Royal Gorge Railroad War

In the 1870’s a small section of narrow gage railroad line snaked its way down the cavernous walls of the Arkansas Canyon in the heart of Colorado. Control of this rail line would play out as a significant melodrama in the mining history of the state and would be later referred to as the “Royal Gorge War”. The incident took place in the Arkansas Canyon during the years 1878-1880.

Bat Masterson and Ben Thompson, two noted gunmen of the day, sided with one of the warring railroad companies – the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe (AT&SF). The rail company was trying to lay claim to the tracks that their rival, the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) had built in 1872 as a lucrative link between Denver and Pueblo.

The stage was set in 1872 when the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) Railroad Company built a narrow gauge rail line from Denver to Pueblo, Colorado. Next they opened a line from Pueblo to Canon Coal Mines, which lay 37 miles to the west of Pueblo. Then building south of Pueblo, they ran a line through the mountains of southern Colorado and into the San Luis Valley until they reached El Moro in 1876. They extended the rail line to Fort Garland in 1877 and finally to Alamosa in June of 1878.

Around same time frame the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railroad Company was building 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 was booming as a center for the silver mines and a great deal of money was to be made freighting goods into and out of the city.

Realizing this potential, the AT&SF decided to run a rail line from Pueblo to Leadville. This required the line to pass through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River, which was situated fifty miles west of Pueblo. The narrow pass would allow only one rail line to be constructed. This was the crux of the conflict; the D&RG wanted the same thing.

By 1878, both railroad companies had rushed men and equipment to the area hoping to secure the right of way through the gorge while the company attorneys battled for court rulings in their favor. In April of that year, the AT&SF had 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 hired because their rival paid higher wages.

The AT&SF attorneys got a local court to issue a temporary injunction against the D&RG, halting any further work in the canyon. But, before the AT&SF could take advantage of this opportunity the D&RG got their court order blocking the Kansas company from doing any further work on their line. With both companies at a standstill, men were placed at critical spots in the canyon to ensure that they had control of the line and the equipment.

The D&RG built several stone forts under direction of their Chief Engineer, a man by the name of James R.DeRemer who had served in the Civil War and knew how to construct the rock breastwork needed for fighting a battle. These dry-laid masonry “DeRemer Forts” built at Texas Creek and Spikebuck featured gun ports and a commanding view of the track below.

Fortunately, for both sides, the rock forts were never used for ambushing each other. By November of 1878 the D&RG ran out of money and was forced to make a pact with their arch rival. On December 1 of that year, they issued a 30-year lease to the AT&SF, which gave them the use of all of the rail lines and all equipment – including the rolling stock.

Once the AT&SF had control of all the tracks and trains they quickly started squeezing in more business for Kansas City and less for Denver. Realizing their mistake, the D&RG started 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 ruling, each company sent in armed men to defend their rights and property. The AT&SF hired Bat Masterson and a posse of 33 men he recruited in Dodge City to set up a 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, diluted as it was, did not please either party. In the latter part of May, the Colorado Attorney General entered a suit in the State court to halt 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 nullifying their lease. With Judge Bowen’s writ in hand the officers of the D&RG went to the sheriffs of each county traversed by the railroad lines to take possession of all of their property.

Before the writs could be delivered to the county sheriffs, AT&SF instructed Bat Masterson to return to Colorado and concentrate their forces in Pueblo. He quickly recruited 50-armed men and brought them in on a special train. Included in this group were Ben Thompson and a dozen of his fellow Texans.

Initially, when approached with the offer, Ben was reluctant to sign on, fearing that if violence broke out he would be accused of murder. Finally, he agreed to hold the stone roundhouse 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 roundhouse for $25,000. Ben turned down the offer saying: “I will die here, unless the law relieves me.”

On June 11, the sheriff of Denver and his posse of D&RG men seized the AT&SF office and roundhouse 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, A.C. Hunt, raised a posse of 200 men, captured a train and headed north seizing all the small stations and taking the agents as prisoners. At Cucharas, Hunt’s forces shot it out with twelve AT&SF men – killing a Mexican and wounding an Irishman named Dan Sullivan.

At Pueblo, Sheriff Henley R. Price backed two officials from the D&RG, J.A. McMurtie and R.F. Weitbrec, served copies of Judge Bowen’s writ to all of the AT&SF workers at dawn. After serving the writs, Sheriff Price and his posse marched down to the office of the train dispatcher 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 and found the office filled with a several dozen armed AT&SF men who refused to budge. Rebuffed, the sheriff trekked back to the Grand Central Hotel and recruited an additional 100 deputies – all heavily armed and primed with plenty of free liquor.

Returning to the depot at noon, Sheriff Price and his army of deputies demanded that those in the depot surrender. They refused and the posse moved on to the roundhouse where Ben Thompson and Texans were waiting. Confronted by the sheriff, Ben said he had been placed 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 mob in the roundhouse, 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 inside the roundhouse and look over the men to see if any of them were guilty of violations of the law. Price was allowed to enter the roundhouse alone and after a brief search left without making any arrests.

Faced with a powder keg of a standoff, Sheriff Price withdrew his men and sought the advice of the local attorneys. After reviewing the judge’s writ 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 that it was time to take action regardless of the legalities of the writ. He and fifty of his liquor-lubricated deputies met in front of the Victoria Hotel where they were supplied with rifles equipped with bayonets and a heavy ration of ammunition, courtesy of the D&RG. Marching down to the depot they formed a skirmish line in front of the building.

About that time, a cattleman by the name of W.F. Chumside staggered out of the ticket office. He was said to have been “a little under the influence of liquor” and wanted to argue the case for those inside the depot. He was quickly struck down by one of the deputies and kicked in the head.

The posse then headed to the telegraph office and shooting started as they were battering down 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 was running away and was shot through the chest with the bullet lodged in his spine. The posse pitched the wounded man in an express wagon and sent him for medical attention. He died a short time later.

After storming the telegraph office, the posse raced over to the roundhouse, the last stronghold of the AT&SF defenders. Thompson met them outside the roundhouse yelling: “Come on you sons of bitches; if you want a fight you can have one.” Before he could back up his challenge, he was overpowered by a dozen of the deputies and thrown in jail. Without their leader those inside wanted to parley. 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 continued on up the Arkansas River to Canon City. By midnight, the entire railroad had been captured. Sometime during that night Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson and the others hired by the AT&SF were released from jail and put on a special train bound for Dodge City. Arriving in the following morning, Ben collected his money from the AT&SF and headed for Texas by way of Kansas City and St. Louis.

The Royal Gorge affair did not end on June 11, but continued on in the courts for several more months. Finally, the “robber baron” Jay Gould bought fifty per cent of the stock in the D&RG and settled the litigation 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 had built through the pass and the Royal Gorge War was finally over.