by Soapy Smith
In the world of Colorado narrow gauge railroading, nothing is quite as bizarre as the operation known as the THE SILVERTON RAILROAD. This is one of three narrow gauge lines that branched out into the canyons north of Silverton Colorado. The area is one of the most highly mineralized in the world, and mines and mining towns were erected in the mountain valleys to tap the abundant ores. The small railroads existed for the purpose of removing the ore from these mines. The Silverton Railroad was only 17.5 miles long.
The feature making this the most unusual railroad in Colorado was the inclusion of a turn-table in the mainline ! Rather than attempt to describe it myself, I have included this short article from a technical journal of the time. Following this will be a description of an expedition to view the turn-table as it exists today, including several digital images.
AMERICAN SOCIETY OF CIVIL ENGINEERS. INSTITUTED 1852.
NOTE This Society is not responsible, as a body, for the facts and opinions advanced in any of its publications.
Vol. XXIII.-September, 1890.
THE TURN-TABLE ON THE MAIN TRACK OF THE SILVERTON RAILROAD IN COLORADO.
By C. W. GIBBS, M. Am. Soc. C. E.
The Silverton Railroad is a short line but 17.5 miles long, and has the reputation of being the steepest (5 per cent. grade), the crookedest (30 degree curves) and the best paying road in Colorado; and is owned by one man, Otto Mears. It also has a turn-table on its main track, and it is the purpose of this paper to describe it and explain why it was so placed.
This road leaves the Denver and Rio Grande at Silverton, and runs over a divide 11113 feet above sea level, then down into the rich mining country beyond. The country is very rough and rugged, and in order to reach the town of Red Mountain it was necessary to run up on a switchback, as no room for a loop could be found. A wye was, therefore, built, and the engine could be turned while the train stood on the main track. The engine was thus placed ahead of the train, only the train is pulled out of the station rear end ahead. It runs thus till the turn-table is reached. The train is stopped at a point marked A, Plate XXII; the engine uncoupled, run on to the table, is turned and pulled up to a point near B, where it is stopped. The train is then allowed to drop down to the turn-table and the engine backed on to it. In coming up from Albany the train is stopped on the down grade between the summit at B and the table; the engine is taken off, turned on the table and run up to about A; the train is then allowed to drop to the table as before and the engine backed up and coupled on, taking not over five minutes in going either way.
The reason of putting the table in was that there were no mines to the east of Ironton as shown on Plate XXI, but between the turn-table and the loop there were several that it was very desireable to reach, and the side hill is so steep that it is impossible to make a loop on it.
This table is the source of a great deal of comment from tourists, of whom there are many during the summer months, as it is on the line known as the circle, so extensively advertised by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
The road is used both for a freight and passenger road, and as before mentioned, is the best paying road in Colorado, two engines being kept busy hauling ore to Silverton from the Red Mountain district.
The object of writing this paper was to describe what the author thinks is quite a novelty, being the only turn-table that he has ever heard of which is used upon a switchback in this manner, and where the grades are adjusted as they are to let the train run by gravity on the table from both ways.
Plate XXI is a print from a photograph of the map filed in Washington, and is about 9000 feet to the inch.
Plate XXII is an enlarged sketch of the line near the turn-table.
J. Foster Cromwell, M. Am. Soc. C. E.-It occurs to me that the use of this turn-table being simply to turn the engine during transit, while the train waits, and, moreover, as the service is a special one on a spur line, it would have been better to obtain an engine capable of running in either direction and not requiring to be turned, rather than resort to a turn-table in the main track which contains an element of danger as well as of delay to the traffic. The device, however, is an ingenious one to meet the peculiar conditions of line; and if experience with it proves satisfactory, there are other problems on a larger scale relating to change of direction in mountain location that it may help to solve.
C. W. Gibbs, M. Am. Soc. C.E-If a special engine had been procured, as Mr. Crowell suggests, it would have been at an extra expense, owing to the limited number wanted; and even with a special design, it might have been difficult for any engine to have backed its load over so steep a grade and such sharp curves without more danger than was suggested there might be at the turn-table. The delay to traffic amounts to nothing, for there are no competing lines, nor do I expect there ever will be. The turn-table has now been in actual operation every day since June, 1889, and no accident has ever occurred.
If you happen to own a copy of the book "Narrow Gauge in the Rockies" by Beebe and Clegg, turn to page 115. The photo at the bottom of the page shows two explorers sitting on the remains of the turntable in 1951- approximately 50 years ago ! In the book "Three Little Lines" by Josie Crum, there is a claim that the turntable had been salvaged. This photo proved that this was not true.
One look at that photo, and I knew it would be simply a matter of time before exploring the site for myself. An impromptu family vacation to the Silverton and Ouray area of Colorado presented the opportunity much sooner than I had anticipated.
The "road" to the site is really not too bad by Colorado 4 wheel drive standards. It was moderately easy to navigate using a brand-new Chevy Tahoe (4WD). I don't recommend attempting this unless you have at least moderate experience in mountain type off-roading. If it had not been a nice dry day we would not have made the trip.
The first reconaissance was done using a GPS receiver to locate the correct altitude of the turntable from the map published in the AMSCE proceedings. We had some old photos taken from the turntable looking towards Ouray. Using a sort of "optical triangulation" by comparing the peaks of the mountains to the old photograph, we were convinced we were within a quarter mile of the turntable site.
Unfortunately it was getting late, and we had to get back to Ouray before it got too dark. The turntable was not found, but we were determined to return the next day and find it.
The next morning we returned to the area. At this time of day the lighting was much better for comparison of the old photographs to the present day topography. Much has changed. The old photographs show a mountainside completely stripped of all trees. This made the determination of little peaks and valleys as seen in the photos quite difficult. There are a couple of small sub-peaks very close to the turntable that could be seen in the ancient images. Fortunately the aspens on the crest of these mini-peaks were bright yellow, in contrast to greener trees at altitudes slightly below. I remember there were two peaks in particular which really made the determination of the exact location quite easy.
It turned out that we were within maybe 200 yards of the turntable on the first try. The main reason we did not wander in that direction is the turntable's namesake- the Corkscrew Gulch. At least that is what it appeared to be. We parked the Tahoe and started hiking the very steep slope to the bottom of the gulch, and then straight back up the other side. This is down some rather loose rock and sand. Not recommended unless you have good balance and a sturdy pair of boots.
The turntable is fairly easy to find. If you don't run into it directly, the two grades are quite well preserved and will lead you right to the turntable.
The "discovery" of the turntable was quite exciting, as I did not expect to find it very well preserved. There is literally tons of hardware still extant. What follows is several images showing the turntable and surrounding area. Click on the link to see the image, and use the back button to return to this page.
Taking a closer look at the remains of the turntable, it became obvious why it was never salvaged. The main bearing is an enormous iron casting. It must weigh tons. There are iron wheels under the main casting, some of which have been removed by looters. It was easy to take an image of this large mechanism. It is too bad it was not protected from vandalism.
The Corkscrew Gulch Turntable is a fascinating site to visit. There was no historical marker or anything at all to indicate its historical significance. This site has historical significance for railroading, and also civil and mechanical engineering. It appears that natural erosion is taking the biggest toll on the turntable remains. A small landslide would completely bury it. Fortunately the main bearing parts are huge and would be virtually impossible to remove. I hope these remain in place for hundreds of years for future expeditions to find and explore.
February 1, 2001