As the nation focused on east-west rails connecting the coasts, General Palmer saw the opportunity for a north-south route that could intersect all transcontinental lines and open trade with Mexico. The D&RG incorporated October 27, 1870, listing its proposed route from Denver, through Colorado Springs to Pueblo, up the Arkansas River and over Poncha Pass, then on to Santa Fe and El Paso. Palmer faced daunting odds. His railroad was to be built without federal subsidy through an undeveloped region, at a time when capitalists were reluctant to invest in new railroads.
Begun January 1, 1871, the first line from Denver followed the Plum Creek wagon road over Palmer Divide through what is now the town of Palmer Lake, then down Monument Creek to its junction with Fountain Creek. The first passenger train arrived in Colorado Springs on October 27, 1871, beginning service on the 65-mile route that took 5 hours at a pace of 15 miles per hour.
The little narrow-gauge line became the vital conduit which enabled the founding and growth of Colorado Springs. The railroad conveyed land to real estate and coal mining companies, which developed places along the routes to generate traffic for the railway. The D&RG engaged in fierce competition with the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railroad, losing access over Raton Pass to Santa Fe in 1878, but eventually gaining the route up the Arkansas River through the Royal Gorge and all the way to Leadville, which it reached on July 31, 1880.
The direct connection to the booming Leadville mining camp kept the railroad profitable. This and an agreement with the AT&SF not to connect to Santa Fe caused D&RG officials to focus on serving mining and agriculture in the Colorado mountains. At full buildout, the D&RG created the vital market connection for mining towns, many of which today are mountain resorts, for example, Crested Butte, Aspen, Telluride, Durango, Salida, and Glenwood Springs.
The D&RG had a profound impact on the settlement and industrialization of the entire state, especially when Palmer built the steel mills in Pueblo to manufacture rails. Palmer set up a second line in 1889 that became the Rio Grande Western to connect with Salt Lake City and the transcontinental line to the west coast. The two Rio Grande lines connected on March 30, 1883, completing a 735-mile Denver-Salt Lake City route (via Colorado Springs and Pueblo) that took 35 hours.
Generously submitted by Dr. John Harner, Professor of Geography & Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.