Tales from the Tread: Meet David Moffat
“A long train comes, rumbling and whistling crossings. The thunder and rattle of it travels far reaches of sagebrush lands, echoes along rising green mountain skirts and drains down the valley, off toward the Gore. This was the sound and setting of David Moffat’s dream. Some say it brought him fulfillment. Some say it was his ruin. Whatever the truth, it was a magnificent gamble.”
— Wren, Jean. “High Rails to Steamboat: David Moffat’s Magnificent Gamble,” Steamboat Magazine (1986)
For numerous reasons, banker and railroad tycoon David Moffat is known as one of the most important businessmen and developers in Colorado history. Locally, his railroad was critical to the endurance of the town of Steamboat Springs.
You might be familiar with his namesakes, such as the Moffat Tunnel, Moffat County or the Moffat Road (also known as the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific railroad), but who was the man behind the name?
Join the Tread of Pioneers Museum and Bud Werner Library at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18 for a Chautauqua-style monologue with storyteller and performer Dave Naples to learn more about David Moffat’s numerous contributions to Colorado’s development.
Born in New York in 1839, Moffat had several banking ventures in his young life which earned him his first million dollars by age 18. Already established as a strong businessman and riding on his financial momentum, Moffat moved to Denver in the excitement of the Gold Rush. There, he expanded his fortune by entering the coal mining and railroad development industries.
Moffat was an opportunist — his big dream was to conquer the Rocky Mountains by building a railroad over rugged mountain terrain and elevations that were thought to be impossible. Moffat’s proposed route would shorten the connection between Denver to Salt Lake City by 200 miles.
The enormous railroad project was laden with obstacles. By 1907, Moffat was nearing financial ruin, exhausting $9 million of his own fortune, while the railroad was still far from reaching Routt County. With the help of other railroad investors, $1.5 million was raised for the continuation of Moffat’s railroad, and construction over the torturous grade of Rollins Pass quickly commenced.
For Steamboat Springs, an isolated town on the western side of the mountains, Moffat’s railroad was a pivotal point in the town’s history and imperative to growth and success. With the arrival of the railroad, Steamboat Springs gained access to a new supply of materials and products and solidified the town’s future as a market town, shipping hub and tourist destination. The railroad provided year-round transportation for coal, livestock, grain and produce to national markets. Shortly after the railroad was complete, Steamboat Springs was the largest cattle shipping point in country, and mineral springs-seeking tourists could now more easily reach this remote destination.
The railroad symbolized growth, change and a bright future for Yampa Valley. On the cold December day in 1908 when the Moffat Road finally reached Steamboat Springs, people celebrated as the train crossed the bridge at Brooklyn just outside town. There was a 13-gun salute, a band and a crowd of people rejoicing. Steamboat Springs and Routt County were no longer isolated by the mountains, as David Moffat had created a magnificent pathway to Northwestern Colorado.
Though the Moffat Road did not reach its original destination, Salt Lake City, David Moffat’s dream and determination forever changed Colorado and the sustainability of Steamboat Springs. In his final days, Moffat said, “I had no ideas of greatness when I undertook the building of the Moffat Road. I wanted to do it for the good of the state and nothing more.”
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Members of the Ute tribe from the Uintah and Ouray Reservation will return to Steamboat Springs to perform a series of powwow dance performances and share the history of these dances and their culture.