Past Episodes

E5: BATTLE! The Royal Gorge Railroad War

 

The 1800s were not only a time of conflict between individuals, but businesses also fought. Sometimes literally.

Led by a couple of hard-charging, unforgiving men, William Jackson Palmer and William Barstow Strong, two railroad companies repeatedly butted heads over territory in Colorado. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Railroad clashed numerous times before a final conflict in 1879, a contest that shaped not only the State but the entire West.

The battle was over land near Canon City, Colorado, and involved hundreds of men, including Sheriff Bat Masterson of Dodge, City Kansas, Doc Holliday, over 60 hired gunmen and a competing force of 200. Forts were built, sabotage was frequent, and blood was shed—all over the direction of a new railroad line.

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BATTLE! The Royal Gorge Railroad WarSteve Chapman
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EPISODE 5

BATTLE!

The Royal Gorge Railroad War

The 1800s were not only a time of conflict between individuals, but businesses also fought. Sometimes literally.

 

Led by a couple of hard-charging, unforgiving men, William Jackson Palmer and William Barstow Strong, two railroad companies repeatedly butted heads over territory in Colorado. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Railroad clashed numerous times before a final conflict in 1879, a contest that shaped not only the State but the entire West.

 

The battle was over land near Canon City, Colorado, and involved hundreds of men, including Sheriff Bat Masterson of Dodge, City Kansas, Doc Holliday, over 60 hired gunmen and a competing force of 200. Forts were built, sabotage was frequent, and blood was shed—all over the direction of a new railroad line.

 

Sit back, turn up the volume, and let’s explore a battle for control of the Rockies, called the Royal Gorge War.

Welcome to History Does Rhyme. I’m your host, Steve Chapman. You can find every episode right here and for free on HeartOfTheRockiesRadio.com and HistoryDoesRhyme.com. Please contact me on Facebook at History Does Rhyme. Each week, we’re going to chat about the past, diving deep into stories you only thought you knew, and exploring a few tales you’ve never heard of.

 

William Barstow Strong and William Jackson Palmer are the same man in many ways. Both are stubborn, aggressive, egotistical, and determined to win by any means necessary.

 

Strong is born in Vermont, attends business college in Illinois, and immediately starts a railroad career as a station agent. He works his way up through the ranks and at the age of 43 he takes over as leader of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad just as rail building explodes in growth throughout the United States.

 

William Jackson Palmer also grows up in the railroad business, starting in Pennsylvania. His career path is interrupted by the Civil War where he serves as a brigadier general, and guides the troops who capture Confederate President Jefferson Davis. After the war, Palmer returns to the railroad business and heads west where he helps build the Kansas Pacific Railway before co-founding the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.

 

Following the Civil War in 1865, railroad companies scramble to fill in the transportation gaps throughout the nation. Main rail lines exist, but there is no network connecting all the towns, mining camps, and uncharted territory in the western half of the country. Both Strong and Palmer intend to fill that need and the key to controlling access is the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

 

Building railroads in harsh, uncivilized country often involves brutal conditions. The terrain is difficult, few accurate maps exist, particularly through the mountain passes, and Indians and outlaws are an ever-present danger. But the greatest threat comes from competing railroads and their employees.

 

This period in history is a free-for-all time. Rules mean very little on the frontier. Lawyers and bureaucracy have yet to take hold in the west and business is often Darwinian—the strongest, and those most willing to use force, usually win.

The ultimate prize is the Colorado Rocky Mountains. This natural barrier is considered impassible and that prevents not only movement of large amounts of people but the growth of commerce. Whoever conquers the mountains is going to make a fortune.

 

Throughout the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, survey crews search for a direct east/west route. But the going is slow, as every inch of terrain must be scouted. There are no accurate maps yet.

 

William Strong makes up his mind to be the first to find the mythical east/west passage and, supported by big money from the East, takes the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad west. He is determined to succeed and hires a 31-year-old surveyor named Ray Morley to find the golden gate through the Rockies.

 

William Palmer has the same goal for his company.

 

As co-founder of the new Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, he also starts a search for a way through the Colorado Rockies. Palmer is familiar with building rail lines through the mountains, his experience coming from his earlier years in the rough country of Pennsylvania. Palmer spends months studying maps and geography, convinced there is an undiscovered way to get a train through the mountains.

