In The Beginning…..
The walls of the Royal Gorge are made up of the banded, metamorphic rocks gneiss and schist.
These are rocks that were formed from extreme heat and pressure. The pink and white bands within the gneiss commonly identify it. The bands are made up of orthoclase feldspar (pink color) and plagioclase feldspar (white color). Schist can be identified by its rock cleavage, which is the appearance of layers or slabs.
Several thousands of years ago, this area was relatively flat. Due to the upheaval, earthquakes, and flooding, the mountains you see today began to rise. The Arkansas River was already flowing through this area and in order for it to continue, it had to down cut as rapidly as the mountains were uplifting. This all stopped thousands of years ago, leaving the spectacular sight today. The river is now down cutting at the approximate rate of one foot every 2500 years.
The first visitors to the Royal Gorge region were the Native Americans. The Utes frequently wintered in Canon City and many of the plains' Native Americans followed buffalo herds as they moved to the meadows during the spring and summer.
The Spanish explored the area in the mid-1600. The earliest recorded visit was that of Zebulon Pike in December of 1806. Pike attempted unsuccessfully to transverse the canyon on two separate occasions. Pike surmised that the Royal Gorge would defy the passage of man.
The Santa Fe and Denver & Rio Grande railroads were lured to the mighty canyon when silver was discovered in Leadville, Colorado, in 1877. The ensuing battle between the two railroads for right-of-way through the gorge came to be known as the “Royal Gorge War.” Crews from both companies laid track in different parts of the canyon by day. Then by night, each crew would dynamite the other’s daily progress. Rock forts were constructed up and down the canyon and shots were exchanged. The Santa Fe Railroad hired gunfighter Bat Masterson and some of his gang. Courts eventually awarded the route to the Denver & Rio Grande.
Visitors were able to view the Royal Gorge from an exciting new perspective and touring the gorge by rail soon became a national fad. President Theodore Roosevelt was a frequent visitor. Passenger and freight trains traveled through the canyon until 1968.
The Royal Gorge Bridge— engineering marvel.
In 1907, an Act of Congress formally deeded the Royal Gorge to Canon City, Colorado for use as a municipal park. Visitors from all over the world began traveling to the region to see the famous canyon.
Construction of the bridge began in June of 1929 under the guidance of Lon Piper, president of the Royal Gorge Bridge and Amusement Company. He hired George E. Cole, who was the engineer for the building of the Royal Gorge Bridge. Despite the fact that most of the labor was inexperienced, construction was completed in six months without a single fatality. The bridge was officially opened and dedicated on December 6, 1929 at a cost of $350,000.
The Royal Gorge Bridge ranks as one of the world’s outstanding engineering achievements. The bridge also ranks among the highest suspension bridges in the world, spanning the Royal Gorge and the turbulent Arkansas River with deck height at 956 feet. Stretching nearly one-quarter mile long, the bridge is suspended from two 300 ton cables, each containing 2,100 strands of wire. The towers are another 80 feet above the deck. The cables enable the bridge to support more than two million pounds.
The Royal Gorge Bridge underwent a $2.8 million renovation in 1982-1983, which included new cable abutment anchors, state of the art wind cables, new cable hangers and reinforcement of the bridge towers.
Today, the Royal Gorge Bridge uses the slogan, “The World’s First, America’s Highest.” The bridge was considered the world’s highest until mid-2000.
The Incline Railway
Shortly after the completion of the bridge, George E. Cole began the engineering of the incline (funicular) railway to the bottom of the gorge. The railway, considered one of the world’s steepest, was built in a natural side-gorge known as Telegraph Gulch. In 2006, during the Zebulon Pike Bicentennial Celebration, the gulch was renamed Pike’s Gulch. The railway drops 1,550 feet at a 45-degree angle from the rim of the gorge to the narrow floor below.
Equipment was designed and fabricated on location. Engineers of Otis Elevator Company installed the special hoist machinery and automatic safety devices that lower and raise the passenger cars. In addition to the two 3/4 –inch hoist cables fastened to each car, there is also a 1 ¾-inch safety cable. The facility was formally opened June 14, 1931, enabling visitors to view the famous gorge from the bottom as well as the top.
A diesel “stand-by” power system was added in 1972, and the original electrical system and drive were replaced by a new state-of-the-art power system commonly used on ski lifts and tramways. The Royal Gorge Incline is the only full-sized funicular railway in Colorado.
Almost 40 years later after the construction of the Incline Railway, November 1968, groundbreaking began on a 2,200-foot aerial tramway, one of the world’s longest single span trams. Construction of the Aerial Tram took eight months without incident.
The most dramatic moments in building the tramway system were during the cable stringing. A helicopter was used to string the cable from the south to the north rim of the gorge. High winds and updrafts buffeted the helicopter repeatedly. The veteran chopper pilot later admitted that the assignment had been one of his most harrowing.
The aerial tramway glides some 1,178 feet above the Arkansas River, capable of a maximum speed of 11.4 miles per hour, but the normal speed is 8-9 miles per hour. Since its opening in 1969, it has carried millions of passengers in complete safety.
Royal Gorge Bridge and Park has welcomed over 25 million visitors since it’s opening in 1929. It has added over a dozen new attractions including the Royal Rush Skycoaster, an internationally acclaimed thrill ride, the Soaring Eagle Zip Line, the highest in the world, the Western Wapiti Wildlife Park, exhibiting buffalo, elk, and bighorn sheep, and the Mountain Man Trading Post, an entertaining replica of Colorado’s “old west.” The park is open 365 days a year (weather permitting, closure is occasional on some attractions due to maintenance) with the Bridge, the Incline, and the Tram running daily.