In the 1870s there was a small section of a narrow railway line meandering through the cavernous walls of Arkansas Canyon in the heart of Colorado. Control of this railway would be an important melodrama in the mining history of the state and would later be referred to as the ‘Royal Gorge War’. The incident occurred in Arkansas Canyon in the years 1878-1880.
Bat Masterson and Ben Thompson, two famous gunmen of the day, sided with one of the warring railroad companies – the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF). The railroad company attempted to claim the tracks their rival, the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) built in 1872 as a lucrative connection between Denver and Pueblo.
The stage took place in 1872 when the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) railroad company constructed a narrow-gauge railway from Denver to Pueblo, Colorado. They then opened a line from Pueblo to Canon Coal Mines, which was 37 miles west of Pueblo. They then built south of Pueblo and walked a line through the mountains of southern Colorado to the San Luis Valley until they reached El Moro in 1876. They extended the railroad to Fort Garland in 1877 and finally to Alamosa in June 1878.
At about the same time, the railroad company Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) built west of Kansas City. The AT&SF reached the Colorado line in 1872, but only reached Pueblo by delay in 1876. In the same year, Leadville grew as a center for the silver mines and a lot of money had to be made by entering and leaving goods. from the city.
The AT&SF realized this potential and decided to run a railroad from Pueblo to Leadville. This required the line to run through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River, which was fifty miles west of Pueblo. Due to the narrow passage, only one railway line could be constructed. This was the core of the conflict; the D&RG wanted the same.
By 1878, both railroad companies had rushed men and equipment to the area in hopes of securing the passage through the gap, while corporate attorneys fought for court rulings in their favor. By April of that year, the AT&SF had more than 300 men stationed in the canyon to secure their construction sites for lines. The D&RG matched that number, but struggled to keep the men hired because their rival paid higher wages.
The AT&SF lawyers have asked a local court to issue a temporary injunction against the D&RG, halting further work in the gap. But before the AT&SF took advantage of this opportunity, the D&RG received their court order blocking the Kansas company from continuing to work on their line. With both companies shut down, men were placed in critical areas of the gap to ensure they had control over the line and equipment.
The D&RG built several stone fortresses under the leadership of their chief engineer, a man named James R. DeRemer who had served in the Civil War and knew how to build the rockwork needed to fight. Built in Texas Creek and Spikebuck, this dry-laid masonry “DeRemer Forts” had gun ports and impressive views of the track below.
Fortunately, the rock fortresses have never been used to ambush each other. In November 1878, the D&RG ran out of money and had to make a pact with their arch rival. On December 1 of that year, they issued the AT&SF with a 30-year lease, which allowed them to use all railways and equipment, including rolling stock.
Once AT&SF took control of all tracks and trains, they quickly began doing more business for Kansas City and less for Denver. The D&RG realized their mistake and started legal action to break the lease. Finally, in early 1879, the case was brought before the Supreme Court in Washington. Pending a violet reply, regardless of court decision, every company sent in armed men to defend their rights and property. The AT&SF hired Bat Masterson and a group of 33 men he recruited into Dodge City to set up a camp in the canyon to defend their construction workers and company premises. They arrived on a special train and after setting up camp called “Dodge City” Bat returned to Kansas.
On April 21, the Supreme Court ruled that the D&RG had previous rights to the Canyon but did not have exclusive rights. The decision, watered down as it was, did not please either side. In the second half of May, the Attorney General of Colorado filed a lawsuit with the State Court to stop the AT&SF from operating railways in the state. On June 10, state judge Thomas M. Bowen issued a subpoena that prevented the AT&SF from using or operating any of the D&RG’s buildings, equipment, or rolling stock – essentially destroying their lease. With the handwriting of Judge Bowen, the D&RG officers went to the sheriffs of each county traversed by the railroads to take possession of all their properties.
Before the warrant could be delivered to the county sheriffs, AT&SF ordered Bat Masterson to return to Colorado and concentrate their forces at Pueblo. He quickly recruited 50 armed men and brought them into a special train. This group included Ben Thompson and a dozen of his fellow Texans.
