VOL. XXIV. FEBRUARY, 1901. No. 5.

The Marvels of Mountain Railroading.



IT has long been an axiom among engineers that no task of construction is beyond their skill if only sufficient money be provided. Nothing illustrates this more forcefully and more practically than the building of railroads that traverse mountains. Over and over again it has been proven that there are no natural obstacles that cannot be overcome. The traveler who shudders when be looks down hundreds of feet from a car window, or scowls when he is rushed into a tunnel, seldom understands at what terrific cost his comfort was bought. Neither does he realize the dangers which actually surround him, and the small things upon which his life depends. If he did, he would probably be panic stricken.

The safe running of a train over an ordinary division requires an almost infinite amount of care and vigilance, not only In the present, but in the past as well, beginning from the time when the engineers were surveying and locating the line. The choice of a route may mean the future courting or avoidance of a disaster. There must be knowledge of the geological formation of the ground over which the track is to he laid, and its risk of exposure to freshets, subsidences, landslides, avalanches, and snow blockades. Past performances must be the data upon which future good or bad behavior must be predicated, and it is upon the intimacy of his knowledge with that past that the work of the engineer is to be judged.

In a country that has been peopled for generations, the work of the engineer is greatly facilitated: but where he must strike out into new territory—where he must draw conclusions from such knowledge as he can extort from nature itself or can gather front the hazy, rambling talk of the savage or the mountaineer—here his ability, perseverance, and judgment must be of the highest order.


In few countries has the railroad builder been asked to overcome such difficulties as in the mountains of the Western States and Canada. Crossing the border between civilization and savagery he has pushed his lines in advance of the frontier settlements, fighting with the wildest of elements, beasts, and men for every foot. He has followed mountain torrents to their sources, climbed peaks where the white man had never stood before; explored canyons which the Indians said no man could enter and come out alive; dangled by ropes over precipices and painted his marks on the living rock, because there was no crevice in which to drive a stake. In one case, at least, he has taken his railroad over a mountain pass in advance even of the Indian's trail. All these things have been done far from any base of supplies. He has been cut off from civilization for months at a time and has lived on the rifles of his hunters, while searching for the best way to reach his destination, and guarding constantly against a treacherous and malignant foe. Only by such toil and suffering has he driven his stakes to mark the route over which the thoughtless occupant of the parlor car shall afterwards roll in comfort and luxury.

The early railroad work in the Rocky Mountains stands unique in the history of the science, in that it was the advance guard of civilization, and was called upon to solve entirely new problems and work out its own salvation in its own way, with little or no suggestive help from what bad gone before. Given sufficient capital, a railroad between almost any two points becomes a possibility; but even when the road has been built over the most careful of surveys, its operation may present difficulties as great as those encountered in the work of exploration and construction. This is especially true of the roads in the higher altitudes, where snow falls during the greater part of the year, and where the winter accumulation is so great as to defy the management to maintain a clear-track, even avalanches and "flurries" were unknown.


As a result of these conditions, all the Rocky Mountain roads are provided with snowsheds. These are not mere coverings to protect the road from a gentle fall of snow, but substantial structures, that would compare in strength with many an old fortification intended to withstand the assaults of artillery. They may be designed merely to carry a dead weight of snow, or to withstand the terrific action of avalanches upon one or both sides. When the avalanche is to be guarded against, the mountain side of the shed is built of a cribwork of timbers twelve inches square, and filled in at the back with solid rock, designed to carry the snow over the roof of the shed without permitting the moving mass to strike heavily against it. The outer edge of the roof is supported by heavy timbers. Such sheds cost from forty to seventy dollars a foot, according to circumstances.

Long sheds are objectionable, because their cost is great, and because gases from the locomotive gather in them. Therefore the sheds are usually built in sections, made as short as possible. The openings are protected by "glance works," or "split fences," intended to divert the course of the sliding mass of snow, ice, and rocks. These are V shaped fences, the apex pointing up the mountainside, which throw the descending debris to the right or left so that it will pass over the sheds. Sometimes one of these barricades is insufficient, and others are built farther up the slope. They are of cribwork or piles, strengthened by a filling of rock work.

Where the Canadian Pacific passes the crest of the Rocky Mountains, there are about six miles of snowsheds, containing twenty five million feet of sawed timber, and one million, one hundred and forty thousand lineal feet of round timber. The snowfall in that region is at times very great. In the winter of 1886-87 it was thirty five feet in the Selkirk range; eight and a half feet fell in six days. At that time the snowsheds were buried under fifty feet of snow, so compacted that it weighed thirty pounds to the cubic foot.

