The Legend of the Hell Hill Line

Written by on August 11, 2017 in Southwest Legends - Comments Off on The Legend of the Hell Hill Line

While it is true that the railroads civilized the West, it was never easy. In fact, you might say it was an uphill battle — especially in Colorado. The Hell Hill Line belonging to the Moffat Railroad made its way across the Continental Divide (what the railroaders referred to as the Devil’s Backbone) over Rollins Pass.

The line westward over “the Top of the World” from Denver to Hot Sulphur Springs began in 1903. It remained in service until 1929 when the six-mile Moffat Tunnel through the mountain was finally completed. However, during those years, trains ran into some rather devilish problems, particularly in the winter, hence the name of Hell Hill.


In February 1905, a train was making its way up the Hell Hill Line taking badly needed supplies to distant mining towns. The great blades of the a machine called the “Monster Termite” attached to the engine  chewed through snowdrifts across the tracks. Just before the train reached Jenny Lake, the winds came howling off the Rockies, flinging snow in huge white curtains. With great difficulty, the train filled up with water at the lake. Then came the next and toughest part of the climb to the summit and Rollins Pass, the train fighting every step of the way through twelve foot snow drifts. The Monster Termite used huge amounts of water clearing the path as did the engine getting the train to the summit. The crew knew they were dangerously low once the hit the summit, but they thought they could coast down from there. They were wrong. Less than two miles down from the summit, the train stopped dead. It had run out of water to power the steam locomotive.

The conductor climbed a telegraph pole and sent a message back to Denver explaining their plight. Meanwhile, the crew hunkered down in the caboose where they played cards to pass the time. Denver dispatched two rescue engines the next day, but they ran into the teeth of the gale and also ran out of water.

By the third day, the train was almost completely buried in snow. Short on supplies and fearing for their lives, the crew decided to hike back over the Divide and down to Tolland. Legend says that when the men arrived back in Denver, their families barely recognized them, so bedraggled did they appear.

Eventually, the train was rescued, although the crew had to dynamite at least one of the snow drifts blocking the way. Thanks to the courage and daring of railroad men at the top of the world, the needed supplies eventually made it to their destination.

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