines.

Denver Pacific Railway and Telegraph Company

Denver merchants took it upon themselves in 1867 to incorporate the Denver Pacific Railway and Telegraph Company to make the connection between Denver and Cheyenne. They acquired government railroad land from Denver, through Weld County and into Cheyenne. The Denver Pacific Railway and Telegraph Company first laid track into Weld County from Cheyenne on approximately October 4th, 1869, becoming the first major railroad to serve Colorado Territory exclusively. The Denver Pacific covered the hundred miles between Cheyenne and Denver on a route that passed through Weld County near present-day highway 85. The 48 miles of track reached Evans from Cheyenne just north of the South Platte River in December. The following April in 1870 the town of Greeley was founded along the track between the Cache la Poudre and South Platte Rivers.

Connecting Weld County to the World

From Evans to Denver 48.2 miles of track was completed in 1870 on June 22nd with regular freight and passenger service beginning the following day. Weld County was connected to the rest of the world. Not only was travel by rail faster and more comfortable than travel by wagon. It allowed homesteaders to bring household items that would not have survived the trip in a wagon. The Meeker Home 1870 Museum contains a large mirror that is an excellent example. On July 4th 1870 sixty Denverites were invited by Denver Pacific and Kansas Pacific Railroads to celebrate Independence Day at Greeley’s beautiful Island Grove Park. The celebration would later incorporate a rodeo and eventually became the Greeley Independence Stampede.

Union Pacific Railroad

To meet expenses the Denver Pacific and Kansas Pacific Railroads merged with the Union Pacific system in 1880. In 1881 the Union Pacific completed construction on their Julesburg Branch, connecting La Salle to Julesburg and then hooking up to the transcontinental main line in Cheyenne. Ten years later twelve Union Pacific controlled railroads, including the Denver Pacific line through Weld County, merged into the Union Pacific Denver and Gulf Railroad, operated as a division of the Union Pacific. In 1908 the Union Pacific Railroad initiated a new route north of Carr near the Colorado-Wyoming border, which would allow trains to enter Cheyenne from the west.

Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad

In 1882 the Burlington and Colorado Railroad was completed from the Colorado state line to Denver, through southeast Weld County at present-day Hudson, becoming the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.

Colorado Central Railroad

The Colorado Central Railroad followed along the South Platte River Valley. The west end of the line cut into Weld County in 1881 through present-day Kersey. It joined with the Cheyenne division of the Union Pacific Railroad at LaSalle, initiating LaSalle as a railroad town.

Greeley, Salt Lake and Pacific

Greeley Salt Lake and Pacific (GSL&P) was founded January 17th 1881 as a company backed by the Union Pacific Railroad in order to compete with Denver, Salt Lake and Western Railroad (DSL&W) and their plans to extend up through the Cache La Poudre River canyon to Utah. The GSL&P-Stout branch was an early effort to connect the Greeley area with the transcontinental railroad, planning a route from Greeley, through present-day Windsor and Fort Collins, through Poudre Canyon and west to Salt Lake City. The DSL&W was intimidated by the GSL&P’s quick progress and halted their project. The GSL&P rail line transported sandstone and limestone from quarries west of Fort Collins to building sites as far east as Omaha, Nebraska. Though some were disappointed that the line only reached a few miles into the mountains, Greeley citizens were only expecting what they actually got, direct trade from the foothills, especially forest products and stone from near La Porte.

On April 1, 1890 GSL&P was one of twelve railroad companies combined into a consolidated railroad system, the Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf Railway Company (UPD&G). Within three years UPD&G was bankrupt. They were taken over in 1899 by the newly formed Colorado and Southern Railway (C&S). The C&S remained independent until 1908 when it became part of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad – then it too was absorbed into the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1981.

Towns on DPRR

From the north to the south the incorporated towns that started on or moved to the Denver Pacific Railroad line by 1883 were Pierce, Eatonton (became Eaton), Greeley, Evans, LaSalle, Platteville, and Fort Lupton. Incorporated towns that grew up along that rail line later were Nunn, Ault, Garden City, and Gilcrest.

Colorado and Wyoming Railroad

The Colorado and Wyoming Railroad, a subsidiary of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, constructed a line connecting Dewitt, Nebraska to Cheyenne, Wyoming. It passed through Holyoke into Sterling, a major hub on the line, and then cut through Weld County, initiating stations at Willard, Stoneham, Raymer (a.k.a New Raymer), Buckingham, Keota, Sligo, Chatoga (later Grover) and Hereford. In the 1890s dust storms and grasshopper plagues interfered with rail transport across northeast Colorado, causing delays, breathing problems and even wrecks (see: Merged and Abandoned).

