In the 1870s, a small section of railway line with narrow gauge crept across the cavernous walls of Arkansas Canyon in the heart of Colorado. The control of this railway line will be played as a significant melodrama in the state's mining history and will be later called the "Royal Cheile War". The incident took place in Arkansas Canyon in the years 1878-1880.
Bat Masterson and Ben Thompson, two notable gunmen of the day, faced one of the railroad companies in the war – Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF). The railway company was trying to support the toll roads that their rival, Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) built in 1872 as a profitable link between Denver and Pueblo.
The stage was set in 1872, when the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) railroad companies built a narrow gauge railroad from Denver to Pueblo, Colorado. They then opened a line from Pueblo to Canon Coal Mines, which is 37 miles west of Pueblo. Then, building south of Pueblo, they crossed a line through the mountains of southern Colorado and into the San Luis Valley until they reached El Moro in 1876. They extended the railway to Fort Garland in 1877 and finally to Alamosa, in June 1878.
About the same time the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railroad Company was building west of Kansas City. AT&SF reached the Colorado line by 1872, but due to delays it did not reach Pueblo until 1876. In the same year, Leadville grew as a center for silver mines and made great money for freight in and outside. of the city.
Realizing this potential, AT&SF decided to run a rail line from Pueblo to Leadville. This required the line to pass through the Royal Keys of the Arkansas River, fifty miles west of Pueblo. The narrow step would allow the construction of a single railway line. This was the most important point of the conflict; D&RG wanted the same thing.
By 1878, both railway companies were shipping men and equipment to the area in the hope of securing their right of way through the gorge, while the company's lawyers were fighting for court decisions in their favor. In April of that year, AT&SF posted over 300 men in the canyon to secure their yards. D&RG matched this number, but had trouble keeping men engaged because their rival paid higher wages.
AT&SF lawyers obtained a local court to issue a temporary court decision against D&RG, stopping any other work in the canyon. But before AT&SF could take advantage of this opportunity, D&RG received their court order, which blocks the Kansas company from doing any other work on their line. With both companies shut down, the men were placed in critical locations in the canyon to ensure they had control of the line and equipment.
D&RG built several stone forts under the guidance of their chief engineer, a man by the name of James R. DeRemer who served in the civil war and knew how to build the stone chest needed for battle. These "DeRemer Fortresses" masonry built at Texas Creek and Spikebuck had gun ports and panoramic views of the runway below.
Fortunately, for both sides, the rock forts were never used to ambush each other. Until November 1878, D&RG remained without money and was forced to make a pact with their arch rival. On December 1 of that year, they issued a 30-year lease to AT&SF, which gave them the use of all railways and all equipment – including rolling stock.
Once AT&SF was in control of all lines and trains, they quickly began to squeeze in more business for Kansas City and less for Denver. Realizing their mistake, D&RG initiated legal action to break the lease. Finally, in the first part of 1879, the case was brought before the Washington Supreme Court. Anticipating a purple response, regardless of the court decision, each company sent armed men to defend their rights and property. AT&SF hired Bat Masterson and a 33-man employee he recruited in Dodge City to set up a camp in the canyon to defend his construction and property. They arrived on a special train and after setting up the camp, nicknamed "Dodge City", Bat returned to Kansas.
On April 21, the Supreme Court ruled that D&RG had a prior right to Canyon, but did not have exclusive rights. The decision, diluted as it was, did not please either party. In the latter part of May, the Attorney General of Colorado entered a lawsuit in state court to stop AT&SF from operating state railways. Then, on June 10, state judge Thomas M. Bowen issued an act stopping AT&SF from using or operating any of D&RG's buildings, equipment or rolling stock – essentially canceling their lease. With Judge Bowen's written hand, the D&RG officers went to the sheriffs of each county to cross the railroads to take possession of all their properties.
Before the writings could be delivered to county sheriffs, AT&SF recommended Bat Masterson return to Colorado and concentrate his forces in Pueblo. He quickly recruited 50 armed men and brought them on a special train. Ben Thompson and a dozen Texas colleagues were included in this group.