 

During his studies, Palmer locates Raton Pass, on the modern borders between New Mexico and southern Colorado. This is the magical corridor he’s dreamed of and it is clear a rail line can be built here. Palmer convinces investors to fund his expansion across the Rocky Mountains. They’re all going to be rich.

 

It’s now early 1878 and William Palmer prepares crews to build his game-changing line. But William Strong is a fierce rival and has a network of spies watching all his competitors, including Palmer.

 

Strong learns of the Raton pass and attempts to intimidate William Palmer into a partnership.

 

Strong sets a meeting with the owner of the Denver & Rio Grande to cut a deal. Strong’s railroad is larger and has far more financial support. He explains this to Palmer and says he will build the line and lease it to Palmer. Otherwise, he’s going to crush the Denver & Rio Grande.

 

But William Palmer is equally tough and determined. This isn’t his first battle. Palmer is incensed at the nerve of his competitor. ‘I found the pass and I’m going to own it,’ Palmer says.

 

The battle has started.

 

The two companies rush to Raton Pass. Palmer believes his documented surveys give him legal right to the land, and he doesn’t think Strong truly knows the exact location of his new find.

 

But this is the wild west of 1878. Actually building something on land usually wins out over any other legal claims, and William Strong knows this. Whoever puts rails down first is going to control the pass, regardless of what attorneys and papers say.

 

Strong’s surveyor, Ray Morley, goes undercover to keep an eye on the Denver & Rio Grande crews and to learn the location of Raton Pass. Morley cleverly disguises himself as a Mexican sheepherder so he can spy on the competition. Palmer’s men never notice that it is Morley who is watching them.

 

After determining Raton Pass was, Morley springs into action and rushes his crews to the location, trying to get their before the Denver & Rio Grande workers.

 

Eager to begin building the rail line that will make them all rich, William Palmer and his crew take lanterns and head out at night, working their way through the harsh terrain. They’re excited at the upcoming victory, and carry picks, shovels, and guns. But nearing Raton Pass, Palmer’s crew hears the sound of pickaxes chopping away at rock. Reaching a clearing, the Denver & Rio Grande men see Morley’s crews already laying track.

 

They are shocked and angry.

 

Guns are drawn and threats ring out through the mountains.   It’s a tense standoff, but soon Palmer backs off. He doesn’t want bloodshed. The Atchson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad has won the first battle over rights to the Rocky Mountains.

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It’s now April, 1878, two months after the standoff between the two railroads.

 

William Palmer is still furious over his loss. He’s also desperate for a win, as he spent most of his investors’ money trying for Raton Pass. He could build a rail line in eastern Colorado—it’s easier and safer but losing to William Strong burns at Palmer and he wants revenge.

 

Pondering for a way to top his competitor, William Palmer remembers a nearly impossible route he once surveyed through the Rockies. It runs along the Arkansas River, through a narrow canyon, and emerges into Leadville, one of the largest and most profitable mining towns in the west.

 

The problem? The Royal Gorge, as it is called, is only 30 feet wide in some places, and it has solid granite walls that are sheer, rising nearly a quarter of a mile. There isn’t even room for a footpath much less a railroad.

 

But Palmer is a dreamer and a doer. He knows that if he can pull off this amazing feat, he’ll control the central part of Colorado and access to all of the mining claims in the region. He’ll have worked around Raton Pass, defeating and humiliating William Strong, and will be rich beyond belief.

 

But the engineering required for this task is mind-boggling. Palmer decides to tackle the challenge anyway.

 

A veteran of military battles, William Palmer isn’t going to underestimate his competition a second time. He builds fortifications around the gorge and communicates only through encrypted telegrams. This time, he’s going to be victorious.

 

William Strong is no tenderfoot, though.

Although he doesn’t have a military background, Strong understands tactics, and has long ago placed spies in every telegraph office. Strong’s contacts intercept William Palmer’s messages, breaks the codes, and informs Strong of Palmers audacious plan to build through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River.

 

Strong again intends to beat Palmer to the scene and orders surveyor Ray Morley to hop on the next train and get to the Royal Gorge as soon as possible. The clock is ticking.

 

Morley rushes to the train station and boards the next express to Canon City. But there’s a problem.

 

The only train to Canon City is owned by William Palmer and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Morley is recognized by the station master, Palmer’s employee, who holds the train in the station.

 

Hours pass and the train sits still. Morley is trapped.