Colorado & Southern Railway

Colo & Southern Railway steam locomotive #646 taking on water. Photo courtesy of the City of Greeley Museums. By the end of January in 1899 the Colorado & Southern Railway assumed control of the majority of the old Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf properties including the line between Greeley and Fort Collins, formerly the Greeley Salt Lake and Pacific. Interested in further expansion, the Colorado & Southern entered Weld County for a second time in 1906. The Black Hollow Branch was extended almost due east from Fort Collins into the Box Elder agricultural district providing beet farmers with transportation for their crops to the Fort Collins sugar refinery.

Under the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, the Colorado & Southern continued to show interest in expansion. The Union Pacific faced the possibility of having a line it constructed being used by a major competitor to decrease its revenue. In late 1909 the Union Pacific petitioned the U.S. District Court in Denver to block any further railroad construction into Greeley. The Union Pacific lost its case, but it made clear to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, that building through Greeley would prove more difficult than anticipated.

Not wanting to encounter the Union Pacific in court again, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, decided to upgrade other portions of the Colorado & Southern. In 1911, an extension began from Wellington to Cheyenne. This line crossed the northwestern corner of Weld County in September, and by October 15th the route between Fort Collins and Cheyenne was in operation.

Great Western Railway

In 1899 the City of Loveland was the first to open a sugar beet processing plant in Colorado. Within a few years factories were being built in Eaton, Greeley, Longmont, Fort Collins, Windsor, Johnstown, Sterling, Fort Morgan, Brush and Ovid. The Great Western Railway was organized in 1901 to serve the northern Colorado beet sugar industry and towns. See the 1/24th scale sugar beet dump on display at the downtown Greeley History Museum. While Great Western’s main purpose was to transport beets, sugar, molasses, coal and lime rock, it also operated a passenger service from 1917 to 1972. Train service for beets was phased out in favor of trucking and Great Western was sold in 1978.

Denver Laramie and Northwestern Railroad

The Denver Laramie and Northwestern Railroad (DL&NW) was initiated in 1910 to connect Denver to Milliken, then to Greeley and on into Laramie, Wyoming. Track was completed to Greeley in May of 1910. The DL&NW only completed 12 miles
of track before they went into receivership in 1915, forcing the courts to run the railroad for the next five years, eventually being sold to Great Western to haul beets.

Greeley Terminal Railway

The Greeley Terminal Railway finished construction of track initiated by the Denver Laramie and Northwestern Railroad through Greeley. Greeley Terminal Railway used a short section of street railway creating Greeley’s first trolley service. On June 5th track was added to 9th Street, one block beyond the site of the depot. The Greeley trolley service was discontinued in 1922 following financial difficulties and a devastating fire, though the track remained in place until 1937.

Pleasant Valley and Crow Creek Branches

A plan was initiated in 1908 to divert water out of Wyoming’s Laramie River into the Cache La Poudre River to irrigate a large area of northeastern Weld County prairie. Inspired by this plan the Union Pacific completed two extensions from the former Denver Pacific main line just north of Greeley and headed due east to Cloverly, approximately 5 miles northeast of Downtown Greeley. The line split into two branches with the Pleasant Valley Branch heading north to Galeton and Purcell and the Crow Creek Branch continued east to Gill then followed the Crow Creek Valley northeast through Barnesville and Cornish terminating at Briggsdale. The irrigation plan was eventually thwarted by Wyoming. The Pleasant Valley line was the first to be vacated in 1943 and the Crow Creek line held on a few more years until it too was abandoned in 1965.

UP and CB&Q Expansions

In 1911 the Union Pacific constructed the Dent Branch west from La Salle, serving the southwestern Weld County agricultural lands and coal mines. It also extended a line to Fort Collins. From the 1920s into the 1940s coal mining was big business in southwestern Weld County and the Coal Creek region of adjoining Boulder County. Both the Union Pacific and the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroads collaborated with various mining companies to build a dozen railroad spurs to mine this region.

Merged and Abandoned

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy merged with the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle creating the Burlington Northern in 1970. The Sterling to Cheyenne Branch did not survive the merger. Service was discontinued that same year and the rails were removed by 1980.

Did You Know?
In 1867, the Union Pacific Railroad laid the first railroad tracks in Colorado; 8.9 miles crossing through Colorado Territory to and from Nebraska in what was then Weld County.

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