The Royal Grudge Bridge

Bill Fehr has big plans for the Royal Gorge Bridge--including a $749,600 rent increase.

"When somebody builds something over our rail line, we want to make sure that it meets our standards," explains UP's Trandahl. For example, he says, "we don't want to have a train come along and smash into a bridge because someone didn't build it right." As a result, bridge builders must be granted "air rights"--permission to use the vaporous property owned by the railroad that extends straight up from the tracks.

Those rules certainly applied in 1929, when Piper began contemplating the Royal Gorge Bridge. He approached the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, which owned the railroad at the time, and asked for a right-of-way over the railroad. After satisfying itself that Piper's bridge design wouldn't collapse on its trains, the company agreed to lease the "space" over the railroad to the Texan promoter for $200 a year. Later, when the funicular was built--it landed on the gorge floor on railroad property--the same deal was reached.

In the decades that followed, the arrangement was never altered: Whoever ran the bridge paid whoever owned the rail line $200 a year for the right-of-way 1,000 feet above the tracks and another $200 for the small piece of land at the bottom of the canyon occupied by the funicular.

Until last summer, when that person became Fehr.
And the more Fehr learned about his new property, the bigger his plans became, until he began thinking to himself, Forget the air rights. He knew someone who could do a much better job than anyone else of running the entire attraction: him. Even better, it was a proposition he was suddenly in a position to enforce, as whoever ran the bridge needed his permission to stay in business.

Fehr soon began to wonder why an elderly widow in Texas kept a Colorado bridge at all. "I don't even know why she wants it," he says. "She doesn't live here. She doesn't visit here. It's a toy to her."

"Mrs. Murchison is wundaful lady," drawls Jerry Smith, the Dallas business manager for the Murchison family. "Wundaful. An' she luuuvs that bridge. She goes up there quite often; she loves the views. But she won't speak to you. I wouldn't even dare ask her. But I can tell you this," he says firmly before hanging up: "Our whole goal is to regain that contract."

For a half-century, separating the contract to run the Royal Gorge scenic attraction from the Murchisons of Texas hasn't been much of an issue. Looking back, it's hard to believe that such an ironclad business arrangement all started with a friendly poker game.

By the end of World War II, Lon Piper had operated the bridge over the Royal Gorge for nearly two decades. But battered financially by the Great Depression and the war, he found himself desperately low on cash. Neglected by its maker, the park was deteriorating. (In 1940, Canon City briefly considered returning the whole parcel to the federal government in the hopes that it would be fixed up; however, the war intervened and the transfer never happened.)

So in 1947 Piper sold out. The rights to the attraction were acquired by a group of Fremont County businessmen who were convinced that the bridge was too valuable an institution to lose. The investors included people such as Roy Best, warden of the nearby state penitentiary, and Harry Turner, a Canon City grocery store owner. It was a diverse group, but its members all had something in common: Each was a poker buddy with the person who had arranged the deal, a whirlwind of a man named Ralph Wann. Wann was an indefatigable businessman and civic booster whose activities ranged from being a boardmember of the Rio Grande Railroad and the First National Bank of Denver to owning the Canon City Ford and Lincoln dealership.

Soon after arranging to buy out Piper, Wann and his wife traveled to Mexico for a long-overdue vacation. "And that's when he met Clint Murchison, totally by chance," says Walter Jenks, now 65, who worked at the bridge for almost forty years before retiring as president in 1985. "Mr. Wann proposed that the Murchisons buy the Royal Gorge bridge. And he did. He bought it sight unseen, lock, stock and barrel."

Known among business associates and underlings as Mr. Clint, Murchison was an old-time Southern entrepreneur whose empire stretched across the country. By the time he acquired the Royal Gorge Bridge in 1947, he'd already amassed a far-flung business portfolio that included oil, gas (he built the Southern Union Gas Company), agricultural land and real estate. Such widespread holdings apparently kept him away from Colorado; Jenks says Murchison died without ever having seen his bridge.

Following his death, Clint's considerable holdings were turned over to Murchison Brothers, a conglomerate run by his two sons, Clint Jr. and John. (The Royal Gorge Bridge was not their biggest business. Among many, many other things, the brothers for a time owned the Dallas Cowboys.) John died in 1979, whereupon the brothers' assets were divided among his survivors. His widow, Lucille, known as Lupe and now in her seventies, ended up with the bridge. She insisted on it.

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