Assumption Catholic Church
  323 West Illinois Street - Chicago IL 60654
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Fr. Joseph Chamblain, O.S.M.


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10/15/2017 Fr. Joseph Chamblain, OSM    


During the 1990’s, Assumption’s former pastor Fr. Gus Kulbis and I took a number of train trips in Canada, spending nights along the way in towns like Le Pas, Churchill, Prince Rupert, and Cranberry Portage. One journey that we never go to make, though, was a 14 hour ride on a mixed train (a freight train that also carried passenger cars) in a remote section of northeast Quebec. Fr. Gus once described this trip to another friar: “You have to go to the end of nowhere to catch the train. You ride it all day. And then when you get there, you still aren’t anywhere.”

In that same spirit, during a ten day vacation in southern Colorado, I managed to schedule three train trips that allowed me to go from nowhere important to no place in particular. One went from Canon City to Parkland through the Royal Gorge, another from Leadville to Climax, and a third from Antonito to Chama. These short segments I was able to ride are remnants of the vast rail network that once served every nook and cranny of Colorado. They serve no useful purpose today except to entertain tourists, and they did just that. Each of them carried me through areas of startling beauty, squeezing through mountains and canyons still inaccessible to cars. In late September the aspens were a blanket of gold against the evergreens and the mountains were capped by the season’s first snowfall. The Antonito to Chama train was pulled by a hundred year old steam engine, and it was simply delightful standing out on the open platform, smelling the cinders, listening to the steam whistle, and taking in the mountains.

This tame and docile scene today is a far cry from the rough and tumble beginnings of these three lines. With 1870’s technology it was impossible for railroads to bore through the front range of the Rocky Mountains due west of Denver; but a hundred miles south of Denver, there was a narrow pass through the Rockies carved by the Arkansas River. At its steepest and narrowest point just west of Canon City, the canyon is over 1,200 feet deep and only thirty feet wide. To construct a rail line through this gorge, it was necessary to build it on brackets out over the river, bracing the structure against the opposite side of the gorge. Both the Santa Fe and the Rio Grande Railroads set their eyes on this passageway. War broke out in the Colorado Territory over the Royal Gorge. In the words of colorful historian Lucius Beebe, “It made national headlines, saw the recruitment of entire armies of partisan pluguglies by the contestants, witnessed pitched battles between gunfighters and peace officers, and raged through the courts of Colorado in a blizzard of legal writs, processes, opinions, judgments, injunctions, court orders, subpoenas, briefs, and decisions.” In the end the Rio Grande won the rights to the Royal Gorge, and built a line west to Salt Lake City. In the 1920’s advancing technology finally made it possible to tunnel through the mountains west from Denver, and most of the freight and passenger traffic shifted to this more direct route. Today the Royal Gorge route is largely abandoned save for this small section through the Gorge itself. President Roosevelt rode the train through the Royal Gorge in 1905 and described it as “the trip that bankrupts the English language.”

Further to the south, along the Colorado-New Mexico border, the Rio Grande built a line to serve the many mining communities springing up in the San Juan Mountains. Here and elsewhere in Colorado where building a rail line involved carving shelves on the side of a mountain, the lines were narrow gauge. A narrower track was not only easier to build but also allowed for sharper curves. The surviving 64 mile section of the line the Rio Grande built west from Alamosa all the way west to Durango twists and turns through the mountains, crossing the state line a dozen times.

Leadville, at over 10,000 feet above sea level, still looks like a mining town. Streets fan out in random directions with most homes simply plopped down next to the sidewalk. In a city where winter lasts for nine months, who cares about a front yard? Leadville only has about 2,000 residents today; but in its heyday it rivaled Denver as the most important city in Colorado and was a serious contender to become the state capital. Molly Brown, who would later become a heroine on the Titanic, was married in a Catholic Church in Leadville that is still open for business. Three narrow gauge rail lines managed to reach Leadville. A section of just one of them, the Denver, South Park, and Pacific, survives. One can only imagine the grueling conditions under which laborers worked to build this line up from Denver, through Breckenridge, crossing the continental divide twice, and rising another mile above the Mile High City to reach Leadville. Yet once upon a time Silver Kings could board a mahogany paneled Pullman in Leadville in the evening, crawl into bed, and awaken refreshed the next morning in Denver. The curves were so sharp and grades so steep, that it took the train over ten hours to make the 150 mile journey to Denver.

Nineteenth century rail builders took great risks in building these lines, realizing that there were enormous profits to be made from these mining communities. But we can also point to many saints in our tradition who took even greater risks for the reign of God. St. Francis Cabrini, for example, who founded our parish school, managed to overcome obstacles even greater than mountains in establishing more than 60 hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Cardinal Cupich has challenged the Church of Chicago to think big as we try to reclaim our relevance in a secular society. In its own way, that might be an even greater challenge than the physical obstacles faced by the nineteenth century founders of our parish and school. All Aboard!

                                                                                    Fr. Joe


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