Shelf Road was originally opened as a wagon road. When gold was discovered in Cripple Creek, the business men in Cañon City were frantic to find a way to tap into the market. A group, the Cañon City and Cripple Creek Toll Road Company, was formed to open a road between the two cities. The road was opened in 1892 and proved to be well-used, if not well-liked. The road was narrow, had many sharp turns, and steep grades hundreds of feet above the creek bed. If you have driven the road and think it’s scary now, just imagine doing in with a wagon and horses hauling ore! Originally a toll road, one gate for the road was 12 miles outside of Cañon City and the other was at the upper end where the road come out into open country.
A stage line was opened shortly after to carry mail and passengers. Three stations existed along the route; Eldred, Marigold, and Lawrence. This stage was operated by Charles E. Canterbury and Woody Higgins. They were paid by the government $100/month to carry the mail. Canterbury recalled being held up once but said the robbers did not bother him as they didn’t want the federal government after them for stealing mail. Instead, they were content to rob the two passengers in the stage: Dean LaGrange and George Cowdrey. Canterbury operated the toll gate at the lower end although it was only in operation as a toll road for about 5 or 6 years. The toll for any vehicle drawn by two horses was 50 cents at the lower gate and 25 cents at the upper gate. A vehicle drawn by one horse was 25 cents either way. A lone horse and rider were only 15 cents but each trail wagon was 25 cents extra at each gate. The road was sold to the county in 1905 which ended its use as a toll road.
The road saw less use after its time as a toll road ended, and by 1934 was in poor condition. About 30 men went to work on it in 1934 from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which funded projects to help alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression. The work on Shelf Road followed the original road and was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. Today, the road is popular with rock climbers as there are scenic, but difficult, places to climb.
The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.