The History of
Como's Railways

Como's Railway History
A short History of the Denver South Park & Pacific Railway


 Dr. John Evans

​Former Governor of Colorado and founder of the South Park Line



 
Dr. John Evans, the second governor of the Colorado Territory
from 1862-1865, traveled extensively throughout Colorado on
horseback and by stagecoach in the 1860s.  The Governor was
well aware of the significant timber, agricultural and mineral
resources of the area and the need for adequate, reliable
transportation into the "back country."
 
As early as 1868, now former Governor Evans and his associates
had commissioned a survey for a railway line from Denver into
the mountains and on June 16, 1873, Dr. Evans formed a new
company under the charter of the Denver, South Park and
Pacific Railroad.  Grading was begun south of Denver on August
1873.  

After numerous delays the first rails were spiked down on
May 18, 1874.  The DSP&PRR would soon use much of earlier
right-of-way surveys through the South Platte River Canyon heading towards the high mountain plateau called "The South Park". This area would also lend its name to Dr. Evans new railroad and early on, the little railroad became known popularly as the “South Park.” . The South Park line would be built to the same three-foot "narrow gauge" that earlier had been adopted by William Jackson Palmer's Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.  This narrow-gauge, could better cope with mountainous terrain and had the ability to use a smaller right-of-way, sharper curves, lighter rails and smaller, less expensive equipment.  Add to this that a narrow gauge line could be constructed for about one-third the cost of a standard gauge line.

The first construction attempted by the new DSP&PRR was from Denver to Morrison, a small quarry town 16 miles southwest of Colorado's Capital City.  The road's construction company, the Denver Railway Association, completed the DSP&P's line to Morrison quite rapidly.  By late June 1874, the line was in operation.

By 1874, rich gold and silver strikes were being made near Leadville and elsewhere in the Colorado mountains.  So plans were soon formed to continue building the railway from Denver to the Arkansas Valley and Leadville, some 150 miles away. The DSP&P's mainline continued south from Bear Creek Junction, near the present day Denver suburb of Ft. Logan.  Track laying crews followed grading and bridge builders as they advanced slowly through the narrow rock cuts of the Platte Canyon throughout 1877-78.  The line through the Platte River Canyon was considered an engineering marvel in its day and is still a fascinating drive to this day.

By early 1879, DSP&P tracks had reached Webster and by March of that year track
crews were busy on the four percent grade up to the Kenosha Pass. The summit, at
an elevation of 9991 ft. was reached on May 19th and then it was an easy, sweeping,
downhill run to the floor of the Great South Park.  Work was now being pushed 24
hours a day with torches being used to light the way at night and the future division
point of Como was reached in June of 1879.

As the railway's division headquarters, the town of Como had a large stone
roundhouse, a turntable, coal docks, a railway depot and a two-story hotel with a
dining room. The gritty, windswept town was home to many employees, trainmen,
shop workers and their families, who were never certain when the crew would
return for a hot meal and a few hours of rest before being called for another run.
The regular schedule of passenger trains, one daily to and from Denver, was often
delayed if the little locomotives could not buck their way through snowdrifts that
were common in the South Park during the winter.

The mainline trackage was rapidly pushed across South Park's flat valley and even sent a branch line up to Fairplay and Alma. By October the South Park trackmen had reached Weston on the southern end of the park and by February 1880 trackage had reached the Arkansas River and Buena Vista. The boom town of Leadville would be reached first by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.  However a joint operating agreement allowed DSP&P trains to operate into Leadville, via Buena Vista. Later in 1884 the DSP&P completed their own trackage into Leadville leaving the mainline from Como and traveling through Breckenridge.

The Denver, South Park and Pacific would construct a line into Gunnison, Colorado via the Alpine Tunnel.  At an elevation of 11,524ft, the Alpine Tunnel was the highest railway tunnel in North America. It was also prone to snow blockages and cave-ins.  It was a continual source of trouble and expense for the railroad.  However, despite initial and then continuing difficulties with the tunnel, the first train into Gunnison arrived on September 1, 1882.  The DSP&P would later attempt to construct it's line north of Gunnison but in reality, the railway would grow no more after the Leadville branch was completed in 1884.

Although the period from the early 1880s to the early 1900s would generally be good for the railroad. However operations through the troublesome Alpine Tunnel would end in late 1910 and by 1915 it became clear trains would not run again through the Alpine Tunnel to Gunnison. The first recorded rail removal was in November 1918 while the 1920s saw the abandonment and removal of various branch lines.  

The last scheduled passenger train left Como, Colorado on 10 April 1937. In September of 1938 the rails in Como were being removed

Although operations continued into Leadville and Climax into the early 1940s, it had become clear that the the old South Park Line was passing into history. The last run on the South Park's narrow gauge line in Leadville was made on August 25, 1943.