 

Eventually recognizing he’s been spotted, Morley hops on a horse and rides 35 miles to Canon City.

 

Arriving late at night, he rushes to the local saloons and promises premium wages to any man who wants to start work immediately. A huge group of men sign up, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad crew rushes to the canyon before the sun rises.

 

Palmers team is also racing to the Royal Gorge, the loss of a few weeks earlier still fresh on their minds. But again, as they near their destination, Palmer and his men hear pickaxes, and their stomachs sink.  

 

Around 300 men are already at work cutting through the granite to build a rail line.

 

Again, guns are drawn and again, after a tense standoff, Palmer backs down. At first, his men think they’ve lost another contest, but William Palmer is a general. He has a backup plan.

 

If the Denver & Rio Grande can’t control access into the canyon, they’ll control access out of the canyon.

 

Palmer’s plan is to begin work 20 miles upriver, building his own rail line at that point and preventing the Santa Fe from having a way to exist the river gorge.

 

Palmer knows William Strong is a ruthless competitor and he understands lawyers alone won’t be enough to win. He’s going to need guns and lots of them.

 

So Palmer hires a civil war veteran named James DeReemer to construct stone forts at the end of the canyon. 17 such forts are built, including one at Texas Creek, complete with gun ports and great views of the track. Palmer places gunmen in each of the forts to hold back anyone who comes out of the Royal Gorge.

 

William Strong doesn’t take this challenge lightly and matches Palmer’s combative ways by hiring famed lawman Bat Masterson.

 

Sheriff Masterson travels with 30 men by train from Kansas to the river canyon. The group sets up camp in the gorge to protect the Santa Fe rail men and their position. After overseeing the setup, Masterson returns to his job in Kansas, leaving his group behind.

 

Around the same time, both rail lines file court injunctions, each legally blocking the other from proceeding.

 

But court cases take time, and in the old west, how things play out on the ground often overrule ultimate court decisions.

 

William Palmer believes his earlier surveys give him the best legal claim on the passage. But William Strong believes his deeper pockets give him the financial advantage and that he can outlast the underfunded competition.

 

For months, Palmer and his men engage in guerrilla-style warfare to slow down and frustrate the competition. They force avalanches onto the Santa Fe workers, dynamiting rocks, rolling boulders down the mountain, and stealing and breaking tools. Palmer’s crew also damage rail lines in the dark.

 

To make the seriousness of their intention’s crystal clear, William Palmer creates what he calls a dead line in the gorge. Anyone crossing the line will be killed.

 

Although no life is lost, tensions remain high. Both lines have blocked the other, legally, and geographically. Neither can complete construction on the royal gorge line. It’s a stalemate.

 

Over time, Strong’s tactic of outwaiting Palmer works. William Palmer’s company just doesn’t have the amount of money Strong does.

 

As the delays drain Palmer of funds, his stockholder’s lose patience.

 

In the fall of 1878, Palmer’s board of directors, desperate to avoid going broke, agree to a deal with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. They sign a 30-year lease, giving total access to William Strong. We’re talking everything. The Denver & Rio Grande board leases all the round houses, train stations, depots, and the rail lines to Palmer’s enemy.

 

With one signed contract, William Palmer loses everything he’s spent years building. Over the next six months, he is forced to watch as William Strong takes over all of his holdings.

 

Once again, William Palmer has been outsmarted and defeated. The Santa Fe begins using Palmer’s lines and, without competition, makes a fortune.

 

The court case continues during this six-month period, but the legal system is painfully flow. Palmer’s claim of prior right to the Royal Gorge Canyon crawls up the layers of the court system before eventually

arriving at the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

And that’s where the tide turns in Palmer’s favor.

 

On April 21, 1879 the U.S. Supreme Court rules that William Palmer does indeed have prior rights to the Royal Gorge canyon because of his earlier survey work. But the court says Palmer doesn’t have exclusive rights. It’s a victory, but a hollow one since the Santa Fe railroad now controls all of Palmer’s holdings.

 

Palmer’s not ready to give up, though.

 

With the Supreme Court ruling as a foundation, Palmer’s attorneys convince the Colorado Attorney General to file a lawsuit in State Court to stop the Santa Fe, and on June 10 the court does just that. In fact, the court goes far beyond what Palmer could have dreamed and orders the Santa Fe to return everything to Palmer—the roundhouses, the depots, and every inch of his rail line.