Initially, when Ben was approached with the offer, Ben was reluctant to sign up, fearing he would be charged with murder when violence broke out. He eventually agreed to keep the stone round house in Pueblo until the police handed him legal documents to take possession of him. According to Walton’s book (Life and Adventures of Ben ThompsonThompson agreed to do the work for $ 5,000 and was approached by the D&RG to hand in the roundhouse for $ 25,000. Ben declined the offer and said, “I will die here unless the law relieves me.”
On June 11, the Denver Sheriff and his group of D&RG men seized the AT & SF office and roundhouse in Denver. Then a train load of D&RG agents drove south to take possession of the property en route. At the same time, ex-Governor of Colorado, A.C. Hunt, raised a troop of 200 men, took a train and drove north, confiscated all the small stations and captured the officers as prisoners. In Cucharas, Hunt’s troops shot it down with twelve AT & SF men – killing a Mexican and injuring an Irishman named Dan Sullivan.
In Pueblo, Sheriff Henley R. Price supported two officers of the D&RG, J.A. McMurtie and R.F. Weitbrec, sent copies of Judge Bowen’s warrant to all AT & SF workers at dawn. After writing the papers, Sheriff Price and his posse marched to the train operator’s office at 8:30 AM. The coordinator refused to let him take possession of the building, and the sheriff told him he had thirty minutes to think it over.
At 9 a.m. Price came back and found the office filled with several dozen armed AT&SF men who refused to budge. Rejected, the sheriff retreated to the Grand Central Hotel and recruited another 100 deputies – all heavily armed and filled with plenty of free liquor.
At noon, they returned to the depot and demanded Sheriff Price and his army of deputies that the people in the depot surrender. They refused, and the troop moved on to the round house where Ben Thompson and Texans were waiting. Confronted with the sheriff, Ben said that he had been put in charge of the company’s property and that he could not give it up without authorization. The sheriff then declared that he had come to disperse an armed crowd.
Ben replied that there was no armed gang in the roundhouse, only construction crew men sent to guard the company’s premises. Since he said some men had guns, Ben invited the sheriff to come in and look at the men to see if any of them were guilty of breaking the law. Price was only allowed to enter the house and left after a short search without arrests.
Faced with a dead end powder keg, Sheriff Price withdrew his men and sought the advice of local lawyers. After reviewing the judge’s verdict, he was informed that he was not authorized to use force to take over the ownership of AT&SF. He chewed this until about 3:00 a.m. and then decided it was time to take action, regardless of the legality of the warrant. He and fifty of his alcohol-lubricated delegates met in front of the Victoria Hotel, where they were provided with rifles equipped with bayonets and heavy ammunition, courtesy of the D&RG. They marched to the depot and formed a skirmish line for the building.
Around that time, a farmer called W.F. Chumside stumbled out of the counter. He is said to have been “somewhat under the influence of drink” and wanted to plead the case for those in the depot. He was quickly knocked down by one of the delegates and kicked his head.
The posse then went to the telegraph office and the shooting started as they stormed through the door. Most of the men in the office quickly escaped through the back doors and got to safety. Unfortunately, Harry Jenkings fell while running and was shot in the chest with the bullet in his spine. The group threw the injured man into a fast car and sent him for medical attention. He died a short time later.
After storming the telegraph office, the posse ran to the roundhouse, the last stronghold of the AT & SF defenders. Thompson met them outside the round house and yelled, “Come on you bastards, if you want to fight, you can get one.” Before meeting his challenge, he was overwhelmed by a dozen deputies and thrown in prison. Without their leader, those inside wanted to have the conversation. Shortly after, they surrendered the building without firing a shot. They were all disarmed and walked down the street to join Thompson in the crowded little prison on West Fifth Street.
Late that evening, ex-Governor Hunt and his party arrived by train from the south, then continued on the Arkansas River to Canon City. By midnight, the entire railroad had been taken. Sometime that night, Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson and the others hired by the AT&SF were released from prison and put on a special train to Dodge City. When he arrived the next morning, Ben collected his money from the AT&SF and went to Texas via Kansas City and St. Louis.
The Royal Gorge affair 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 railways agreed to sign the “Boston Treaty”, which returned the railway and ownership to the D&RG. The AT&SF was paid $ 1.8 million for the railroad he built through the pass, and the Royal Gorge War was finally over.