 
 


















An early construction train of the Denver South Park & Pacific Railway on Kenosha Pass prepares to descend into the South Park of Colorado.
A DSP&P passenger train climbing Boreas Pass high above the expanse of the South Park and Como below.
Photo: Virginia Simmons Collection
Here is the last passenger train to leave Como. The date was April 10, 1937.
Richard Jackson photo, courtesy of Colorado Railroad Museum

History of the Como Roundhouse
By Bill and Greg Kazel, elaborated by Chuck Brantigan with the help of Chappell, Richardson and Hauck,
Colorado Rail Annual 12 and Debra Queen-Stremke

Como
Roundhouse
1885

Como
Roundhouse
2015

​​
The Denver South Park and Pacific Railroad, or the “South Park,” holds a special place in the hearts of railfans everywhere. Its underdog status during most of its history, the spectacular scenery visible from every mile of its trackage, and the many available photographs of its activities gives it a place of greater prominence than many larger rail operations.

The hub of its operations was in the small town of Como, Colorado. Because of the historic significance of this rail complex and its remaining historic assets the rail complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Many changes to these privately owned properties have taken place over time and there is now renewed effort to preserve these assets for the general public and for future generations. Restoration of the rail complex is part of a larger effort to create the South Park National Heritage Area.

The Como Roundhouse, built by Italian stonemasons in 1881, was part of a rail complex that was the hub for three mainlines: one to Denver via Kenosha Pass (roughly the route of US285), the second to Breckinridge via Boreas Pass and on to Leadville over Fremont Pass, and the third to Gunnison via the Alpine Tunnel and the Palisades.

The rail complex included maintenance facilities, water towers, a coaling tower, the depot, a hotel, a “tenement” for railroad workers and other outbuildings to accommodate equipment and supervisory personnel. The roundhouse eventually included the original 6 stalls plus two wooden additions bringing the total to 19 stalls at the turn of the 20th century.

The railroad declined after the final closure of the Alpine Tunnel in 1910 and the remaining wooden stalls burned in 1935. The last train for Denver left Como on 2 September 1938, pulling up the track behind it. All that remains of the complex is the roundhouse, the “Eating House,” or hotel built in 1896, the depot and the outbuildings. Significant restoration has taken place on the hotel, the depot and the roundhouse since designation but it is an ongoing project. There has been great support from the historic preservation community and from railfans everywhere.

The roundhouse property was bought by Bill Kazel in 1984 to save it from the inevitable deterioration from facing the harsh weather in South Park without maintenance. Bill and his son, Greg restored the building to its 1910 appearance and collected documentation on its history.

The building was in sad shape when they bought it. The roof was caving in. Doors and windows were non-functional or missing. The masonry shell was deteriorating at least in part due to the heat from the fire in 1935 that destroyed the wooden additions to the roundhouse and in part due to lack of protection from the elements. The building was filled with sawdust from the sawmill that used the building and was inhabited by livestock.

In 1984 and 1985 the various openings in the building were closed. Collapsing roof timbers were braced. The remaining engine vents were safely lowered to the ground. The building was repointed. A turntable was obtained and installed in the turntable pit. This is believed to be the original turntable from Como although important parts are missing.

In 1987 work to support the deteriorating boxcars which had been converted to a shed, was completed. Between 1993 and 1995 the roof on the roundhouse was replaced. Windows were installed and the engine bay doors were repaired or replaced. The building had effectively been saved.

In 2001 Bill thought it time to pass the torch to someone else but Bill stayed on as the superintendent. Chuck and Kathy Brantigan, well known for their work in historic preservation in Denver, bought the building and associated land.

Since the Brantigan’s have owned the roundhouse most of the efforts have focused on maintenance and planning. The building has been repainted. Additional masonry work has been done. Engine bay number two has had rails laid to accommodate the display of an original DSP&P boxcar. Also on display is one end of the DSP&P passenger car “Geneva”.


This wonderful painting by John H. Coker shows Denver South Park & Pacific #55 on the Como turntable leaving the Roundhouse
  Click on the Painting to learn more about the Artist

Remains of equipment after the wooden addition to Como Roundhouse burned in 1935
 Photo by John Oshier from Greg Kazel

 Link to "Geneva" Story
The nearby supervisors cabins have been stabilized and here has been an increased emphasis on opening the building to the public. Our ambition for the property on a long-term basis is to create a showplace for "big things that move" and Como's railway history. 

The photo above from the early 1980s shows the deteriorating roof of the roundhouse. On the right we can see the new roof after the restoration work of Bill and Greg Kazel was completed.
  Photo above by Hart Corbett 

Some History on the Hotel and the Depot

By David Tomkins

When the Denver South Park & Pacific Railroad arrived in Como, it was a tented city and there is mention that a Mr. Gilman and his partners were here and were operating an Eating House.

