East Portal Camp Cabins

Historian B. Travis Wright, MPS helps tell the story of Rollins Pass and the construction of the Moffat Tunnel in this CBS4 documentary about the East Portal Camp Cabins.

2020 Colorado’s Most Endangered Places Announcement

This is one of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places.

Nearly a century ago, two construction camps were placed on either side of the Continental Divide to support the 1,600 men who bored one of the nation’s greatest engineering accomplishments: the Moffat Tunnel.

These construction camps were self-contained towns—at the East Portal was a 24-hour mess hall, school, six-bed hospital with X-ray machine, post office, recreation hall with a movie theater (35 cents), facilities shops, bunkhouses, and cottages. Turnover was exceptionally low under this “factory system” of company town planning. Such an approach strengthened the community, and families lived on site for years: going to church in the schoolhouse on Sundays, participating in Elks Clubs, women’s bridge clubs, and dancing… but never stepping foot in a saloon, as the tunnel was fully constructed during prohibition and none were built at East Portal.

After the tunnel was completed, a majority of the buildings at East Portal were demolished, first by the railroad, and more later by the US Forest Service. The most specialized utilitarian buildings were removed first (warehouses that kept blasting powder, for example), while the most adaptable were removed last; but not before they were used to house military sentries during World War II. The Moffat Tunnel played a vital role during the war, with more than 30 defense-related trains passing through each day.

Besides the completed tunnel and attached ventilation plant, all that remains of this incredible endeavor: newspaper articles, old photographs, and five cottages sitting silently near the edge of the James Peak Wilderness; their tattered curtains stirred by breezes through shattered windows.

The remaining cottages, arguably some of Gilpin County’s most incredible historic gems, are now, as of today, listed as one of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places. Sadly, they won’t last much longer without urgent rehabilitation. The climate is rough, the winds are strong, and the vandalism is heartbreaking. Mother Nature, too, is pushing one cabin off of its foundation. Greater awareness could unlock possibilities for unique partnerships that can help with restoration: it is fitting this task must be undertaken by the community, for community is why—and how—these structures were built in the first place.

It is an honor to work on the Gilpin County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission that helped ensure these treasures can be seen by future generations. When I was interviewed for the documentary about the East Portal cabins, I was asked, “Can you tell me about this place and what it all means?” I had already answered historical questions about the old route over Rollins Pass, the need for the Moffat Tunnel and told stories of its construction efforts, talked about how the cottages were used… and I knew the interviewer was asking for something more. I took a deep breath, soaked in the view for a moment, and said, “This place is magical.”

It’s my hope that increased awareness leads to action, preserving this incredible site and its magic for the future. The story these cottages continue to tell is important for Colorado, its residents, and its visitors. After all, only the most adaptable structures were saved from demolition, and there’s plenty of life left in these cabins once inhabited by everyday people who, quite literally, moved mountains.

—B. Travis Wright, MPS

East Portal Camp Cabins Press Release by Colorado Preservation, Inc.

The East Portal Camp Cabins, built at the east entrance to the Moffat Tunnel in Gilpin County, remain the last remnants of a “factory system” town for workers who bored through the mountain to accomplish one of the most important engineering accomplishments in U.S. history. Although not the first to conceive of a tunnel under the Continental Divide, David H. Moffat’s determination to unite Denver with the West Coast by railroad was the guiding impulse that led to the building of the Moffat Tunnel. Once completed, the Moffat Tunnel eliminated 150 miles off of the transcontinental routes, allowing trains to pass through the divide with ease.

The construction camps at the East Portal (Gilpin County side) were built in 1922-23 prior to the commencement of work on the tunnel itself. During the late 1920s, most large-scale engineering projects were plagued with high labor turnover, low morale, dangerous working conditions, and a general unwillingness to stay. Contractors Hitchcock and Tinkler determined that the best way to achieve better results and a good work ethic was through a well designed, built environment that would include comfortable accommodations, efficient workspaces, social activities, and a readily available food supply. Tinkler and Betts hired Colorado engineer Clifford A. Betts, who organized the company town on either side of an east-to-west bearing main street projecting from the tunnel outlet. Along the main street, the utilitarian shops were located closest to the tunnel; the bunkhouses and recreation facilities were located just west of the shops; and the entire entity was enclosed with a fence. East of the bunkhouse and shop complex was the “Cottage Village,” which was originally a complex of eleven singe family cottages arranged north of a street. The cottages employed features evocative of fashionable early twentieth century residences, with wide eaves, low gable roofs, and exposed rafters.

The five surviving East Portal Camp Cabins provide the only remaining built connection with the individuals that built the tunnel, including 28 workers who died in the process. The cabins are located at the base of the James Peak Trail, which leads into the James Peak Wilderness area, which provides easy access and the opportunity to introduce this important history to thousands of trail users. The buildings sit on U.S. Forest Service land but are owned by Union Pacific’s Real Estate Department, which is considering donating them to Gilpin County, who would work with CPI and local partners, including possible historical, wilderness and trail organizations, to save and interpret them. Rehabilitation of the cabins could provide adaptive re-use options that would benefit several potential partners while saving this important remnant of one of the most important achievements in American engineering history.

“A society is defined not only by what it creates, but by what it refuses to destroy.”

—John C. Sawhill
B. Travis Wright, MPS background image