 

William Palmer and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad have finally won.

 

Ecstatic, Palmer doesn’t waste any time. He takes the court order to the Denver sheriff, and begins traveling by train from Denver to each station along track. He plans is to work with county sheriffs to reclaim his property.

 

But William Strong isn’t going to give up that easily. He says the courts can be damned.

 

The real battle has only begun.

Strong immediately files an appeal to the Colorado state court ruling and orders his men to stay put and hold the depots and stations and rail lines at any cost.

 

In June of 1879, William Palmer and the Denver sheriff start traveling south by train. The Denver sheriff tags along to serve as confirmation that Palmer’s court order is legitimate.

 

At each stop, Palmer’s men and the sheriff retake the depot and capture Strong’s employees.

 

Strong’s men are loyal but none of them want to die. The Santa Fe men walk away when they read the court order, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe depots and roundhouses fall like dominos.

 

But William Strong isn’t one to quit. He knows that in 1879 possession means more than legal papers, and Strong again sends for Sheriff Bat Masterson and orders him to speed ahead of William Palmer’s court order travels.

 

Masterson, along with 60 men, rush to Pueblo, Colorado, near the southern border of the State. Masterson arrives at the Pueblo station with 60 men—an all-star group of gunmen, including Doc Holliday, Dirty Dave Rudabaugh, Josh Webb, and Mysterious Dave Mather. 

 

Also traveling with Sheriff Masterson is Ben Thompson and his crew of Texas gunmen. Thompson is an occasional lawman from Texas who at first refused the job, worried he’d be arrested for murder if violence broke out. But $5,000 changes his mind. That’s around $150,000 today.

 

Masterson and his team take up key positions around the Santa Fe roundhouse in Pueblo. The men appear ready for war and even go so far as to roll a canon to the roundhouse from the local armory.

 

Hearing that the famed lawman and 60 armed men are on the scene, William Palmer responds by hiring 200 gunmen of his own. He’s not going to be pushed around this time.

 

Palmer’s army rolls south, taking one stop after another. When they arrive in Chucharas, Colorado, south of the town of La Veta, Palmer’s bloodless victories end.

 

At the Cucharas station, twelve determined Santa Fe employees refuse to give up their depot despite the court order. Palmer’s men don’t bother negotiating and open fire, killing two workers. 

 

William Palmer isn’t worried about begin arrested because the law is now firmly on his side.

It’s June 11, 1879, and William Palmer and his crew have yet to arrive in the southern Colorado town of Pueblo.

 

Sheriff Henley Price gets tired of waiting, and at 8:30 a.m. the Sheriff and two officers carry copies of the court order to the Santa Fe men occupying the train operator’s office.

 

But the Santa Fe Railroad employees refuse to give up the building. The sheriff tells them they have 30 minutes to change their minds.

 

When Sheriff Price returns at 9 a.m. he finds several dozen Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe workers armed and barricaded inside the train station office. They refuse to leave.

 

The sheriff walks away and heads to the Grand Central Hotel to recruit a posse. He easily finds around 100 men willing to join the fracas, with the promise of good pay and free liquor, of course.

 

At noon, the sheriff and his group return to the rail office and again the armed workers refuse to leave the station. Wanting to avoid bloodshed, the sheriff takes his men to the roundhouse, where Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson and his Texas gunmen wait.

 

Thompson tells the sheriff he’s been put in charge of the property and can’t walk away without authorization from William Strong or management of the Santa Fe railroad. Thompson tells the sheriff there are only construction workers in the roundhouse and invites the lawman inside to see for himself.

 

After a few minutes of looking inside the roundhouse, the sheriff leaves the scene. Sheriff Price knows

these are gunmen, not construction workers, and is unsure what to do.

 

Although armed with a court order, Sheriff Price decides to seek advice and orders a retreat. He returns to his office and talks with county lawyers to get their thoughts on how to proceed.

 

The lawyers tell Sheriff Price he does not have legal authority to use force to remove the Santa Fe workers regardless of the court order. This doesn’t sit well with the sheriff and he stews on the situation until 3 in the morning.

 

Sheriff Price finally decides the law is the law, and arms 50 of his posse with rifles, bayonets, and lots of ammunition—all provided ahead of time by William Palmer and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The group marches to the depot and forms a skirmish line around the train station. By this time most of the sheriff’s crew are proper drunk and eager to fight after waiting around an entire day.