If the railroads had to contend only with the snow as it fell, they would seldom have much trouble. But it may be melted by the Chinook winds and winter rains, and then there may come a sudden fall of the temperature to thirty degrees below zero, making a compact mass of snow and ice that only blasting can remove. More dangerous and harder to control is the "awful avalanche," which may come down the mountainside so gently and so quietly as to cause no pressure, no strain, no disaster, or it may start far up the slope, and, gathering force as it descends, hurl down a huge mass of snow, ice, rocks, and uprooted trees weighing a quarter of a million tons. It moves with the roar of a volcano and the speed of a cyclone, shaking the earth in its progress and sweeping everything before it, a spectacle of awful magnificence when viewed from a safe distance. In its mad rush, the avalanche makes a "flurry," a local cyclone, which sometimes extends for a distance of a hundred yards outside its path. This fierce blast of air uproots or snaps off trees that rise a hundred and fifty feet from the ground.

So rapid is the movement of the avalanche that sometimes, when the railroad sheds have been broken in and filled with debris, large vacant spaces have been found in the mass, showing where air has been caught and imprisoned by the falling snow. With such natural terrors to contend with, it was a wise provision on the part of the railroad authorities to provide each dining car on its through trains with an emergency box, to be opened only as a last resort, and to store food in caches along the line at intervals of ten or twelve miles, in imitation of the hunters of the Hudson Bay Company.


But snowsheds are not the only interesting engineering features of the Rocky Mountain roads. We find tracks running on shelves along the faces of unscalable cliffs; they follow the windings of deep canyons; they skirt great hills, and everywhere the work is one of might and power. There is more romance in the building of these mountain railroads than in the tales of chivalry; there are more adventurous experiences and hairbreadth escapes than the inventive minds of story writers ever conceived. There are a devotion, a pluck, and an indomitable energy coupled with engineering genius That make the deeds of the old knights seem puny and trivial. Take the story of the Royal Gorge, where there is room but for one road, where it was a matter of life and death to secure the right of way and the surveyor's transit was ever guarded by the rifle. This was the only route from Canyon City to Leadville, and a right royal route it is. Here the Arkansas River emerges from the rocky fastnesses in its wild plunge from the mountains to the plains, after a twelve miles' course between cliffs rising three thousand feet in the sheer, and with barely room between them for the tumbling waters of the river. Through this wild canyon of mica, green serpentine, and red sandstone the railroad edges its way up and up, disputing with the water for every foot of the path, until, at last, at the hanging Bridge, it leaves the whole width of the gorge to the water, and crosses the stream on a plate girder bridge, one side of which is suspended from a truss that has a footing on either side of the lofty canyon walls.

Again, in the canyon of the Rio de las Animas Perdidas (the River of Lost Souls) the Denver & Rio Grande, after following the bed of the river for about fifteen miles from Silverton, plunges into the gorge. At first, the road is but a few feet above the level of the stream; then the grades become steeper, the curves sharper, the surroundings wilder, until, almost before the passenger is aware, the train is running along a shelf cut in the face of the cliff, with the river a ribbon of foam and mist hundreds of feet below.

A photograph gives only a faint idea of the engineering difficulties encountered in the construction of a line where there was hardly a chance for the setting of the tripod of the transit. Indeed, in some of the Colorado canyons the location was determined by triangulation, because of the absolute inaccessibilitv of the route, which was to run where no living being but the birds of the air had been before. Such work, like many other great enterprises, would have been commercially impossible before the discovery of the nitroglycerin compounds. The successful use of nitroglycerin in the work of the Hoosac tunnel led to the later production of dynamite, a safer compound to handle; and this, in turn, has given way, to a great extent, to the glycerin gelatine, which will endure a still greater amount of rough treatment without exploding.


Interesting as the canyon work is from an engineering standpoint, laborious as the task of blasting may have been, and picturesque, as the results of these cuttings undoubtedly are, as the photographs show, they constitute but a small part of the work of the railroad builder. Where a mountain has to be climbed, and the entering valley is narrow and steep, and where the side valleys cannot be used to lengthen the line and ease the grades, the engineer must resort to such devices as the switchback and the loop. The former is a simple expedient for zigzagging up a mountainside. The track runs up the valley until the mountain blocks the way; it then starts back in the opposite direction, and climbs higher until it is again stopped, perhaps by a precipitous slope, perhaps by the ending of the spur upon which it rests. Again its direction is reversed, and this method is continued until a point is reached where it is high enough to reach the crest of the divide, so that it can go its way without let or hindrance.

