Hancock Pass and the Alpine Tunnel

Hancock Pass, the Palisades and the Alpine Tunnel

Hancock Pass is a high mountain pass, elevation 12,140 feet, on the Continental Divide which is the border between the Gunnison and San Isabel National Forests.

The road up the pass from Pitkin is of moderate difficulty, very rocky and is quite steep in several sections.

If alpine passes, turn of the century railroads, mining history, and rocks are your thing

12,000 foot Hancock Pass as seen from Tomichi Pass

This historic pass is located south of the town of St. Elmo and west of Pitkin. The road on both sides of the Pass was once the railbed for the Denver, South Park and Pacific railroad that traveled through the Alpine Tunnel (elevation 11,523 feet) to the mines of the Gunnison district.

Hancock Pass is suitable for properly set-up Adventure motorcycles

Hancock Pass was a wagon and mule route over the Continental Divide. The pass drops over the Divide and intersects with the western side of the railroad line as it winds its way to the historic town-site of St. Elmo and Chalk Creek Canyon.

Tomichi Pass as seen from Hancock Pass

Tomichi Pass was recently closed due to Landslides in 2017 & ’18

Hancock Pass was a mining route in the 1880s but was not significant commercially. The route on the eastern side of the pass follows the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railway grade toward the Alpine Tunnel from Chalk Creek canyon and Mt. Princeton Hot Springs.

The Silver Plume is a General Store and Gas Station in Pitkin

The route begins at the old Quartz townsite, 3 miles northeast of Pitkin on the Cumberland Pass Road at the Alpine Tunnel Road turnoff. Remains of the Old Midway water tank lie 3 miles in along the route. This was the halfway point between Pitkin and the Alpine Tunnel. Two miles further is the restored Tunnel Gulch water tank.

The route continues past the site of Woodstock which was totally wiped out by a snowslide in 1884, killing 13 people. The remnants of the old Woodstock water tanks remain. You will pass the Sherrod Loop which is marked by an information board. This loop enabled the trains to turn and remain on the sunnier south side of the valley.

The Palisades

Palisades looking west

Engine 197 at the Palisades around 1900

The Palisades at 11,300 feet are a man-made terrace, enabled the train to travel along a spectacular, steep cliff face.

 Hand-cut stones, dry stacked 33 ft. high and 425 ft. long, supported the ledge.

Photo of recent damage taken by Plane

Unfortunately there was a snow slide at the Palisades several years ago, and the road to the reconstructed Alpine Station has been closed, to Jeeps…

Alpine Tunnel, Colorado – An Engineering Marvel

Denver, Leadville & Gunnison Railroad coming through the Alpine Tunnel in about 1910.

Situated about 18 miles southwest of Buena Vista, Colorado is the historic narrow gauge railroad Alpine Tunnel.

Once the highest railroad tunnel in the world, at an altitude of 11,523 feet, it was the first tunnel to be built through the Continental Divide. The Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad began the work of connecting St. Elmo to Pitkin, Colorado in November 1879.

Anticipating that the mineral-rich area would be the next big mining “bonanza,” as many as 10,000 different men worked to build the line and the tunnel at various times.

Laborers, working for $3.50 per day, and explosives men, who worked for $5.00 per day, were often forced to go from their worksite to their cabins in groups in order to avoid being lost in the snow.

Teams of workers on both sides of the Alpine Tunnel started digging and blasting in November 1879 with the intent of connecting St. Elmo to Pitkin via a rail line.

Approximately 350 workers on one end, and 400 workers on the other, labored through brutal winters and summers until July 1881 when the two crews met each other in the tunnel. The length of the Alpine Tunnel is 1771.7 feet within the mountain. The headings were off by very little, amazingly accurate considering that it was a blind bore, on a curve laid to opposing grades. An engineer’s drawing stored in the restored Station validates the accuracy of the job.

View to the Alpine Tunnel station before historic reconstruction.

With plans to complete it within six months, those were very ambitious plans, especially starting the project in the middle of winter. It would actually take the railroad more than two years to complete the tunnel and cost them far more than they had planned, coming in at about $300,000 and some $180,000 more than they had initially budgeted. Due to crumbling granite in the tunnel, over 400,000 board feet of California redwood was required to support and encase 80% of it.

View inside the Alpine Tunnel

The two crews met each other in the tunnel in July 1881, but it would be another year before it was ready for the train.

When the first narrow gauge train came through in July 1882, the tunnel was 1,772 feet long, over two miles above sea level, 500 feet below Altman Pass (later renamed Alpine Pass) and the most expensive railroad tunnel built up until that time.

Alpine Tunnel Telegraph Office Reconstructed on the west side

Beyond the west portal exit of the tunnel, stood the Alpine Tunnel Station, the highest railroad station in the nation; as well as a turntable, water tank, stone boarding house, and engine house that was large enough to house six engines.

Beyond the tunnel, the Denver, South Park and Pacific tracks continued on to Gunnison.

Once it was complete, the engineering marvel was a welcome relief to all of those who were previously required to haul supplies and mail back and forth over the treacherous and longer passes of Tin Cup, Cottonwood, Altman and Hancock.

All along the tracks were a number of small settlements, some to service the railroad and others that housed the many miners of the area. These included Woodstock, Quartz, and Sherrod, as well as Pitkin at the western end, and St. Elmo on the eastern end of the line.

Even though the weather was harsh at that elevation, especially during the long winter months, things went relatively well for the line and the tunnel for the first several years. However, in March 1884, the town of Woodstock was completely destroyed by an avalanche, burying 18 people, 13 of whom died. Six were children. The settlement, which had as many as 200 residents, was never rebuilt.  All that remains today of Woodstock are a few stone foundations, some rotting timbers, and a historic marker.

Due to the high elevation and the harsh winter conditions, the tunnel began to close during winters between 1887 and 1889 and again between 1890 and 1894. In the meantime, the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad went into receivership in August 1889 and re-emerged as the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison line under control of the Union Pacific Railroad. However, that line, too, would go into receivership five years later.

The West Portal of the Alpine Tunnel recently

In 1895, the tunnel faced two more disasters when, during the reopening of the tunnel after the winter, four crew members suffocated. Not long after, a train wreck occurred, killing two men near the tunnel in May.

East Portal of the Alpine Tunnel recently

The line continued to struggle financially until Colorado and Southern Railway Company was formed with the merger of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad, Union Pacific, and Denver & Gulf railroads in 1899.

The line was plagued with accidents and storms during its 30-year life. In 1901, a train with one passenger coach and ten loaded freight cars was completely buried by snow and in 1904, another train wreck occurred west of the tunnel. Two years later, a fire destroyed the engine house and another collision occurred inside the tunnel.

Finally, the railroad company gave up on the dangerous and accident-prone tunnel. The last train came through in November 1910. A decade later, a majority of all of the track had been removed.

The Palisades on Alpine Pass on the way to Alpine Tunnel

Today, the area is known as the Alpine Tunnel Historic District, which consists of a two hundred foot wide right of way along thirteen miles of original Denver, South Park and Pacific rail bed between the town sites of Quartz and Hancock.

Restored Telegraph office at the west portal of the Alpine Tunnel

Though the east portal of the tunnel collapsed many years ago and the west portal is covered by landslides, the district still provides a vivid peek into its prosperous early years. From Hancock on the east side, the former rail bed is now a hiking trail. The west side can be accessed also on the rail bed, to the restored railroad telegraph station house.

 

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Mountain Passes