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Royal Gorge Railroad War
In the 1870s a small section of a narrow gauge railway line meandered along the cavernous walls of the Arkansas Canyon in the heart of Colorado. Control of that railway line would play as a significant melodrama in the mining history of the state and would later be referred to as the “Royal Gorge War”. The event took place in the Arkansas Canyon during the years 1878-1880.
Bat Masterson and Ben Thompson, two well-known gunmen of the day, helped one of the warring railroad companies – the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe (AT&SF). The railroad company tried to claim the tracks that their rival, the Denver and Rio Grande del Norte (D&RG) built in 1872 as a profitable link between Denver and Pueblo.
The stage was set in 1872 when the Denver and Rio Grande do Norte (D&RG) Railroad Company built a narrow-gauge railroad line from Denver to Pueblo, Colorado. Next they opened a line from Pueblo to Canon Coal Mines, which lay 37 miles west of Pueblo. Then building south of Pueblo, they ran a line through the mountains of southern Colorado and in the San Luis Valley until they reached El Moro in 1876. They extended the railroad line to Fort Garland in 1877 and finally to Alamosa in June of 1878.
Around the same time frame the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railroad Company built west of Kansas City. The AT&SF reached the Colorado line by 1872, but due to delays did not reach Pueblo until 1876. During that same year, Leadville boomed as a center for the silver mines and a large amount of money was to be made loading goods in and out. of the city.
Realizing this potential, the AT&SF decided to run a rail line from Pueblo to Leadville. This forced the line to pass through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas, which was located fifty miles west of Pueblo. The narrow pass would allow only one rail line to be built. This was the core of the conflict; the D&RG wanted the same.
By 1878, both railroad companies were rushing men and equipment to the area hoping to secure the right of way through the ravine while the company lawyers fought for court rulings in their favor. In April of that year, the AT&SF stationed more than 300 men in the canyon to secure their line construction sites. The D&RG matched that number but had trouble keeping the men employed because their rival paid higher wages.
The AT&SF lawyers got a local court to issue a temporary injunction against the D&RG, stopping any further work in the canyon. But, before the AT&SF could take advantage of this opportunity, the D&RG received its court order blocking the Kansas company from doing any further work on its line. With both companies at a standstill, men were placed at critical locations in the canyon to ensure they had control of the line and the equipment.
The D&RG built several stone forts under the direction of their Chief Engineer, a man named James R. DeRemer who served in the Civil War and knew how to build the rock breastworks necessary for fighting a battle. These dry-laid masonry “DeRemer Forts” built at Texas Creek and Spikebuck had gun ports and a commanding view of the track below.
Fortunately, for both sides, the rock forts were never used to ambush each other. By November of 1878 the D&RG ran out of money and was forced to make a pact with their archrival. On December 1 of that year, they issued a 30-year lease to the AT&SF, which gave them the use of all the railroad lines and all the equipment – including the rolling stock.
Once the AT&SF had control of all the tracks and trains they quickly began pushing more business for Kansas City and less for Denver. Realizing their mistake, the D&RG commenced legal action to break the lease. Finally, in the early part of 1879 the case was brought before the Supreme Court in Washington. Anticipating a violet response, regardless of the court verdict, each company sent armed men to defend their rights and property. The AT&SF hired Bat Masterson and a group of 33 men he had recruited in Dodge City to set up camp in the canyon to defend their construction men and the company property. They arrived on a special train and after setting up the camp, dubbed “Dodge City”, Bat returned to Kansas.
On April 21, the Supreme Court ruled that the D&RG had the prior right to the Canyon, but did not have the exclusive rights. The decision, as it was diluted, did not please either party. In the latter part of May, the Colorado Attorney General filed a suit in the state court to stop the AT&SF from operating railroads within the state. Then on June 10, State Judge Thomas M. Bowen issued a writ stopping the AT&SF from using or operating any of the D&RG buildings, equipment or rolling stock – essentially voiding their lease. With Judge Bowen’s warrant in hand the officers of the D&RG went to the sheriffs of each county crossed by the railroad lines to take possession of all of their property.
Before the subpoenas could be delivered to the county sheriffs, AT&SF instructed Bat Masterson to return to Colorado and concentrate his forces in Pueblo. He quickly recruited 50 Brahmin men and brought them on a special train. Included in that group were Ben Thompson and a dozen of his fellow Texans.