In 1880 the first Hotel was built, called the Gilman Hotel. It was located at the north end of the existing Como Hotel , presumably owned by the Railroad but operated by Gilman. There are a few mentions of Gilman, presumably the same one, operating other Eating Houses. There was also a Gilman who was a Conductor for the Railroad but its not known if they were the same person or related or just coincidental.

The Hotel opened for business on New Year's Eve 1880 and was the center of Como social life. At this time there may have been 100 people living in the immediate area.

Seemingly coinciding with the construction of the Roundhouse and the laying of track over Boreas, the Hotel was significantly extended probably 3 times.

In 1885 the Pacific Hotel Company took over the establishment and spent that summer undertaking significant changes and improvements. There is mention of some demolition as part of this works and the Fairplay Flume Newspaper suggests that the works were significant and took longer than was expected. The completed Hotel had 42 Bedrooms and could seat 100.

About this time we believe the Depot was separated and moved south about 15ft.

The Pacific Hotel Company operated the Hotel until about 1895 when it was leased to private operators. Then in November 1896 the Hotel caught fire and was a total loss, there is a suggestion the fire started in the laundry.

The following summer the current Hotel was built on part of the foundations of the old Hotel and there is mention of bricks being salvaged from the ruins of the old Hotel to be used in the new construction.

It is not believed that the Railroad operated the Hotel, the Railroad was in financial difficulties so it is assume they must have really needed a Hotel here to incur the expense.

In about 1914 Patrick and Delia Gibbony leased the Hotel and moved there family down to Como. Patrick was the Wrecking Boss for the Colorado & Southern Ry. and they had previously operated a Boarding House in Como but had out grown it. Patrick died in 1930 and the family moved out shortly afterwards.

In the late 1930's the Hotel was occupied by a Mr. Cooley who was gold dredging the nearby Tarryall Creek He used the north side of the hotel for his offices and had some employees boarding in the south side.

In 1946, Cooley had finished the gold dredging and moved his equipment and family to Walsenburg, Colorado. I understand from his daughter they would still come up to Como once a year. 

In 1954 the property was sold to the Smiths who used it as a summer house. Mr. Smith was a co-owner of the Shirley Savoy Hotel in Denver and apparently chose Como as it was outside his calculation of the fall out zone, if there was a nuclear explosion in Denver.
 
By the 1970's the Hotel building was little used and in 1978 it and the Depot were separated from the rest of the Railroad property and sold to the Hodges who reopened the Restaurant and rented rooms.

The Hodges sold up and retired in 2008.

Some brief points on the Depot.

First mention of the Depot is in June of 1879 when the DSP&P Railroad arrived. The first photograph showing the depot was taken 4 years later.

We know the Depot was extended twice, once to the north so it connected to the Gilman Hotel and then to the east to form the
"L" shape. By 1883 it was its current shape but located 15 ft. or so further to the north.

The building does not match any standard design, unlike the Como Dispatchers Office or the nearby Jefferson Depot. The only possible comparable Depot is the original Depot in Webster. There are a few end on photographs of the Webster Depot and it was reported as being the same size and could have been constructed by the same contractor. The Webster Depot burned down in 1902.

It is presumed that the Como Depot was extended due to Como becoming a Division Point with the construction of the Roundhouse and High Line to Breckenridge in 1881.

About 1910 the wooden shingle roof was replaced with a metal roof and the platform was taken up. Later in the 1920's the Depot was repainted in the Dark Red/Dark Green Burlington colour scheme.

There is mention that the Post Office occupied part of the Depot in the 1930's. There are many photos of the outside of the depot during the Railroad era but none of the inside. Obvious over 60 years the building was changed internally many times, some have logical explanations others just raise questions.

Cooley who bought the Buildings from the Railroad c 1938 used the Depot as a Garage and after that it was used for storage and basically left to rot.

It is believed that major damage to the depot was caused through the change in drainage when presumably Cooley put in the driveway to the Hotel. By 2008 the west side foundations had rotted out, much of the roof was missing and the building was in danger of collapse.

Restoration work between 2008 and 2015 returned the Depot to its 1885-1910 appearance.


The Pacific Hotel (above) was an  
was an impressive structure. However it was destroyed by a fire in 1896 and later replaced in 1897 by the hotel that still stands today (below). 

By 1956 the Como Hotel had become a "Summer House" for the Smith Family and the depot next door was used as a shorage shed. 
Photo from www.WesternRailImages.com

In 2008 very few people believed the Como Depot would survive. However, those “few” people would take on the project of saving and restoring the old train station and in 2015 it was officially completed and dedicated before a large group of people as seen below.

Today, the Como Depot is home to a museum operated by the Denver South Park & Pacific Historical Society. Tracks are being rebuilt in Como and each summer the old 1879 depot sees once again the arrival of steam locomotive #4 at its passenger platform.

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