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Incline ride has been bumpy, long
Charles W. Stiff, like many in Colorado Springs, loved the mountains.
A renowned photographer, Stiff had taken sunrise images from the summit of Pikes Peak that helped introduce the nation to Colorado’s beauty. But by his 60s, he could no longer climb, and he would gaze longingly at the foothills above Manitou Springs, where in 1906 a small train had been built to haul equipment for a hydroelectric plant.
“I for one cannot climb the mountain, but how I would like to go up,” he remarked one day to a young engineer. “There must be others, too, who would like to ride up. Why doesn’t someone build a railroad?”
Replied engineer Claude McKesson: “Why not?”
And so the Manitou Incline was born.
A century later, people still visit the railroad, many more than rode the long-closed train. They come not because it is an easy way up, but because it is hard.
The Manitou Incline is the region’s most popular trail. Fitness buffs love the intensity of climbing 2,000 feet in a mile, the spectacular views and the convenience of such a workout minutes from home.
After decades of illicit use, the trail opened legally Friday, the end of a legal saga that went from local city halls to the halls of Congress and the White House. It’s also the final chapter in the story of what once was one of Colorado’s more popular attractions, thrilling riders for 81 years until declining ridership, high costs and natural disasters led to its closure.
Stiff never saw his dream fulfilled, dying of heart failure in 1910.
By then, construction was well under way. He and McKesson attracted the interest of Dr. Newton N. Brumback, a physician and developer, who bought the land, financed construction and helped build the rail line by hand.
Opening day was May 9, 1912. And it was hardly a smashing success.
“They were afraid,” McKesson told The Gazette 40 years later. “Finally a few went up, but we had trouble filling the cars. Then on July 4, we put on an ‘excursion’ and reduced the fare from $1 to 50 cents.
“We had all the people we could carry. It was evident that people would risk their lives for 50 cents who would not do it for $1.”
In 1913, during a governors’ conference in Colorado Springs, 22 rode to the top and enjoyed a picnic and a burro ride.
Cables pulled the trains, seating more than 30, up grades as steep as 65 percent. The ride took 16 minutes and, once at the top, people had picnics or hiked or rode burros on to the summit of Pikes Peak.
“It is the longest and highest incline on the globe. … You cannot afford to come to Colorado and not take this splendid scenic trip,” one brochure proclaimed at the time.
The summit station burned in 1914 and was rebuilt. Brumback sold the Incline the following year. Spencer Penrose, builder of The Broadmoor and the Pikes Peak Highway, bought the railroad in 1923.
The Incline chugged along over the years. The entire operation was modernized in 1958 with new trains, seating 42.
End of the line
In April 1990, tons of rocks crashed down the mountainside, uprooting trees and leaving 500 feet of the rail line “a twisted mess of metal,” The Gazette reported.
It was the end for the Incline.
Co-owners Oklahoma Publishing Co. and El Pomar Foundation had shut the train in January, citing declining ridership and a desire to focus on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which they also owned.
But if tourists weren’t riding the Manitou Incline much in the late 1980s, local hikers were, opting to take the train and avoid the steep switchbacks in the lower section of Barr Trail, the main route up Pikes Peak. More than 35,000 signed a petition urging to reopen the Manitou Incline, but to no avail as the owners said it was simply too unsafe to bring the trains back.
At Barr Camp, halfway up Barr Trail, caretakers saw a 20 percent drop in business and considered closing.
Despite the rock slide, no rider was injured on the Incline.
Popularity rises among athletes
The tracks were removed, but the staircase of rail ties rising above Manitou Springs did not go unused for long.
Slowly, mountaineers, ultrarunners and other competitive athletes began to surreptitiously hike the route.
In 1993, when the AdAmAn Club prepared for its New Year’s Eve climb to shoot fireworks from the top of Pikes Peak, they told The Gazette they “warmed up” by climbing the Incline. When runner Matt Carpenter shattered the old records for the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, he did so, in part, by training on the Incline. He dubbed the group who worked out on the Incline on Thursday afternoons the Incline Club.
By 1999, the Cog Railway, which owns the bottom portion of the route, tried to close the Incline because it was concerned about legal liability and Incline users crowding the parking in the narrow canyon of Ruxton Avenue.
The first “no trespassing” signs put up by Cog officials were torn down. In 2000, a metal sign was installed at the start of the route. A rope was meant to bar hikers from the railroad bed, and computer printouts explained why the Incline was closed.
Carpenter and his club stopped training on the Incline, but its popularity increased. Hundreds of people a day were using the route by 2003.
“If they think it’s such great exercise, then they should buy a stair stepper and do that in their back yard,” an exasperated Doug Doane, general manager of the Cog Railway, told The Gazette. Once a year, the Cog would post employees to keep hikers out, as a token show of resistance, but otherwise lacked the resources to have someone there full time.
First steps to legality
The tone changed in 2004 when a small group of runners began working with the landowners: the Cog Railway, Colorado Springs Utilities and the U.S. Forest Service.
“Maybe there’s something that could be done,” Doane told The Gazette. “My personal feeling is, ‘Who’s to say something won’t work out?’ ”
The Incline’s popularity continued to skyrocket. A 2006 guidebook, “Best Loop Hikes: Colorado,” became the first such publication to include the Incline. Sports Illustrated and The New York Times wrote about the Incline as the ultimate proving ground for Olympic athletes.
In 2008, word finally spread that an agreement was near. Brokered in large part by Colorado Springs City Councilman Scott Hente, an Incline user, the deal called for Colorado Springs Utilities to give the city land along Ruxton Avenue for a parking lot in exchange for an easement for a trail.
Officials optimistically said legal access could be a reality within months.
The process proved more complicated than originally thought. In early 2009, the Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs city councils approved working together on a management plan.
Manitou officials wanted parking problems to be resolved as part of the legal opening, and when that city began charging hikers to park in the Barr Trail lot near the base of the Incline, discussions with Utilities over how the revenue would be spent consumed the time of all involved.
Other distractions also slowed the process. Colorado Springs, its hands full trying to close budget gaps and salvaging a deal to keep the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters from leaving the city, put the Incline on the “back burner,” one official said at the time.
In December 2009, Great Outdoors Colorado announced a $70,500 grant to the city of Colorado Springs, coupled with a $25,000 donation from philanthropist Lyda Hill’s foundation, to devise a management plan for the Incline.
Months of public meetings followed, culminating in a draft management plan released in October 2010.
The plan called for Colorado Springs to manage the trail, with basic maintenance and parking enforcement from Manitou Springs, and set 13 benchmarks of work and preparation that had to be met for legal opening.
In February and March of 2011, both city councils approved the plan to legalize and manage the trail. A special-use permit from the Forest Service was the next step, and officials anticipated the trail would legally open by October.
But in summer, city planners realized there was no federal railway abandonment document showing the Manitou Incline and Scenic Railway, owned by the Cog Railway, legally abandoned the right-of-way. The Forest Service could not sign an agreement for management of the upper portion of the trail.
In fall 2011, another Incline opening date came and went.
“I’ve been wrong every time I’ve given you a date, so I don’t want to guess,” Hente told The Gazette that September.
In February 2012, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs approved an intergovernmental agreement for managing the Incline. Legislation by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, to allow the railway abandonment wound its way through Congress.
Last month, President Barack Obama signed the legislation, and the city councils of both cities approved legal opening, agreeing the 13 conditions had been met.