Initially, when approached with the offer, Ben was reluctant to sign, fearing that, if the violence broke out, he would be charged with murder. Eventually, he agreed to own the round stone house in Pueblo until law enforcement officers presented him with legal documents to take possession. According to Walton's book (The life and adventures of Ben Thompson) Thompson agreed to work for $ 5,000 and was approached by D&RG to hand over the $ 25,000 roundhouse. Ben refused the offer, saying, "I will die here, if the law does not exempt me."
On June 11, the Denver Sheriff and his D&RG men took over the AT&SF office and the Denver roundhouse. Then a train of D&RG agents headed south to take possession of the property along the way. At the same time, the former governor of Colorado, A.C. Hunt, raised a position of 200 men, captured a train and headed north, taking all the small stations and taking the agents as prisoners. In Cucharas, Hunt's forces shot him with twelve AT&SF men – killing a Mexican and injuring an Irishman named Dan Sullivan.
In Pueblo, Sheriff Henley R. Price backed two D&RG officers, J.A. McMurtie and R.F. Weitbrec, served copies of Judge Bowen's letter to all AT&SF workers at dawn. After serving the writings, Sheriff Price and his position left for the train dispatcher's office at 8:30. The dispatcher refused to let him take control of the building, and the sheriff told him he had thirty minutes to think about it.
At 9:00, Price returned and found the office full of dozens of armed AT&SF men, who refused to get rich. Disappointed, the sheriff started back to the Grand Central Hotel and recruited another 100 deputies – all armed and mixed with plenty of free liquor.
Returning to the depot at noon, Sheriff Price and his army of deputies requested that the deputies surrender. They refused and the pictures moved to the roundabout, where Ben Thompson and Texans were waiting. Ben confronted by the sheriff, Ben said that he was put in charge of the company's property and that he cannot give it up without being authorized to do so. The sheriff then stated that he had come to disperse an armed mob.
Ben replied that there is no armed mob in the roundhouse, only men in the construction crew who were sent to guard the property of the company. Saying that some of the men had arms, Ben invited the sheriff to walk inside the round house and look over the men to see if any of them were guilty of the law. Price was allowed to enter the roundhouse alone and after a brief search remained without arrest.
In front of a standoff powder hub, Sheriff Price withdrew his people and sought advice from local lawyers. After examining the judge's letter, he was informed that he was not authorized to use force to take over the AT&SF property. He chewed this up around 3:00 and then decided it was time to take action, regardless of the legalities in place. He and fifty of his liquor-laced deputies met in front of the Victoria Hotel, where they were provided with bayonets and a heavy ammunition ration, courtesy of D&RG. Going to the warehouse, they formed a skid line in front of the building.
About that time, a cattleman by the name of W.F. Chumside stopped by the ticket office. He said he was "slightly under the influence of liquor" and wanted to argue the case of those inside the warehouse. He was quickly shot down by one of the deputies and kicked in the head.
Then he went to the telegraph office and started firing as they knocked on the door. Most of the men in the office quickly escaped through the back doors and arrived safely. Unfortunately, Harry Jenkings fell as he ran and was shot in the chest, with the bullet lodged in his spine. The owner threw the injured man into an express wagon and sent him for medical care. He died a short time later.
After storming the telegraph office, the position turned to the round house, the last fortress of the AT&SF defenders. Thompson met them outside the roundhouse shouting, "Come on, you sons of a whore; if you want a fight, you can have one. " Before he could support his challenge, he was overwhelmed by a dozen deputies and thrown into prison. Without their leader, those inside wanted to park. Shortly after, they surrendered the building without a shot. They were all disarmed and turned on the street to join Thompson in the small crowded prison on West Fifth Street.
That evening, former Governor Hunt and his party arrived by train from the south and then continued on the Arkansas River to Canon City. By midnight, the entire railroad had been captured. Earlier that night, Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson and the other AT&SF employees were released from prison and put on a special train bound for Dodge City. The next morning, Ben collected his money from AT&SF and headed to Texas, through Kansas City and St. Louis.
The Royal Gorge adventure did not end on June 11, but continued in court for several months. Finally, "baron of the robber" Jay Gould bought fifty percent of the stock in D&RG and settled the dispute outside the court. On March 27, 1880, both railways agreed to sign the "Boston Treaty" which returned the railroad and ownership back to the D&RG. AT&SF was paid $ 1.8 million for the railway line it built through the crossing and the Royal Gorge War was finally completed.