I like to photograph unusual signs as I travel, either for my personal amusement of for future reference. One such occasion presented itself at the Union Station train museum during my recent visit to Ogden, Utah. It displayed a large map of the original Overland Route, the one known better as the Transcontinental Railroad, stretching along an entire museum wall. Wait a second, I though, noticing an anomaly as I snapped a quick photo.
This implied two things: first, that I’m a lousy photographer and I shouldn’t quit my day job; and second, that the famous Transcontinental Railroad appeared to dip down ever-so-briefly into Colorado near the town of Julesburg. Both have been confirmed. From a quick calculation, it appears that Colorado’s portion of the Overland Route comprised 9 miles (14.5 km.) out of 1,776 mile (2,858 km), or about a half-percent of its length.
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Railroads continue to use this corridor, roughly following the same basic path as automobile Routes 138 and 385 running parallel with the tracks for quite a distance. It’s not surprising. From the west, they both follow the banks of Lodgepole Creek heading downstream from Nebraska into Colorado, which then flows into the South Platte River and back into Nebraska.
Much of the area can be described as semiarid high plains. There aren’t many distinguishing features to guide people through these lands other than a few creeks and rivers. Lodgepole Creek and the South Platter River would be logical choices here, and both figured prominently in emerging transportation networks. This little corner of Colorado may seem sparsely settled but it’s been an important corridor that has evolved with changes in technology:
- Overland Trail stagecoach route
- Pony Express mail service
- Overland Route (Transcontinental) railroad line
- Lincoln Highway
- Interstates 76 and 80
These vast movements of people needed places to rest and resupply. Julesburg sat in a perfect spot to fill that vital niche, a service it still provides.
Julesburg is sometimes called the Town that Wouldn’t Die albeit its location certainly changed a number of times; four to be exact. It started as a trading post in the 1850’s until it was burned by Indians in 1865. The new location moved a few miles downstream until the Union Pacific Railroad bypassed it in 1867. Julesburg then moved to the temporary end of the route but faded away as the railroad continued further west. Finally it moved to another point along the railroad where a junction connected a branch heading towards Denver, where it remains today. All four Julesburgs were within a few miles of each other.
It was a wild, lawless place on the frontier, with a fearsome reputation;
Walking through this quiet town situated along the South Platte River, it’s hard to believe Julesburg was once the wickedest city in the West. It’s true though — the city got its start as a Pony Express stop and, by the time the Union Pacific Railroad laid tracks through town in 1867, Julesburg was sin city. Entirely burned to the ground two years earlier by American Indians in retaliation for the Sand Creek Massacre, the new town was anything but improved. Julesburg was home to horse thieves, gamblers and con artists attracted by an abundance of saloons, dance halls and a steady supply of naive travelers heading west along the Overland Trail. One saloon in town claimed to sell the vilest of liquor at two bits a glass.
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Such an important crossroads, in spite of its nasty reputation, required protection particularly from marauding Native Americans seeking retribution. Fort Sedgwick filled this need between 1864 and 1871. Nothing remains of the fort toady except an empty field, although it survives in a way by name in the 1990 movie "Dances with Wolves." This Google Satellite view shows its approximate location with a historical marker placed at the small bump on the north side of County Road 28, where the fort hospital once stood.
Julesburg has changed a lot since its early wild days. However, if I were to travel to Julesburg today, I’d make sure it coincided with the Drag Races that take place on the runway of the municipal airport! There may still be just a hint of that wildness in its descendents.