places … The Midland Tunnels

By Ericka Kastner

During Leadville’s bustling mining days of the late 1800s, the town of Buena Vista was served by three separate railroads and the standard-gauge Colorado Midland arrived last – in 1887.

A steep, uphill buggy ride from Buena Vista gave passengers access to the Midland Depot, which was situated high above town and followed the banks of the Arkansas River. When the Midland was laid, workers had to dig tunnels into the rocky hillside at a point along the road where the valley narrowed in order for the train to continue to follow the route along the river. When this series of tunnels was completed, many folks believed that this was the only spot in the country where a train could be in four tunnels at one time.

More than 100 years later, the days of the railroad in Buena Vista are long gone – the route was abandoned in May of 1922 – but these tunnels can still be seen today. I lived in Buena Vista for about five years, and during that time I travelled the “tunnel road” quite frequently.

A Midland Railroad locomotive at the north tunnel near Buena Vista,
circa 1887. Photo by William Henry Jackson.

On Sunday mornings, I often joined three or four of my closest girlfriends to run our marathon training long runs along this route. Whether our distance for the day was 12 miles or 20, our run always took us along the river and through the Midland Tunnels. The cool rock walls inside offered us brief shade on hot sunny mornings – particularly on the return trip – or momentary shelter during rainy, snowy or windy runs. The tunnels seemed to listen quietly as we passed through their walls, chatting away about marriage, heartbreak, motherhood, recipes and favorite music. Sometimes our runs began way before dawn; each month we’d allow an immense full moon to illuminate the tunnels for us in lieu of a headlamp. And I will never forget the morning we exited the last tunnel travelling south on our return to town, only to see a very large coyote on the road, startled by our arrival.

Over the years, my three children and I frequented the tunnel road to watch the annual August Perseid meteor shower; light pollution in the night sky is much lower near the tunnels and watching for shooting stars near the tunnels made the passage feel even more magical.

Now, each August dozens of runners pass through the tunnels to grab a slice of history as they participate in the Tunnels Tenmile race, held the second Saturday of the month. The run begins about nine miles north of Buena Vista, near the Antero Pump Station; the route follows the Arkansas River most of the way where runners finish the race in historic downtown Buena Vista.

Whether visitors to the tunnels pass through via car, bicycle or on foot – day or night – it’s definitely an experience not easily, nor quickly, forgotten.

Getting there: Going north through Buena Vista on U.S. 24, take a right at the stoplight onto Main Street. Midway through downtown, take a left onto North Colorado and follow the road north out of town (as it becomes CR 371) along the river for approximately five miles until you come to the tunnels. After passing through the last tunnel, watch on the left side of the road for a large rock outcropping known locally as “elephant rock.” There’s a nice spot for dispersed camping near the river here as well or in nearby Fourmile Recreation Area governed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Logophile and Places Columnist Ericka Kastner believes she is extraordinarily lucky to be paid to write about adventures because she’d be having them regardless. Find more of her work online at erickakastner.com.

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