The loop requires more room than switchback, and is used in climbing where the valley is broader.

Probably the best known loop in the West is that of the Colorado & Southern Railway, near Georgetown. Before reaching this point, the road doubles back on itself twice, crossing Clear Creek on each turn. Then it passes on to the loop, where it turns, crosses the creek twice more, and passes beneath itself, with a distance of seventy five feet between the upper and the lower line of rails, running nearly four miles to secure an advance of two. This section has an average grade of one hundred and sixty feet to the mile, with a maximum of one hundred and ninety.

Sometimes the engineer is confronted with alternative courses. He may be able to make a long detour, by which he can pass along the side and across the head of a valley in order to reach the opposite slope; or he can build a viaduct straight across as the bird would fly. It then becomes a matter of cold blooded calculation as to which would be the better investment. The viaduct, of course, will cost more to build, but it may shorten the line by several miles, and every train that crosses it will save time and money. Careful estimates of the first cost of each plan are made, and of the probable expense of operation and maintenance in view of the traffic that may be expected. If the viaduct can show a saving in operating expenses more than sufficient to pay interest on its added first cost, the matter is settled, and the structure is erected.

Thus the railroads have been led over untrodden mountain passes, and through canyons that for centuries had echoed only to the roar of cataracts and rapids, but whose rocks now reverberate to the rumble of the fast express. They have threaded valleys by the eagle's route, and plunged through the granite of the everlasting hills by tunnels that are but pin pricks in their rugged sides.

And when these things have been done still bolder schemes are accomplished. A great peak is climbed by grades on which no smooth faced wheel could roll, and the rack is used to hold and force the train ahead. The rack system was first planned by a German engineer for the Rigi, the mountain familiar to all tourists who visit Lucerne; but the Swiss project was delayed, and before any of the proposed road was constructed, a line of the same type was built and put into operation on Mount Washington, in New Hampshire. Some years later, a similar road reached the still loftier summit of Pike's Peak, making the climb of that Western giant a mere holiday trip, to be taken with the same blasé indifference as the journey across the continent or the ocean.


Our mountain roads are great in the difficulties that they have surmounted, and the energy with which they have been pushed to remote fastnesses where nature seemed unconquerable. But wherever civilization has settled, and wherever the miner has gone, there the railroad has followed. In South America, especially among the Peruvian Andes, mountain railroading has many examples of fine engineering to show. In fact, there are places where the work done is unprecedented in the history of the profession. The Callao, Lima & Oroya Railroad famed throughout the world. Starting from the Pacific Ocean, it follows the broad valley of the Rimac up past Lima to Chosica, where the converging spurs of the Cordilleras crowd it to a width of a thousand yards. Thence, in the tortuous defiles of the Rimac the road climbs with a four percent grade, and over curves of three hundred and fifty feet radius; it crosses and recrosses The Rio Seco and spans a deep mountain gorge on the famous Verrugas viaduct—a structure which, at a distance, appears far too delicate for practical railroad work, but which shows no appreciable deflection under the heaviest locomotives on the road. Still up and up the track climbs, with detour after detour, until, near Surco, there are three tunnels directly over one another. But the heights to be scaled still reach on and on until the Rimac gorge is crossed; thence we pass up a zigzag to tunnel No. 14. Here the laying out of the line presented stupendous difficulties and dangers. The men were lowered over the cliffs from bench to bench cut from the naked faces of the rock, until the levels were reached.

The engineers were swung across the gorges on wire ropes stretching from side to side. In one run of fifteen miles, there are twenty two tunnels. At another point five parallel lines, hundreds of feet above one another, are visible from any point in the valley, three on one side and two on the other, while the greatest horizontal distance between any two of them is fewer than five hundred feet. Still it is up, up, to the head of the Rimac, which is inclosed by unscalable cliffs, to overcome which seven tunnels had to be constructed. At last, the road found itself amid a desolation of snow and ice just below the dividing crest of the Andes. One more boring, and then the Galera tunnel, 3,847 feet long and 15,645 feet above the sea, leads to the comparatively easy stretch down to Oroya, the inland terminus.

Such, then, is a brief review of what the quiet man with the transit has done to annihilate space and time; to rob mountain climbing of its fatigues and dangers; to roll a panorama of beauty and grandeur and sublimity before the eyes of those who would otherwise never see it. He sets his goal wherever man desires to go, and with courage, patience, and indomitable energy, amid toil and hardship, he has marked out and built the road over which his fellows may follow him in ease and luxury.

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