The Moffat Tunnel is a railroad and water tunnel that cuts through the Continental Divide in north-central Colorado. Named after Colorado railroad pioneer David Moffat, the tunnel's first railroad traffic passed through in February 1928.
Fifty miles (80 km) west of Denver is the East Portal in the Front Range, about 10 miles (16 km) west of the town of Rollinsville. The West Portal is near the Winter Park ski area. The railroad tunnel is 24 feet (7.3 m) high, 18 feet (5.5 m) wide, and 6.2 miles (10.0 km) long. The apex of the tunnel is at 9,239 feet (2,816 m) above sea level. The Moffat Tunnel finally provided Denver with a western link through the continental divide, as both Cheyenne to the north and Pueblo to the south enjoyed rail access to the West. It follows the right-of-way laid out by Moffat back in 1902 while he was seeking a better and shorter route to Salt Lake City. The water tunnel runs parallel south of the railroad tunnel and is part of the water supply system of Denver.
The tunnel was the brainchild of David Moffat of the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific (DNW&P) railroad as early as 1902. The original DNW&P tracks climbed Rollins Pass with a series of switch back loops with steep grades and severe snow conditions. Snow removal on the original line made it unprofitable to operate.
Moffat was unable to raise sufficient funds to build the tunnel before he died in 1911, but the forces behind the tunnel continued, and in 1914 a Denver bond issue was approved financing two thirds of the construction cost of the tunnel. The issue was defeated in the courts when it was found that Denver did not have the constitutional right to enter into a joint venture to construct the tunnel with a private corporation.
In 1920 a bill was introduced in the state legislature to build three tunnels under the Monarch Pass, Cumbres Pass, and Rollins Pass (the Moffat Route). The various regions of the state could not come to agreement, partly because southern and southwestern regions feared that Denver would gain a new advantage in commerce from the Moffat Route. Blocking this legislation would ultimately backfire, when Denver was finally able to secure financing for its tunnel.
In the spring of 1922, Denver's lawmakers in the state legislature found an opening. Pueblo (which was on the existing railroad route over the Continental Divide) had been devastated by a flood, and Gov. Oliver Shoup called an emergency session of the legislature. Denver lawmakers now had power over Pueblo. They would vote for emergency funding for the beleaguered town (an economic rival to Denver) in return for legislation authorizing the issuance of bonds for their tunnel. A deal was struck, and on April 29, the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District was created.
The district boundaries included the City and County of Denver, and all or portions of the counties traversed by the Denver and Salt Lake Railway. The district had the authority to levy taxes and issue bonds backed by real estate within the district. The following summer, bonds were sold and construction began.
The bonds were fully paid off in December of 1983, but the commission continued to exist until 1998. It was finally disbanded after a series of political intrigues related to the Winter Park Resort, which was built partly on land owned by the commission (known as the Evans Tract).
The Moffat Tunnel was cut under a shoulder of James Peak. A pioneer tunnel was bored parallel with the main tunnel to facilitate the work and was eight feet high and eight feet wide. In 1925 bad rock at the west end of the tunnel delayed construction and costs soared. The pioneer tunnel was officially 'holed' through on February 18, 1926, the blast of dynamite being set off by President Coolidge upon pressing a key in Washington, and the program was broadcast by radio from the heart of the mountain. The pilot bore later became the water tunnel. Three more bond issues were sold before the tunnel was completed.
Although the original cost of the tunnel was pegged at $6.62 million, final assessments collected by the Moffat Tunnel district, including interest, were $23,972,843. The cost of the two tunnels was $15.6 million, which is $475 per linear foot ($1,440 per meter). The project involved the excavation of 750,000 cubic yards (570,000 m3), or 3,000,000,000 pounds (1,400,000 t) of rock, equal to 1,600 freight trains of 40 cars each. 28 people died during the 5-year project, six in a single cave-in July 30, 1926.
The tunnel is under lease to the City of Denver, which operates it as a trans-mountain line that transports water to the eastern slope of the range. The railroad tunnel was 'holed' through on July 7, 1927, and formally turned over to the lessee on February 26, 1928. Railroad connections through the tunnel shortened the distance between Denver and the Pacific coast by 176 miles (283 km). The tunnel took 48 months to bore—average daily progress being 21 feet (6.4 m). The first train passed through the tunnel in February 1928.
In 1931, the D&RGW acquired the Denver and Salt Lake Western Railroad (a company in name only) subsidiary of the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad (D&SL) which had acquired the rights to build a 40-mile (64 km) connection between the two railroads. After years of negotiation the D&RGW gained trackage rights on the D&SL from Denver to the new cutoff. In 1932, the D&RGW began construction of the Dotsero Cutoff about twenty miles (32 km) east of Glenwood Springs to near Bond on the Colorado River, at a location called Orestod (Dotsero spelled backward). Despite the common misconception that Dotsero is a shortening of "Dot Zero," the station name exists from the construction of the Standard Gauge line to Glenwood Springs in the 1890s. Construction was completed in 1934 giving Denver a direct transcontinental link to the west. The D&RGW though slipped again into bankruptcy in 1935. Emerging in 1947 it merged with the D&SL on 3 March 1947 gaining control of the "Moffat Road" through the Moffat Tunnel and a branch line from Bond to Craig, Colorado.
In 1988, Rio Grande Industries, the company that controlled the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, under the direction of Philip Anschutz, purchased the Southern Pacific Railroad. The combined company took the Southern Pacific name due to its name recognition among shippers. On September 11, 1996 Anschutz sold the combined company to the Union Pacific Railroad in a response to the earlier merger of the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe which formed the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. The Union Pacific Railroad still uses Moffat Tunnel today. Although its primary purpose today is as a rail route for coal and freight and as a water tunnel from the Pacific watershed to Colorado's Front Range population centers, tourists and cross-country passengers can enjoy the route on Amtrak's California Zephyr.
The East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel is at