To learn how this place came to be, take the long and winding road up.

Take Boreas Pass, just south of Breckenridge. Follow the pavement until it turns to dirt and the mountain luxury homes fade away. The rugged past reveals itself along the tight, steep grade through aspen tunnels and rock guts.

The road is the abandoned bed of what became known as the High Line, the train track unlike any other America has ever seen.

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This was the nation's highest narrow gauge, connecting Denver to the mines of Leadville via Boreas Pass above 11,4000 feet, crossing Breckenridge as it went below. At least 150 souls lived around Boreas's summit, bent on serving the railroad that would transform the dusty, isolated mining camp into what it is today: a bustling hub of skiing, commerce and culture.

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The High Line, as it was known ran against the odds atop Boreas Pass, beginning in 1882. Men were sometimes called upon to clear snow-dumped tracks. Photo credit: Denver Public Library Special Collections

Those workers left behind a graveyard of bristlecone stumps; the rigid timber was cut for ties and log structures, some of which still stand today. There's the old house of the section boss and his workers. It stands across from the crumbled foundation of the engineer's house, beside fallen fencing built to block monstrous snow drifts.

The summit meadow is scattered with splintered wood and rusted steel, more remains for today's drivers to imagine a time hard to imagine. From 1882 to 1937, the train ran against the odds.

"As you're driving, you just can't believe it," says Sherrie Calderini, the historical interpreter with Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.

Grainy photographs will make you believe. They flash in a video that plays in the town's welcome center. They are scenes of man and train combating the wintry extremes of Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind.

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Visitors stop to take a closer look at the Bakers Tank on Boreas Pass Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. The water tank served the narrow gauge trains that traveled the High Line route to Breakenridge, Colo., from 1882 to 1937. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Here's a picture of "bucking," the term for locomotives charging and reversing and charging and so forth into snow walls. Here's the rotary, the 100-ton behemoth with blades to cut drifts as high as 30 feet. Here's men digging where machines failed.

Here's one toppled train after another, victims of ice or avalanche in winter, rock or rain in other seasons. In worst-case scenarios, laborers on board had a saying.

"What they said is they joined the birds. They jumped out," says a narrator in the video, Margaret Coel, daughter and granddaughter of railroaders.

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Stumps remain today from the trees used to built the railroad camp on the summit of almost 11,500-foot Boreas Pass near Breckenridge, Colo. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Another descendant, Ray Perschbacher, reflects: "There weren't any John Waynes. They were just ordinary people. They saw a job that needed to be done, and they went out and did it."

Their job was to maintain the High Line at all costs and ferry supplies that would go on to build Breckenridge, making it the place fit later for a world-class resort. The train's perseverance meant Breckenridge's prosperity.

The train churned "over mountains pierced with shafts and tunnels from which poured an uninterrupted stream of minerals," wrote the authors of the 1958 classic, "Narrow Gauge in the Rockies." But it was not just mining material that was economically freighted. It was other things that wagons could not transport over unforgiving terrain. Things like furniture and food from far beyond.

It was oysters. Oysters for Barney Ford's restaurant in Breckenridge.

The born slave who went on to be a prominent entrepreneur and civil rights pioneer in Denver started his Breckenridge business around the time the train arrived. Beyond oysters, he could have rode the train back to his interests in Denver, Calderini says, and it's possible his elegant home-turned-museum was furnished thanks to the train. "Barney definitely used the train," Calderini says.

As did some 1,600-plus people living in Breckenridge during the High Line's 1880s heyday. The population had boomed since the start of the previous decade, when the Census showed 51.

The train's significance was underscored in the winter of 1898-99. The town was reportedly buried by 20 feet of snow, leaving no chance for passage in higher elevations.

"Breckenridge was cut off from civilization," Calderini says. "There were some hungry people."

Those were a hard 11 weeks. But as it always had, the train would run again. People would flock again to the depot or post office, the social events of the day. The train whistling through the mountains was "the most welcoming sound in the world," Coel recalls an old-timer telling her.

But after a 55-year run, the decline of mining and rise of automobiles spelled the end of the train. "It was a tough time," Coel says in the welcome center video. "It was the end of an era."

Now the cabins atop Boreas Pass fit into this era of recreation. Nonprofit Summit Huts Association rents them for cross-country skiers and snowshoers, who stay the night after a 6-mile trek.

The road can be driven until it's covered by snow. When the convenience of driving is taken away — that's the time to visit the abandoned settlement, says Rich Rowley, president of Summit Huts Association.

"You really gotta go in the winter to get an appreciation of the place," he says.

Those who venture to the cabins don't always know or appreciate the history there. That's until darkness settles and the cold wind blows, Rowley says.

"On really windy nights," he says, "they say they can still hear the trains up there."

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(1) comment

Magmom

Somebody should organize a clean-up campaign for the Boreas summit. I haven't seen so much glass shards even in campgrounds. It really is dangerous to people and dogs.

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