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How Railroad Operations Aided the Colorado Gold Rush

The Colorado Gold Rush, formerly known as the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, prospered in 1859, a decade after the California Gold Rush. Word spread that gold could be found in the valleys and creeks of the Rocky Mountains, urging prospectors (known as Fifty-Niners) to flock over for a second chance at striking gold.

This rumor proved untrue, at least in some parts; the treasure wasn’t to be found in abundance in the streams carving the mountainside—but deep in the rock. Many Fifty-Niners gave up hope, leaving the cold, harsh territory in search of another dream. But those who stayed aided in Colorado becoming its own state.

As the many mines, mills and tunnels of Clear Creek and Gilpin County arose, so did the population. It was necessary to find a way to connect “The Richest Square Mile on Earth” to Denver and beyond, but traditional railroad operations couldn’t compete with the steep and treacherous landscape of the Rocky Mountains. Thus, the narrow-gauge railroad was born.

The Colorado and Southern Narrow-Gauge Railroad

A narrow-gauge railroad spans three feet wide gauge lines, as opposed to the 4’ 8.5’’ conventional tracks. This allows for carts to weave through the intricate mountain passages with more ease.

The Colorado and Southern Narrow-Gauge Railroad was officially incorporated into the Colorado railroad operations in late 1898. It took over the bankrupt Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf Railway and its narrow-gauge subsidiaries. This served the mining operations for ten years as an independent company before being purchased by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1908.

The Importance of Railroad Operations

Think of it this way: the railways of the U.S. were the Internet of the 1800s. It connected people, towns, resources and ideas in a way that was never possible before. Horse-drawn carriages would have taken forever to pull thousands of pounds of gold and silver to the smelters of Denver. Equipment would have had to be lugged up the mountainside. Without railroad operations, especially that of the narrow-gauge invention, the Colorado Gold Rush would cease to exist.

Over the course of a decade, census data shows Colorado’s population booming from 194,327 to 413,249. New towns—such as Golden and Boulder—were built through the discovery of these riches. The state of economics was so rich that a government emerged to address the mining conflicts that arose. Before the Gold Rush, Colorado wasn’t even considered its own territory, but afterward, it was acknowledged as an official territory and later got state recognition.

None of this would have been possible without railroad operations emerging in the Rocky Mountains. To learn more about the Colorado Gold Rush and the intricacies of this time period, book a tour at The Argo Mill & Tunnel!