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© August  8, 2004 

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Manitou & Pike's Peak "Cog" Railway

On display at the Manitou Depot is #5, the Baldwin Locomotive Works 0-4-2T with "Vauclain Compound" reduction system to maximize tractive effort. Photo by Jim O'Connor

Written by Jim O'Connor   

Zebulon Pike said that "Pike's Peak" would never be climbed.  Lieutenant Pike first "discovered" the mountain in mid-November of 1806. His attempt to climb it a few days later with a small band of men ended at 10,000 feet by heavy snows. Edwin James made the first successful ascent in1820. By the mid-1800's, a trail led to the top making it possible for hearty adventurers to reach the summit after a two day climb.

The area around Pike's Peak began attracting travelers wishing to view its natural beauty. General Palmer, founder of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, recognized the value of the region and began to promote the Pike's Peak area to attract passengers on his D&RG.

Inventor and entrepreneur Zalmon Simmons was on an inspection trip to see his new invention, a patented telegraph insulator. Simmons was inspecting its first use atop the new weather station at Pike's Peak.  Simmons was impressed with the magnificent views from the summit. He knew that few would be able to endure the long ride up on mules. When Simmons later heard about an idea for an incline railway from a local hotel owner, he set out to form the company that would build it. Work on the "Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway Company" began in 1889. Three Baldwin Locomotives arrived the following year and were placed in service on the partially completed line. At that time, the Baldwin Locomotives could take passengers only as far as "Halfway House Hotel".  The track was completed and the first passenger train made it to the summit in June of 1891.

Roman Abt's rack system was selected for the Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway track.  It employs two side by side steel racks with alternating upward-pointing teeth that mesh with the locomotive's drive pinions for traction up the steep grade. The maximum grades at the Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway are 25% which is the practical limit for the Abt system.

Locomotive #5 is on display at the base of the railway and can be seen by visitors (click to enlarge).

The first three locomotives were converted to operate on a levered "Vauclain Compound Principle" which reduces the travel and direction of the rod (study the image at the beginning of this article). Other locomotives using the Vauclain Compound Principle were added to  the Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway for a total of six locomotives. These were unique little locos. The entire engine seems to tip forward in an effort to maintain water level in the boiler while going up the steep grades.

Locomotive number 5 is on display at the base of the railway and can be seen by visitors. Number 4 is in storage at the railway and still in operational condition.  It had been delighting steam fans by going out on trips each fall. However, it missed the fall of 2002 and 2003.  Its future as an operating steam engine is not clear. It had been operating with a restored coach.  The other steam engines, all retired by 1958, are displayed at the Manitou Springs Station, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, and the Colorado Railway Museum in Golden.

Roman Abt rack system. Study the area between the points and the frog on this turnout. Note how the turnout swings the curved rack out of the way and brings the straight rack over (click image to enlarge).

In 1938 a gas-powered, 23-passenger unit, number 7, was built and tested. A self-contained railcar which could carry fewer passengers during the slower season was just what new railway owner Spencer Penrose had wanted. Number 7 made its first run in June, 1938.

Number 7 worked very well on the steep railway.  General Electric Company was contracted to build number 8, first in a series of five diesel-electric cog locomotives built by GE. These larger units could be coupled with "Streamliner" coaches. The new units dominated the railway’s fleet through 1965. The coaches could carry 56 passengers in clean comfort.  The diesels needed less maintenance, had the advantage of being ready at any time, and eliminated the time-consuming water stops necessary with all steam locomotives.

Old diesel-electric number 11 sits on a siding while #25 slowly descends to the station from the main line.  
Click to enlarge.

 Number 17 was built in the 1960s and is powered by two Cummins diesel engines mounted under the frame.
Click to enlarge.

Inside one of the 1980s articulated railcars.
Click to enlarge.

A look at the driver's control panel. No, that's not a steering wheel. It's the speed control with throttle and braking in one control. Click to enlarge.

The completion of the Interstate Highway System had a huge impact on the railway. More, larger equipment was needed in the 1960s to keep up with the steady increase of visitors.  GE was not interested in building any more units. The railway turned to Switzerland for 2 diesel-electric units. Numbers 14 and 15 were ordered and placed in service. These were soon followed by  16 and 17. Each powered by two Cummins diesel engines mounted under the frame. For the descent, the diesel engines are shut down and the traction motors work as generators. The electric power generated is consumed by resistor banks on the roof of the railcars in typical dynamic brake fashion.

By the early 70s, it became obvious that the Swiss cars could no longer keep up with the growth of tourism on the railway. In 1974 the railway asked Swiss Locomotive Works for a design that could carry over 200 people. Articulated railcars were the answer.  Number 18 and 19 are diesels with a single speed gear box and torque converter.  The braking is done via a pneumatic retardation system.  Two more articulated railcars, 24 and 25, were added in the 80s, which rounded out the roster. 

Longer trains mean more traffic, so additional switches and sidings were installed at around the time 24 and 25 came on line. There are several sidings along the route to allow ascending and descending trains to pass.

Above the timber line and only moments from the summit.  Number 17 is visible above us on the track. Click to enlarge.

The track at the Summit Depot seen from the observation platform. Click to enlarge.

Back in 1891, the Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway was hailed as an engineering marvel.  And today, after over 110 years of service, the Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway is still the highest railway in the US and highest rack railway in the world. Despite the large number of passengers carried over the years, there has never been a fatality or serious accident on the railway.

On the day we visited the peak, thunderstorms had moved in and lightning strikes were a real possibility on the summit. When you are on the top, above the timber line, you are the highest object around.   A bolt of lightning struck the hill just above us while on our descent.  It sounded like a cannon going off.  There was no echo.  I guess there was nothing near enough to us to reflect back the sound.

A view from the top.  From the observation platform you can see the last section of track leading to the summit.  It's at least 30 degrees F. colder up at the top.
Click to enlarge.

Read more about Pike's Peak and the railway.....

Written and photographed by Jim O'Connor

Special Thanks To The Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway

Have you been to a great scenic railroad or cool railroad museum? Write me about it.


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