While the Polar Express might’ve left the station for the season, Boulder’s still rich in railroad history. The construction of railroads is historically synonymous with the growth and prosperity of towns and cities. Symbolic of the advancement of civilization and growing opportunities for connectedness, railroads have served many purposes in Boulder throughout its history, from the town’s inception to the twentieth century.
The overarching history of both Colorado’s and Boulder’s railroads is vast, complex, and full of intricacies. From the construction of multiple train lines for different purposes, the creation of train depots, political agendas and intrigue, court battles, citizen votes, and multiple railroad company booms, acquisitions, business deals, and bankruptcies over the years, railroads and transportation by train were a driving factor in what allowed Boulder to grow and thrive in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What follows are highlights of a brief history of trains and rail lines in Boulder and how they shaped the town’s early identity.
Settlers initially flocked to Boulder in the 1850s because of the discovery of gold on Gold Hill. With additional initial industries such as agriculture, silver mining, and coal mining, Boulder became a popular place to settle for these professionals and others seeing the opportunity to open businesses to support them. As these industries boomed, convenient and easy transportation and shipping was lacking, and it became clear that the construction of railroads was a necessity to facilitate the city’s continual growth.
In 1873, tracks connecting Golden, Louisville, east Boulder, Niwot, and Longmont, were the first rail lines in use in Boulder and were originally built by the Colorado Central Railroad. This year also saw the completion of a route from Denver to Boulder from the Denver & Boulder Valley Railroad just months later. Train lines such as these became the foundation of a symbiotic system by which both passengers and freight could be carried and distributed throughout the town more effectively, and they began more steadfastly connecting Boulder to Denver and its other neighboring cities and states.
Railroad construction didn’t stop there. According to Silvia Pettem’s Tracking Down Boulder, Colorado’s Railroads, in the early 1880s, Boulder was “gripped with ‘railroad fever’”. The opportunities that transportation via train provided were seemingly boundless. Short sections of tracks were constructed to connect coal mines to previously constructed train lines. Areas of the mountains west of Boulder were eyed for potential expanses of tracks, and lines such as the famed Switzerland Trail amongst Front Range mining towns were opened. More depots were constructed, towns along rail lines prospered, and downtown Boulder was connected to the city’s web of tracks as a center and a focal point.
While trains created an easy system by which goods could be transported throughout the city and its neighbors, passengers likewise benefited immensely from the construction of rail lines. Beginning in the 1870s, passengers were able to board trains and enjoy a day trip to various cities and towns, patronizing restaurants and enjoying the nightlife. The Boulder-Denver Interurban, a commuter train constructed in 1908, provided quick and easy transportation between these two cities, and electric streetcars were a popular way to get about town in Boulder as well.
Trains reigned supreme in Boulder for a number of years but, by the mid 1900s, the popularity of automobiles spelled out the end of trains’ popularity. What was once, according to Pettem, a “maze of tracks throughout the city,” began to be torn up and removed in Boulder. Today, the only line still remaining and in use in Boulder are the formerly Colorado Central tracks connecting Golden, Louisville, east Boulder, Niwot, and Longmont, on which freight trains frequently travel.
While the presence and prevalence of train transportation and travel has diminished significantly in recent history, the historical relevance of trains in Boulder has not been forgotten. The Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden houses historical train memorabilia from Boulder. There is also a great deal of literature available on the subject, including works by Silvia Pettem and railroad historian Forest Crossen. Likewise, the Boulder Valley Railway Historical Society works to educate the public about railroad history and keep historical railroad artifacts intact, constantly reminding Boulder of this vital part of the city’s history.
Photo Credit: Via Wikipedia Commons