Tunneling by train

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Tunnels are feats of engineering at any level, above or below ground, underwater or high in the mountains. But seeing and going through the more than three dozen tunnels cut through the Rocky Mountains for railroad engines is an unforgettable experience.

Traveling on Amtrak’s California Zephyr through Colorado gives you an entirely new awe and appreciation for engineers, both the train-driving railroad kind and those who design highways, bridges and tunnels.

Seeing the rocky, rugged, oft snow-covered mountains, dipping into the deep and gorgeous chasms, sitting in lounge cars with ceilings made of glass so you can see the tops of the mountains as the train curves gently, and slowly, through the middle or higher of them and then suddenly thrust into the utter blackness of a tunnel in spite of sun-filled skies gives you a little insight into both how gorgeous the United States truly is and how brilliant the minds, how hard the work of laborers, how fortunate we are to have all of that in our lives.

Most of the 31 tunnels you pass through on the Zephyr within the approximate 1,000 miles of Colorado you pass through between its Nebraska and Utah lines are short, all with numbered openings that reflect the order in which they were built, not necessarily the order they come along the route. There are a few more tunnels as you continue through the Wasatch Mountains while traveling the roughly 500 miles through Utah before arriving in Nevada.

Regardless, the Moffet Tunnel is the piece de resistance, if you will.

Built in the 1920s around the same time the Holland and Lincoln tunnels were under construction in New Jersey, the tunnel had been the dream and idea of banker Daniel Moffet from the early 1900s. His purpose was to establish a shorter quicker way from Denver to points west, but designs, engineers, feuds among legislators and lack of funds kept putting off construction for more than 20 years. And though Mr. Moffet died a millionaire, he unfortunately never lived to see the realization of his dream.

In contrast to the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, both about a mile and a half long, the Moffet Tunnel is six miles long! It takes ten minutes to pass through, given the engineer goes at between 30 and 40 miles an hour into the pitch darkness. It’s rather like spelunking in a deep cave in the Blue Ridge Mountains, only on the train it’s the headlight that cuts through blackness rather than a small light on a helmet.

Passengers seem to take the trip in a hushed silence, whether in wonder or reverence, since conversation came to a halt as the train entered the tunnel. The Tunnel crosses the Continental Divide, that line signifying the water basins of North America, where all the rivers west of it flow to the Pacific, and those east of it empty into the Atlantic Ocean.

We had crossed the Mississippi river at the point it separates Illinois from Iowa, and the Missouri, the nation’s longest river, where it separates Iowa from Nebraska. We went from central to mountain time when we crossed from Nebraska into Colorado and could feel and see how the train was climbing once, we left Denver. Passing through the Moffet Tunnel we reached the highest point above sea level, approximately 10,000 feet.

There’s one more treat for the eyes when you emerge from the tunnel into bright sunlight. While on the east side of the tunnel, the rugged mountains were absent of snow earlier this month, their multi-hued brownish coarseness and rugged curves dotted with pines and many other evergreens, suddenly there’s snow filled terrain, ski resorts, and even a ski aerial lift directly over the tracks, strange to see from a train, but must be even more strange for a skier passing over a locomotive on her way to the top of the mountain!

They say the Upper and Lower Gore canyons in Colorado are dramatic to see, accessible only by rail or kayak, and indeed they are. But as you go through the canyons alongside the Colorado River, pass through Fraser which earns its name as the Icebox of America because it never experiences a frost-free season but where they say the fishing for all kinds of trout is unparalleled, and Granby, the Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re reaching Dotsero, the halfway point of the trip between Chicago and San Francisco. You pass through New Castle, a former coal mining town where several mine explosions led to the end of the trade.

But a fire still smolders inside and deep down in the mountain because of so many underground explosions from the high level of methane gas. Today, in true American custom and the spirit of rising above grief and destruction, there’s an annual Burning Mountain Festival held in New Castle every autumn.


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