The historic Rio Grande Depot in Florence was fundamental in growing the city and it's still serving the community
In the Old West, railroads were vital in bringing civilization to the residents. Florence was a major thoroughfare for railroads. They provided industry to the town. Today, what the railroad has left behind–its depot–is still playing an important role in the community.
“Without (the railroad), the growth of farming, ranching and industry would not have come to Florence,” said “Boomtown,” written by the 1981 Fremont Middle School history class, which researched, wrote and published a brief history of Florence.
The most important railroads in the area were the Denver and Rio Grande, the Santa Fe, and the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad. The F&CC, a narrow gauge railroad, ran northward from the junctions with the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad at Florence, which later moved to Canon City. The railroad ran from the banks of the Arkansas River up a steep and narrow canyon known as Phantom Canyon into the Cripple Creek mining district.
Constructed in 1893, the Florence & Cripple Creek was the first railroad that could help outsiders from across the country get to the mines that were booming with business. Because of this, the railroad made a considerable fortune during its first few years, hauling passengers and supplies into the mining district and ore to the mines south to be milled in Florence or to be transferred to the D&RG for milling in Pueblo. The F&CC’s first main terminal was located in Victor, the “second city” of the district; but its branch lines served many of the largest mines within the area.
“Much of the charm of Florence rests in its historic buildings,” -Mike Vendetti, Florence resident
Along the way, the Rio Grande Station was constructed at present day 100 Railroad St. at a cost of a little more than $20,000. In July 1918, the people of Florence, the officials of the railroad and the Florence Chamber of Commerce dedicated the station, which was used for many years, said the Royal Gorge Regional Museum & Local History Center archives.
But it was not all peaceful for the railroads. At one time, a war broke out between the Santa Fe and the Denver and Rio Grande railroads when the crews were searching for the quickest way to install tracks through the Royal Gorge between Canon City and Leadville.
To protect their interests and workers, Santa Fe hired Bat Masterson and other gunslingers to protect the workers. During this time, the crews built numerous barricades to slow down the railway as the workers fought numerous battles in the canyon. By some miracle, no one was seriously injured, “Boomtown” said.
In 1880, the court settled the matter, making the decision that the Denver and Rio Grande would have the right of way since Santa Fe had a railway connecting Colorado and New Mexico over Raton Pass. To help overcome the loss, Rio Grande received $1.2 million.
According to “Boomtown,” the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad far outweighed the importance because it served the local area. Founded by James McCandless, the railroad was incorporated in 1882 by several movers and shakers in the area to bring gold ore from the Cripple Creek mines to the Florence gold mills. Built at a cost of $731,948, the railroad ran about 41 miles in distance between the two communities.
In the beginning, the F&CC railroad continued to increase its profit every year, from $90,964 in 1865 to $303,873 in 1897; however, it had to spend another $401,744 for maintenance and upkeep of the operation. It all came to an abrupt end when the 1921 flash flood washed the tracks away. It was determined the cost was too much to repair.
Once the railroad company abandoned it in the late 20th century, the Rio Grande railroad station was handed over to the City of Florence. When the city decided to sell it, members of the Florence Senior Community Center arranged to buy it. Since then, they have renovated and repainted the old station. But it still has some issues.
“Much of the charm of Florence rests in its historic buildings,” said Mike Vendetti, of Florence. “The problem is the buildings are old, and many like the Florence Senior Community Senior Center are in need of repairs.”
The main problem is the roof, which leaks. Consisting of Leudawecki French tile, the underlayment needs to be replaced.
The problem is that it’s a very expensive project because few tile companies are qualified to do the work. The quotes range from $89,000 to $129,000; however, since the center plans to go after a grant it will only have a set amount of money to fix the roof.
“One of the problems is of all the quotes has a disclaimer for buying new tiles,” Vendetti said. “It’s kind of like opening up for a change order. Since we have a fixed amount of money, we can’t deal with a change order.”
To make it easier, the center hopes to become a historical building with the state, which will provide funding to fix the roof.
“The center, at this time, can afford a roof in the $40,000 range, (but not more than that),” Vendetti said.
Recently, the City of Florence began working to become a historical designator so a committee would determine which buildings would be eligible to become a historical building.
“If the City Council passes an ordinance, which they probably will, then the city will have a (historical building designator committee) with 12 members,” Vendetti said. “We could possibly obtain a grant that would allow us to return the roof to its original condition. Without the designation, the center will probably be forced to pursue a far less attractive solution for our leaking roof. If we must take that route, the building will lose much of its historical significance. Florence will lose some of its charm and an attraction for visitors.”