At first, when approached with the offer, Ben was reluctant to join, fearing that if violence broke out he would be accused of murder. Finally, he agreed to hold the stone traffic circle at Pueblo until officers of the law presented him with legal papers to take possession. According to Walton’s book (Life and Adventures of Ben Thompson) Thompson agreed to do the work for $5,000 and was approached by the D&RG to surrender the roundabout for $25,000. Ben rejected the offer saying, “I’m going to die here unless the law clears me.”
On June 11, the sheriff of Denver and his band of D&RG men seized the AT&SF office and roundabout in Denver. Then a trainload of D&RG agents headed south to take possession of the property along the way. At the same time the ex-Governor of Colorado, AC Hunt, raised a force of 200 men, seized a train and went north confiscating all the small stations and taking the agents as prisoners. At Cucharas, Hunt’s forces fired it with twelve AT&SF men – killing a Mexican and wounding an Irishman named Dan Sullivan.
At Pueblo, Sheriff Henley R. Price supported two officials of the D&RG, JA McMurtie and RF Weitbrec, served copies of Judge Bowen’s subpoena to all the AT&SF workers at dawn. After serving the warrants, Sheriff Price and his party marched down to the train dispatcher’s office at 8:30. The dispatcher refused to let him take possession of the building and the sheriff told him he had thirty minutes to think it over.
At 9:00, Price returned to find the office filled with several dozen armed AT&SF men who refused to surrender. Refused, the sheriff went back to the Grand Central Hotel and recruited another 100 deputies – all heavily armed and prepared with plenty of free booze.
Returning to the depot at noon, Sheriff Price and his army of deputies demanded that those in the depot surrender. They refused and the group moved on to the roundabout where Ben Thompson and the Texans were waiting. Confronted by the sheriff, Ben said that he had been put in charge of the company’s property and he could not give it up without being authorized to do so. The sheriff then stated that he had come to disperse an armed mob.
Ben replied that there was no armed crowd in the traffic house, only men from the construction crew who had been sent to guard the company’s property. Saying that some of the men did have arms, Ben invited the sheriff to step into the roundabout and look over the men to see if any of them were guilty of breaking the law. Price was allowed to enter the roundabout alone and after a brief search left without making any arrests.
Faced with a powder keg of confrontation, Sheriff Price withdrew his men and sought the advice of the local attorneys. After reviewing the judge’s warrant he was advised that he was not authorized to use force to take over the AT&SF property. He chewed on this until about 3:00 and then decided it was time to take action regardless of the legalities of the subpoena. He and fifty of his liquor-lubricated deputies met in front of the Victoria Hotel where they were provided with rifles fitted with bayonets and a heavy ration of ammunition, courtesy of the D&RG. Marching down to the depot they formed a line of battle in front of the building.
About this time, a cattleman by the name of WF Chumside staggered out of the ticket office. He was said to be “slightly under the influence of liquor” and wanted to argue the case for those inside the depot. He was quickly struck by one of the deputies and kicked in the head.
The group then went to the telegraph office and firing began as they pounded on the door. Most of the men inside the office quickly escaped through the back doors and made it to safety. Unfortunately, Harry Jenkings fell as he ran away and was shot through the chest with the bullet lodged in his spine. The group threw the wounded man in an express cart and sent him for medical attention. He died a short time later.
After storming the telegraph office, the group raced to the roundabout, the last stronghold of the AT&SF defenders. Thompson met them outside the roundabout shouting: “Come on, puppies; if you want a fight, you can have one.” Before he could sustain his challenge, he was overpowered by a dozen of the deputies and thrown into prison. Without their leader those inside wanted to talk. A short time later, they surrendered the building without firing a shot. All of them were disarmed and herded down the street to join Thompson in the crowded little jail on West Fifth Street.
Late that evening ex-governor Hunt and his party arrived by train from the south and then proceeded up the Arkansas to Canon City. By midnight, the entire railroad was captured. Sometime during that night Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson and the others employed by the AT&SF were released from prison and put on a special train bound for Dodge City. Arriving the following morning, Ben collected his money from the AT&SF and headed for Texas via Kansas City and St.
The Royal Gorge case did not end on June 11, but continued in the courts for several more months. Finally, the “robber baron” Jay Gould bought fifty percent of the shares in the D&RG and settled the lawsuit out of court. On March 27, 1880, both railroads agreed to sign the “Treaty of Boston” which returned the railroad and property back to the D&RG. The AT&SF was paid $1.8 million for the rail line it built through the pass and the Royal Gorge War was finally over.
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