The Moffat Tunnel
at the Colorado State Archives
Scope and Content Note
History of the Moffat Tunnel
Access to the Collection
Scope and Content of the Moffat Tunnel Commission Collection
The Moffat Tunnel Commission Collection comprises 24 cubic feet of records spanning 1913-1999. Major series include administrative records, correspondence, legal files, Moffat Tunnel Commission Meeting Minutes (1913-1999) as well as cassette tapes recording the meetings (1993-1999). There are also photographs that span approximately 1922-1996 as well as some historic ephemera.
The Minutes of the Moffat Tunnel Commission meetings are significant documentation concerning all aspects of the activities of the Improvement District, from its inception to the sale of the assets and sunsetting of the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District in 1996. The photographs are also historically significant as they document the chronological span during which the tunnel has been in existence.
Access to the Collection
In order to obtain access to the Moffat Tunnel Commission Collection please contact the Colorado State Archives. We will be happy to provide you with additional information concerning this collection or others, and the fees that are associated with doing research here.
History of the Tunnel [to 1928]
The following is an excerpt from Ingram, Yearbook of the State of Colorado 1939-1940, Tolbert R. ed. Denver: The Bradford Robinson Ftg. Co. & Colorado State Planning Commission, 1940, 441-442.
"The propensity of man to battle and overcome natural barriers in his path of progress is illustrated in Colorado by the many miles of tunnels which have been constructed to level railroad grades through the mountains, convey water from the rivers to the valleys for irrigation purposes, recover minerals in the earth and and to generate hydro-electric power for industrial and domestic uses...
The Moffat Tunnel was cut under a shoulder of James Peak, 50 miles west of Denver, for the purpose of eliminating heavy railroad grades over the Continental Divide and shortening railroad distances. It is a public improvement constructed by the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District, created by the state legislature on April 29, 1923. It was named in honor of David H. Moffat, a pioneer banker and railroad builder, to whom is given the credit for having originated the undertaking...
The cost of the tunnel was approximately $18,000,000, of which the major part was defrayed by the proceeds of four bond issues totaling $15,470,000, and the remainder from profits from concessions... A pioneer tunnel bored parallel with the main tunnel to facilitate the work is eight feet high and eight feet wide. The pioneer tunnel was officially 'holed' through on February 18, 1926, the blast of dynamite being set off by President Coolidge upon pressing a key in Washington, and the program being broadcast to the country by radio from the heart of the mountain.
This tunnel is under lease to the City of Denver, which operates it as a trans-mountain diversion project that transports water through to the eastern slope of the range. The railroad tunnel was 'holed' through on July 7, 1927, and formally turned over completed to the lessee on February 26, 1928... Railroad connections through the tunnel shortened the distance between Denver and the Pacific coast by 176 miles.
The project involved the excavation of 750,000 cubic yards, or 3,000,000,000 pounds of rock, equal to 1,600 freight trains of 40 cars each; 2,500,000 pounds of dynamite discharged; 700 miles of drill holes; 11,000,000 F. B. M. timber, equivalent to more that 2,000 miles of 1 by 12 inch plank; and the use of 28,000,000 K. W. H. electric power."
The following history and "Facts" is an excerpt from a 1996 Colorado Department of Local Affairs Web Page.
"In the history of the nation's railroads, the Moffat Tunnel is considered one of the most politically challenging battles and ultimately one of the most significant of engineering feats. A number of financing bills in the early 1900s came before the Colorado State Legislature and to public referendum, and were defeated. Finally in 1921, tied to emergency relief funds for flooded communities around Pueblo in the southern part of the state, Moffat Tunnel legislation was passed. A Commission structure was established to manage the construction and administer the bond financing through a Moffat Tunnel Improvement District, with five elected Commissioners, three representing the Eastern Slope and two the Western Slope. The District comprise[d] all or portions of nine counties along the rail route stretching from Denver to the Utah border.
The initial bond issue was $6,620,000 although construction delays pushed the cost to a total of $15.6 million by the time the tunnels were complete. Construction began in September 1923 on the pilot bore which eventually became the water tunnel. Utilizing the pilot bore enabled the main tunnel work to proceed from both directions and several headings simultaneously. Twenty eight individuals died during this massive construction project.
When the railway tunnel was completed in 1928 it spanned 6.2 miles at over 9,200 feet in elevation, passing underneath the 2 mile-high spine of the Rocky Mountains. During the past 69 years, millions of travelers have crossed the tunnel on the California Zephyr and other historic trains. Although its major role today is as a rail route for coal and freight and as a water tunnel from the Pacific watershed to Colorado's Front Range population centers, its passenger train route remains a major attraction for tourists and skiers.
The water tunnel continues to provide a significant portion of Denver's water from the Western slope Fraser Basin. This water has played an essential role in Denver and suburban Front Range growth.
In recent years (1984) the bonds for the tunnels were paid off and the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District Commissioners continued to administer the tunnels and the District's finances and grant monies to public projects within the nine counties represented in the District.
In 1996 the Colorado State Legislature passed Senate Bill 233 authorizing the Moffat Tunnel Commission to sell the assets of the District and allocate the proceeds proportionately to the counties in the District. The Moffat Tunnel Improvement District...sunset on February 1, 1998 and administration of any remaining assets... rest[ed] with the Colorado State Department of Local Affairs."
Facts About the Moffat Tunnel
Length: 6.21 miles
Location: Situated 50 miles west of Denver's Union Station. It reduced the previously-used primary rail route by 150 miles and 4 hours travel time.
Altitude: The tunnel portals are just below 9,200 feet and the tunnel rises to 9,242 feet at its midpoint. It crosses beneath a ridge at 11,600 feet, north of 13,294-foot James Peak.
David H. Moffat, Jr.: President of Denver & Rio Grande Railroad who pursued a vision of a rail route west from Denver through the Continental Divide.
Moffat's Death: David H. Moffat, Jr. died March 18, 1911, 11 years before his vision of a project to build a tunnel was begun.
Moffat Tunnel Bill: Passed in special session of the Colorado Legislature April 29, 1922.
Cost of Completion: $15.6 million.
Construction Fatalities: 28 died during the 5-year project, six in a single cave-in July 30, 1926.
"Holing-Through" Ceremony: Feb. 18, 1927.
First Freight Train: Feb. 24, 1928, 12 cars.
Opening Ceremony: Feb. 26, 1928. Four trains arrived from Denver bringing 2,500 people who attended the ceremony.
Dotsero Cutoff: The final route along the Colorado River Gorge west of the Tunnel, linking to the Grand Valley. It was built in 1934 and became the main route between Denver and Salt Lake City.
Some Passenger Trains that have used the Tunnel: "Panoramic," "Mountaineer," "Exposition Flyer," "Prospector," "California Zephyr," "Yampa Valley Mail."
Senate Bill 96-233: "Concerning the Moffat Tunnel, and in connection therewith, allowing the Moffat Tunnel Commission to sell the assets of the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District, authorizing the Department of Local Affairs to assume the powers of the Moffat Tunnel Commission, and sunsetting the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District." Signed into law by Gov. Roy Romer, May 23, 1996.