It is no secret that cutting railroad ties was a major activity in what is now the Medicine Bow National Forest from the last half of the 1800s into the early 1900s. The ties were cut during the winter and floated down the mountain in the spring. This required tie hacks to live in the mountains during the cold harsh winters and get around cutting trees and getting supplies. Of the many tie hack camps that existed, what remains of two of them are very near some established hiking trails. One of them is along Brush Creek and the other is along North French Creek.
- Brush Creek Tie Hack Camp: Park just behind the Brush Creek Visitor Center near the trailhead signs. The Brush Creek Tie Hack Camp is a little over 2.5 miles from the trailhead if you follow Mainline Trail, the northern section of Ernie’s Loop, and the There and Back Trail. You will probably already be in the middle of the tie camp before you notice the first decaying building with it’s short stack of logs visible through the brush. The trees growing inside the old cabins gives an indication of how long it’s been since any of these structures was graced with a roof. While walking through these old cabins, it’s impossible to shake the realization that the forest will eventually reclaim everything taken away from it.
- North French Creek Tie Hack Camp: the Tie Hack Trail, which follows North French Creek for 4.4 miles, is stuffed full of tie hack history if you know what to look for. The main camp is an easy 1.2 mile walk from the North Trailhead. You’ll walk past two old cabins close to the trailhead, they are interesting but they aren’t the camp. To get there you’ll leave the main trail as you near the west end of a very large meadow. The total number of remaining cabins here is impressive and it’s easy to lose track of time wandering through them and wondering what stories they could tell. If you were to continue down the Tie Hack Trail you will come across two more single cabins. These are in such bad shape though that I walked by them the first time without noticing.
The life of a tie hack was difficult and often lonely but the men who worked these camps played a vital role in bringing the railroads west and all the towns and farms and western civilization that followed the trains. I came across an excellent book on life in a tie hack camp, Knights of the Broadax that was very enlightening. Before stumbling upon these two old camps I was pretty ignorant about everything that had to do with cutting railroad ties and since then have gained some great perspective on this brief but fascinating part of western history.
If you decide to visit either of these tie hack camps please remember to take only pictures and leave only footprints because we can’t share amazing places like this after they are gone.