 

The sheriff’s posse storms through the door of the telegraph office shooting wildly as they enter the building. Most of the Santa Fe men run out the back door desperate to find safety. But one man isn’t fast enough and is shot through the chest. He quickly dies.

 

With this easy victory, Sheriff Price and his men rush to the roundhouse where Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson, and dozens of armed men wait. This is going to be the last stand of William Strong’s all-star team.

 

What happens next in this story is confusing.

 

One version says that William Palmer arrives during the siege on the roundhouse and offers around $250,000 cash in today’s money if Bat Masterson and his men will walk away. In this story, Masterson and Ben Thompson choose money over dying and walk away as wealthy men.

 

Another story says that when Sheriff Price orders the men out of the roundhouse, Ben Thompson steps outside and yells, “Come on you bastards, if you want to fight you can get one.” But a dozen of the sheriff’s crew tackles Thompson and places him under arrest. Without their leader, the Texans inside the building quickly give up and the entire crew is walked down the street to jail.

 

Regardless of which story is true, what is certain is that when the standoff is over, everyone is alive. Bat Masterson is put on a train back to Dodge City and Ben Thompson and his Texans are shipped back home to the Lone Star State.

 

Although the armed conflicts are finished, the legal battle between the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad and the Denver & Rio Grande continue.

 

Robber baron Jay Gould ends the two-year conflict when he buys 50% of the Denver & Rio Grande stock and brokers a deal between the competing companies. It’s called the Treaty of Boston, as that’s where

the deal is signed.

 

In this settlement, the Denver & Rio Grande pays $1.8 million to the Santa Fe for the rail work they’ve completed, that’s just shy of $50 million today. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe agree to take New Mexico, Nevada, and California in the deal. The Denver & Rio Grande receive all rights to Colorado and Utah.

 

And with a stroke of the pen, the Royal Gorge War finally comes to an end.

 

I leave you with a few final notes on this battle.

 

The Denver & Rio Grande begins passenger service through the canyon in 1880 and continues through 1967. Freight service runs through the gorge until 1989. Today, this rail company runs under a new name, The Union Pacific Railroad.

 

William Barstow Strong expands his rail line to California, laying over 7,000 miles of track, the largest rail line in the nation at the time. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad becomes the most revered in the country as well as a famous tourist line. Three cities are named after the railroad tycoon—Barstow, California, Strong City, Kansas, and Stronghurst, Illinois.

William Jackson Palmer starts the Colorado towns of Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Durango, Alamosa, and Salida.  Palmer becomes a multi-millionaire through his holdings and resigns from the Denver & Rio Grande in 1883 to take over construction of the Mexican National Railway. Palmer dedicates his later years to philanthropy, expanding Colorado Springs by constructing roads, parks, a college, and building the famed Antlers Hotel.

 

That wraps up this episode of History Does Rhyme. Thank you for listening. Next week, I'll be

back with another story from our fascinating past.

 

If you liked this podcast, please share it with others. To stay in touch, connect with History Does Rhyme on Facebook. If you enjoyed this episode, you'd probably like the 'Salida Sam' historical book series. Each book covers two years in Salida history, and there are now four volumes on local bookshelves. You can purchase the books online by visiting HistoryDoesRhyme.com and clicking Shop on the menu. Until next week, remember the words attributed to famed writer Mark Twain, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

History Does Rhyme is a copyright production of Salida Walking Tours, LLC. No part of this podcast can be copied, shared, or transmitted without the expressed written consent of the owner. History Does Rhyme is written and produced by me, Steve Chapman, Caleb Burgraff is co-producer and technical advisor, Alex Johnstone performed the original music, and the entire episode was recorded and mixed at the studios of Heart of the Rockies Radio in Salida, Colorado.

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Welcome!

History Does Rhyme is a weekly podcast exploring the fascinating past of Colorado. 

Together, we'll do a deep dive into the stories you only thought you knew, uncovering the amazing true tales of the men, women, and battles that shaped the Centennial State.

I'm your host, Steve Chapman, historian/founder for Salida Walking Tours and Buena Vista Walking Tours. I also write the best-selling 'Salida Sam' historical book series and write/produce the award-winning A Salida Moment in History radio program and A Buena Vista History Flashback.

So, yeah, I'm a history nerd--with a passion for engaging storytelling.  Join me every week and learn why famed writer Mark Twain is attributed with this quote: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." 

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