c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins
Shortly after gold was discovered in the Cripple Creek District in 1891 merchant James A. McCandless of Florence, to the south, was one of many men who took an interest in generating commerce from the gold boom. In McCandless’s mind was Eight-Mile Canyon, an old, windy and sometimes precarious trail used by Ute natives to travel to the high country and make their summer quarters. With a creek of the same name meandering alongside much of the trail, the canyon was ideal for reaching the District. McCandless and several engineers first surveyed the canyon in 1891. By 1892 Thomas Robinson, whose endeavors included promoting the Florence Electric Street Railway Company, had opened the “Florence Free Road” leading to the District. Around this same time, give a take a few years, the name of the canyon was changed to Phantom Canyon.
Robinson intended for the road through Phantom Canyon to eventually run between the borders of Wyoming to the north and New Mexico to the south. When the Salaman Stage Line debuted on the Florence Free Road, its success inspired plans for the Florence and Cripple Creek State Line Railroad. A map of the new railroad was filed in May of 1892, and the company was reformed as the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad.
As plans unfolded for the new railroad, Denver & Rio Grande Railroad magnate David Moffat got involved. Under his wing, the F&CC was incorporated in April of 1893, and construction of the railroad commenced the following December. Robinson also remained involved with the project, to the effect that one early camp along the line was named for him. Railroad workers and travelers could stop at Robinson, situated nearly halfway between Florence and Cripple Creek, to buy supplies at a general store or stay at a boardinghouse nearby.
By 1894, for reasons unknown, the name of Robinson had been changed to Adelaide. A depot was constructed for the F&CC, as well as some homes and a water tank for the train. Two men worked at the tank, each in a 12 hour shift, so that it would remain full of water for the locomotive. They, as well as other railroad employees, lived in a nearby bunkhouse with a coal-burning stove for warmth. The former boardinghouse was converted into a hotel called the Great Elk. The station agent’s quarters were in the back of the depot.
Adelaide served a second, more important purpose too. As the F&CC tracks progressed up the canyon, it was soon discovered that the last few miles into the district proved steeper than originally thought. A “helper” town of sorts, Alta Vista, was constructed on the edge of the Cripple Creek District near the city of Victor, wherein engines could travel down the canyon to the station at Adelaide in Fremont County and assist the trains in making it up the grade.
For about a year, everything was grand at little Adelaide, nestled there among the trees and below the majestic rock walls of Phantom Canyon. But there came an evening in July of 1895 when a horrific thunderstorm, typical for late summer in Colorado, let loose with a destructive might like no other.
The Cripple Creek Weekly Journal later described the carnage that ensued. A F&CC train with 14 cars had just been lightly damaged when a small landslide derailed the train just a mile above Adelaide. Four railroad men from the train walked down to the Great Elk Hotel, and Conductor Brown had just wired news of the incident when he chanced to step outside. In the twilight he could see a wall of water, towering some 20 feet high and flowing at about thirty miles per hour, roaring down the canyon, and Adelaide was directly in its path.
Just up the tracks from Adelaide, a helper engine with engineer Mathew Lines and fireman Bert Kreis had just passed through Glenbrook, the closest stop above Adelaide, on its way down from Alta Vista. Lines and Kreis saw the wall of water, quickly stoked the fire in the engine and sped up as fast as they could as the flood chased after them. If anyone saw the engine fly past Adelaide, there does not seem to be a record of it. The engine managed to pass by the next stop, McCourt, before reaching Russell where the tracks diverted away from the flooded creek. Lines and Kreis survived.
Back at Adelaide, meanwhile, the railroad men and the station agent and his family quickly climbed to safety, as well as three other men and “three tramps” who were dining at the hotel. The railroad men turned around in time to see the Great Elk Hotel smashed to pieces by the water and carried away. Tragically, inside were the hotel’s proprietress, Mrs. Carr, as well as waiter Lee Tracy and cook John Watson. Tracy’s body was eventually found nine miles south of Adelaide, near Russell. Mrs. Carr’s body was carried several miles further, almost to Vesta Junction near Florence. Watson was found too, as well as the bodies of three other men who were believed to be section men for the railroad. Three other men surfaced safely in Florence the next day.
In all, the flood washed away ten miles of tracks as well as several bridges. It took quite some time to reach Adelaide and assess the damage, which was estimated at $100,000—over $3 million dollars in today’s money. One would think that would be the end of the F&CC, but the company remained resilient. Over the next year, workers toiled to rebuild the railroad at a cost of just over $238,000. At Adelaide, the station was relocated about half a mile down from its original location on today’s Phantom Canyon Road, well above the creek. A new water tank, a large cistern and a new depot were eventually built at the site.
Although other cloudbursts and occasional floods continued to plague Phantom Canyon, Adelaide remained safe until July of 1912 when another storm sent yet another wall of water crashing down the F&CC tracks. This time, twelve bridges were wiped out and five miles of track were either damaged or lost altogether in the flood. Rather than rebuild again, the F&CC took into consideration its own finances but also those in the Cripple Creek District, where the mining boom was slowly fading away. In 1915 the F&CC was dissolved, and the remaining tracks were removed from the canyon.
Over the last several decades, any structural remnants remaining at Adelaide have disappeared altogether. The only evidence of the whistle stop today is the large cistern, which can be seen below the road along Phantom Canyon. Small signs denote Adelaide and most of the other stops along the route, making for a most scenic drive through the canyon with a little history thrown in. And in Florence, both the McCandless house and the Robinson mansion bear proof that, for a time, the F&CC was a good investment indeed.