Canfield and the Longmont “Baby Railroad”
by Jim Stull
The town of Canfield was located on the eastern border of Boulder County, just west of Erie, at Jay/Jasper Road and N. 119th Street. It was platted in the mid -1870s and named after Isaac Canfield. In 1873, Isaac Canfield discovered a rich coal seam; he and his brothers named it the Rob Roy mine. William O. Wise had petitioned the governor for a post office in 1872, and in 1878 one was dedicated; it closed in 1908. At one point, the Rob Roy employed over 100 miners. The town boasted a population of 153 in 1887, and 300 in 1895. Eventually, the Rob Roy and other mines in the Canfield area failed due to Colorado coal miner strikes. There is still plenty of coal in the ground.
Canfield was home to a stop on the Union Pacific railroad spur that ran from Hughes (Brighton) through Erie to Boulder. This stop—just south of Canfield—was known as the Tabor Stop, named after Horace Tabor, the businessman, politician, and silver baron; he was known as “The Bonanza King of Leadville.” Canfield had a grain mill (operated by William T. Wise), a blacksmith shop, a general store and post office (operated by William O. Wise), and a school. The land for Canfield School was donated by Joseph O. V. Wise. Today, the area is home to the Wise Historical Museum. The Wise family was among the many homesteading families that helped to settle the area.
Isaac Canfield was born in Livingston County, New York in1839. His family moved to Pennsylvania, where Isaac and his father worked in the oil business from 1860 to 1871. They heard about the coal boom in Colorado, and they moved to Greeley. After moving to the area later known as Canfield, Isaac discovered the coal seam. He was active in politics, working for the Republican party and serving on the Colorado State Legislature. After the mining business failed, Isaac and his family relocated to Canon City, where he discovered Colorado’s first oil well. He also engaged in farming there and served as mayor.
New Rail Service to Canfield
Isaac Canfield, William O. Wise and John Thompson are three of the eleven men listed on the January 3, 1878 incorporation papers for the Longmont and Erie Railroad, one of Colorado’s first narrow-gauge lines. Before construction started, the name was changed to the Denver, Longmont, and Northwestern Railroad (DL&NW). It was designed to connect Longmont to Canfield, giving Longmont better access to Canfield’s coal at cheaper prices than people were paying for coal from Marshall, near Boulder. Narrow gauge lines were typically cheaper to build but had limited lifetimes because of their special purposes. Standard gauge tracks were 1,455 mm or 4 feet 8 ½ inches wide. Most narrow gauge tracks ranged between 600 and 1,067 mm or 1 foot 11 5/8 inches to 3 feet 6 inches. Because of its size, the Railroad became known as Longmont’s “Baby Railroad.”
On March 12, 1881, the Denver, Utah, and Pacific Railroad (DUP) changed its name on the route to the Denver, Longmont, and Northwestern Railroad. On November 24, 1881, the new DL&NW line opened with 8.2 miles of track between Longmont and Canfield; a one-way trip took about 45 minutes. The train started at 2nd and Main and traveled over Empson Hill, crossing the St. Vrain and Boulder Creeks, following roughly the route that N. 119th Street takes today. It crossed sugar beet, oil and gas, and coal fields, hauling people and coal and contributing significantly to the economy of the towns it served. The first locomotive was named the John H. Wells, after the railroad’s general manager and principal promoter of the project.
In early 1882 (once source claims November 24 1881), the line was extended to meet the DUP/DL&NW stop at Mitchell—about 1.8 miles south of Canfield—and continue on to Denver. According to maps, the tracks left Canfield land followed where Jay Road is today to just east of E. County Line Road. There were three Mitchell Mines—one south of Erie near where Walgreen’s is today, one just west of N. 119th Street and south of Arapaho, and the New Mitchell just west of that one. The latter two were connected by tracks to the site of the train stop just east of what E. County Line Road. The DUP/DL&NW was also a narrow gauge line with earlier plans to connect Denver to Lyons, with a spur to Canfield. The Longmont to Denver trip took about one hour and forty-five minutes, costing $2.50 per person. Passengers could take their horses with them at a cost of 45 cents per horse. According to an 1882 copy of the Longmont Ledger, there were ten stations along the way: Longmont, Weld (not the Weld in the mountains outside Boulder), Canfield, Northrup, Mitchell, Sharrotville, Lakeside, Hallock Junction (9.5 miles northwest of Denver), Argo, and Denver. Most of the stops were communities, not towns or landmarks that exist today.
In 1883, the DL&NW reorganized as the Colorado Northern Railway. In 1884, it merged with the DUP. In 1889, the Colorado Central Railroad cut its rates to 50 cents per person for the trip from Longmont to Denver. This put the “Baby Railroad” out of business, and its tracks were ripped out that year. The DUP extended its service from Denver to Lyons. In the meantime, in 1889, the Burlington & Missouri River division of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad leased the land and built standard-gauge tracks through Erie (not Canfield) on High Street to serve Longmont and Lyons. Those tracks were removed from Erie, but the raised area dedicated to the train service is still present.