Tennessee Pass (Colorado)

Tennessee Pass elevation 10,424 ft (3,177 m) is a high mountain pass in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado in the United States. The pass was named after Tennessee, the native state of a group of early prospectors.[2]

Tennessee Pass
DSCN3074 tenneseepass e 600.jpg
Summit of Tennessee Pass along U.S. Highway 24, showing the memorial to the 10th Mountain Division
Elevation10,424 ft (3,177 m)[1]
Traversed by US 24
Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad
LocationEagle / Lake counties, Colorado, U.S.
RangeSawatch Range
Coordinates39°21′45″N 106°18′40″W / 39.36250°N 106.31111°W / 39.36250; -106.31111Coordinates: 39°21′45″N 106°18′40″W / 39.36250°N 106.31111°W / 39.36250; -106.31111[1]
Topo mapUSGS Leadville North
Tennessee Pass is located in Colorado
Tennessee Pass
Tennessee Pass
Location in Colorado


The pass traverses the continental divide north of Leadville in a gap between the northern end of the Sawatch Range to the west and the northern end of the Mosquito Range to the east. It connects the headwaters of the Arkansas River to the south with the upper valley of the Eagle River (in the watershed of the Colorado River) to the north. The pass is traversed by U.S. Highway 24, allowing access between Leadville and Interstate 70 in the Eagle Valley. The pass has a gentle approach on both sides with few steep gradients and no major hairpin curves. The summit of the pass is nearly level. The road over the pass is generally open all year round, easily negotiable by most vehicles, and closes only during severe winter storms.

The summit of the pass is the location of Ski Cooper, a ski area in the San Isabel National Forest operated by permit from the United States Forest Service. Most of the area is above the tree line, providing a panoramic view of the peaks of the Sawatch Range to visitors. The area was formerly a World War II training ground for United States Army troops of the 10th Mountain Division from nearby Camp Hale. A memorial to troops of the division is located at the summit of the pass.

Railroad lineEdit

Terraces of the Upper Arkansas River. Labeled features are: b - Tennessee Pass, c - camp, d - California Gulch, and e - Iowa Gulch
D&RGW train at Tennessee Pass, circa 1910s or 1920s.

The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad constructed a narrow gauge railroad over Tennessee Pass in 1881 as part of their extension to the Aspen area in order to beat the Colorado Midland's standard gauge route to the rich mining area. In 1890, a new standard gauge line was built from Pueblo, to Grand Junction, and jointly with the Colorado Midland Railway, a tunnel was constructed about 200 ft (61 m) below the summit. In 1945, the old Tennessee Pass Tunnel was replaced by a newer tunnel. In recent times, the Rio Grande's Tennessee Pass line was the highest active mainline railroad mountain pass in the United States. The line, now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, is currently embargoed (the tracks are out of service but still in place).

Once the Moffat Tunnel and Dotsero Cutoff were constructed, the line through Tennessee Pass became a secondary route. The Moffat Tunnel route had a maximum grade of 2%. The west side of the Tennessee Pass route has grades up to 3%. However, the east side of the Tennessee Pass has a maximum grade of only 1.4%.

The Denver & Rio Grande's acquisition and merger to Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) in 1988 made Tennessee Pass once again the preferred transcontinental route. SP had a central route from California through to Kansas via Donner Pass, Tennessee Pass and trackage rights on the former Missouri Pacific route from Pueblo, Colorado into Kansas. The Moffat Tunnel route was still kept in use.

In 1996, Union Pacific Railroad (UP) bought Southern Pacific. UP preferred the Moffat Tunnel for routing traffic. The last revenue train went over the Tennessee Pass on August 23, 1997. Soon after Union Pacific ran this last train, they applied to the Surface Transportation Board for permission to abandon the line.

Currently, the line is not of much use as the former Missouri Pacific line to Pueblo has been partially abandoned so trains would have to travel from Denver, Colorado down to Pueblo, Colorado before heading west.

The 12 mi (19 km) of the Tennessee Pass line through the Royal Gorge is currently operated by the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, who operates excursion trains out of Cañon City.

On July 10, 2012, part of the old tunnel collapsed, creating a sinkhole that damaged U.S. Highway 24 and forced its temporary closure between Redcliff, Colorado and Leadville, Colorado. The newer tunnel was not damaged.[3][4]

A report released by the Colorado Department of Transportation on September 4, 2014 stated the following about the line:

"...The Tennessee Pass line has been identified as significant to CDOT because of its potential to carry both passengers and freight, and because it is the only existing trans-mountain alternative in Colorado to the Moffat Tunnel line, which often runs near capacity. The Tennessee Pass Line may be able to be used as an alternate route as trans-mountain rail demand grows due to increased development on the Western Slope or if the Moffat Tunnel were damaged or closed for any reason. Such an event would have a significant impact on Colorado, particularly on the Western Slope, since the railroads would be forced to move freight through Wyoming. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad currently offers scenic, tourist rail trips on 12 miles of the Tennessee Pass Line west of Cañon City. No freight has been shipped on the Tennessee Pass Line since 1997, but in relatively recent (2011) conversations with the UP, there was no indication that UP would abandon this line in the near future. There have been no changes since."

Water diversionEdit

Tennessee Pass is the location of the first transbasin diversion project to move water from the Colorado River Basin over the continental divide to the Arkansas River. The 1.5 mile (2.4 km) Ewing Placer Ditch (or just Ewing Ditch) was constructed in 1880 and remains in use. It transfers water from Piney Creek east of the pass, a tributary of the Eagle River over the pass to the head of Tennessee Creek. The ditch may have originally been used to provide water for placer mining, but the Otero Canal Company used the water for irrigation before selling the ditch to the Pueblo Board of Water Works in 1955. The ditch has a capacity of 18.5 cubic feet per second (0.52 m3/s), and in an average year, it diverts approximately 1000 acre feet (1.2 million m3).

A second ditch was constructed at Tennessee pass in 1929, the 6 mile (9.7 km) Wurts Ditch. This was built by William Wurts to provide irrigation water, but Pueblo purchased this ditch in 1938, and in 1953, they extended the ditch another 6.5 miles (10.5 km) westward along the south flank of the Eagle River valley. After extension, the ditch has a capacity of 100 cubic feet per second (2.8 m3/s) and diverts an average of about 2700 acre feet (3.3 million m3) of water.[5]


  1. ^ a b "Tennessee Pass". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 2011-02-05.
  2. ^ Dawson, John Frank. Place names in Colorado: why 700 communities were so named, 150 of Spanish or Indian origin. Denver, CO: The J. Frank Dawson Publishing Co. p. 48.
  3. ^ "Old railroad tunnel collapses along Highway 24". 9News. 2012-07-10. Retrieved 2012-07-20.
  4. ^ "100-Year-Old Railroad Tunnel Collapsed Below Sinkhole".
  5. ^ John N. Winchester, A Historical View: Transmountain Development in Colorado Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine, 2000; retrieved July, 2015.

See alsoEdit