Photo: Artist Karen Vance with a reference photo of the Riflesight Notch Trestle and the frame that will ultimately be placed around her upcoming masterpiece.  Photo courtesy GCHA

The approaching sesquicentennial of John Quincy Adams Rollins’ toll wagon road over Boulder (Rollins) Pass is a good prompt to explore how the beauty and majesty of this mountain pass was—and still is—memorialized in early writings, photography, and works of art. There are no records of how the Native Americans once described the area: yet its first use dating to 11,000 years ago (55 centuries before the invention of the wheel) and its repeated use as a communal hunting complex for millennia indicates their efforts were rewarded.

Some of the earliest non-indigenous travelers described Rollins Pass using baroque metaphors as published in the August 25, 1866 Rocky Mountain News, “A Faber No. 2 is not capable of describing the beauties revealed to us before, behind, right and left, and our hand shall not attempt to make it. Fatigue and hunger is forgotten, and the soul is fed with beauty. Here Flora holds high court, clothed in matchless garments. The snow King fades away, and rushes madly roaring down the valleys before her smiling presence.”

Postcard Image: This century-old postcard shows an artist’s rendering of the lands beyond Tolland, Colorado. It spoke to those who wished to experience a pristine landscape and embark on a journey to the top of the world. Author’s collection.

Early stereocard images and photographs captured mesmerizing scenes by railroad workers and tourists alike. The smallest details can emerge under a magnifying glass, further filling in any gaps left out of the history books. Photographs by L.C. McClure, John Trezise, and others transport us back in time to the moment the photograph was taken. If pictures are truly worth a thousand words, then filming sequences of pictures and displayed as frames per second can draft a story, or more appropriately, a movie. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1925 silent film, The White Desert, contains moving pictures of trains and rotaries at work in deep snows on Rollins Pass in winter: Ars gratia artis.

Beginning predominantly during the era when rails stretched over the Continental Divide from Tolland to Middle Park, artists sketched and painted interpretations of the pass. Their task was immense: showcase and recreate the beauty of a panoramic landscape into a mailable postcard. Unforgettable scenes in watercolor or oils portrayed the evocative nature of untapped and pristine subalpine and alpine wilderness: railroad track encircling an imprisoned sheet of water at Yankee Doodle Lake, the Loop Trestle and Tunnel No. 33, or a small train heading uphill on Giant’s Ladder outside of Tolland. The indistinct paintbrush strokes added a mythical appeal inspiring the traveler to seek an adventure at the top of the world.

Years ago, Grand County artist Karen Vance painted a snowy scene depicting the Riflesight Notch Trestle as viewed from Ptarmigan Point on the west side of Rollins Pass. Vance is a Master Signature Member of American Women Artists, a Signature Member of the American Tonalist Society, an Emeritus Signature Member of Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, and a Master Signature Member of Plein Air Artists of Colorado.

Vance is creating a new portrait-oriented masterpiece with a framed size of 34.5 inches high by 25.5 inches wide—depicting the Riflesight Notch Trestle from a complementary viewpoint of her earlier painting—this time though, at the height of summer with abounding wildflowers. The inspiring perspective will be familiar to many: for this is Vance’s interpretation of approaching the trestle as one heads uphill towards the summit of the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass.

Whether by pen, lens, or by paintbrush—the act of creating works of art depicting or describing scenes on Rollins Pass is perhaps the greatest application of human skill. Vance is continuing the heritage and passion of those who found a way to make portable and accessible the grandeur of the landscape.

Vance has both skill and generosity: she has graciously partnered with the Grand County Historical Association and is donating the completed painting (valued at $15,000) to be raffled beginning September 1st, with a winner selected later this year. Raffle tickets are $25 and can be purchased at Grand County Historical Association museums by credit card, check, or cash. To become a member and to learn more, please visit The Grand County Historical Association has lost a significant portion of its annual revenue because of COVID-19 and this fundraiser can help bridge the divide to help keep Grand County’s museums open for future generations—while Karen Vance’s painted masterpiece depicting a remarkable and celebrated trestle on Rollins Pass could become a new family heirloom.

Travis Wright, MPS

President of the Board of Directors, Grand County Historical Association

Author & Historian, Preserve Rollins Pass