Rails Through the Rockies

By Rich Grant

IUnion Station, Scott Dressel Martin for VISIT DENVERn the 1860s, a fortune of gold and silver was discovered in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  There was just one problem:  how to get the miners to the gold and the gold out of this dangerous, rugged, unexplored territory of roaring rivers, deserts and snowcovered mountains.

The answer was one of the great engineering feats of the world. Teams of railroaders used dynamite and sheer nerve to blast, tunnel and trestle some 2,000 miles of track, crisscrossing the Rockies to reach more than a dozen mining camps like Aspen, Leadville, Central City and Durango.

Burrowing through rock, clinging to ledges on the sides of canyons, bridging raging rivers, the railroaders did the impossible, pushing narrow gauge tracks up mountains and over high passes, making them the lifeline of every mining camp and community in the state.

Georgetown Loop, Ron Ruhoff for VISIT DENVERIt was the railroads that changed Denver from a wild frontier town to a large, urban city -- the most elegant and sophisticated metropolis between Chicago and San Francisco.

Because the railroading era in Colorado was such a wild, beautiful and romantic period, many of the train lines have been kept open for tourists and still have operating steam locomotives chugging up the valleys, blowing huge clouds of smoke above the evergreen forests.  In Denver, the days of steam trains and luxury travel by rail have been kept alive with lavish railroad hotels, restaurants and museums.

While railroad buffs have been coming to Colorado for a century, even railroad novices will enjoy some of the operating trains, model railroads and railroad museums to be found in the state.  

Here are a few:

Denver’s Union Station

Built in 1914, Denver’s Beaux Arts style Union Station is a masterpiece that brings back the golden age of railroading.  At one point, more than 200 trains arrived here every day.  The station was completely restored in July 2014 with ten hip new restaurants, the 112-room Crawford Hotel and a selection of retail shops, all using architectural details of the historic station.

The old ticket windows have been turned into bar where instead of purchasing a ticket to Durango, you can walk up and order 30 Colorado craft beers.  The hotel has a floor of “Pullman” rooms that are luxury versions of the old sleeping cars on trains.  For fine dining, Denver’s award-winning chef Jennifer Jasinski (winner of the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest) has opened Stoic & Genuine, a seafood-centric restaurant in the grand tradition of the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, New York.

Ironically, the grand hall with its wood benches, high ceiling and arched windows is once again being used as a waiting room for trains – only today it’s for Denver’s sleek German-built, electric Light Rail commuter trains, which fan out into the suburbs bringing workers downtown…. and of course, for the two remaining daily AMTRAK trains, one from Chicago, one from San Francisco -- the only interstate passenger trains left crossing the West.  A new commuter rail line to Denver International Airport will open in 2016.

Colorado Railroad Museum by Rich Grant The Colorado Railroad Museum

Next stop for rail buffs is 12 miles away at the Colorado Railroad Museum, which has the state’s largest collection of locomotives, cars, photos and historic railroad mementoes.

Located in Golden, at the base of scenic high Western buttes, the museum is circled by a half-mile track, which allows them to do monthly “steam ups” with operating steam locomotives.  It’s the world’s largest “big toy train layout” -- a half mile circle that goes completely around the museum grounds.  Every hour, the steam whistle echoes off the buttes, and the train chugs down the tracks three times, stopping at the water tower to take on water, while blowing steam out the pistons for photos. In winter months it’s particularly scenic since the cold air makes for more steam, while passengers stay warm in historic wood cars heated by coal burning stoves.   On alternative weekends, the museums also runs the Galloping Goose, a rare bus that was mounted on train wheels to carry passengers over Lizard Head Pass near Telluride, Colorado.

There are special events throughout the year including a Polar Express train with Santa Claus, an Easter Bunny train, an Old West event with shootouts and train holdups, and even a Halloween train with Zombies as conductors.  The grounds are also home to Colorado’s largest outdoor garden railroad where model trains cross trestles, burrow through tunnels, and pass through country towns, all while making realistic sound effects and blowing smoke. www.coloradorailroadmuseum.org

Georgetown Loop, Rich GrantThe Georgetown Loop Railroad

One of Colorado’s most famous railroad engineering feats is just 42 miles from Denver.  The first railroad reached the silver mines of Georgetown in 1877, where it was quickly decided to push the railroad up the valley another two miles to the neighboring mining camp of Silver Plume.  The challenge: Silver Plume was 600 feet higher in elevation.  To gain that much altitude that fast, the railroad had to twist and turn like a corkscrew for four and a half miles, making two and a half complete circles and at one point crossing over itself on a 90-foot-high trestle --the Devil’s Gate Bridge.

Today, steam-powered locomotives make the climb up the valley, sending huge plumes of smoke into the surrounding forest of pine trees.  The train may be boarded in Georgetown or Silver Plume and offers panoramic (and somewhat scary) views, particularly when crossing the 90-foot high bridge.  From the open air viewing cars it is possible to see big horn sheep.

There are wine trips every day that include a wine-tasting in an historic car.  Along the way is an optional hour and 20 minute tour where you descend into the cold, dank rock walls of the Lebanon Silver Mine.  www.georgetownlooprr.com                                               

Caboose Hobbies

If you want to take a short break from the real thing, Denver is also home to the world’s largest model railroading store -- a virtual supermarket of toy trains.  There are locomotives, railroad cars, little buildings, little people in every pose imaginable, tiny trees and everything needed to make a miniature world.  Today’s toy trains come with realistic sound effects, smoking steam, and other details to make them more authentic looking than ever.  The store has a half dozen operating large toy train layouts, and even has a toy train hung from the ceiling that circles the entire store.  Bringing children here around Christmas can be an expensive, but fun outing.  500 S. Broadway. www.caboosehobbies.com

Pikes Peak Cog RailroadManitou & Pikes Peak Railway Co.

Just 90 minutes from downtown Denver, a bright red cog railway climbs from

Manitou Springs to the summit of Pikes Peak, 14,110 feet above sea level. It is the highest cog railway in the world.  The Swiss-made train runs year-round (snow permitting) and winds past cascading streams and dense forests of aspen and pine until it breaks tree-line and continues another 3,000 feet of elevation gain across rocky tundra. Spectacular sweeping views are available at the summit, though it can be cold up here – even in summer.  A popular activity (for those in good shape) is to hike the 13-mile trail to the top of Pikes Peak and ride the train down.  But be warned – there is not much oxygen at 14,000 feet, and weather conditions can change rapidly.  www.cograilway.com

Durango Silverton, Colorado Tourism BoardDurango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

The most legendary narrow gauge railroad in Colorado has been in continuous operation since 1882.  It started by transporting gold and silver ore through the 45 miles of mountains between Durango and Silverton, but the railroad soon realized the really precious cargo was the scenery along the way.  Almost from the beginning, this was a tourist railroad.   

In season, five historic coal-fired steam locomotives chug up the Las Animas River Canyon, billowing smoke past 14,000 foot peaks as they power their way into a territory that is only accessible by train.  Many people wishing to hike or river raft in the area ride the train into the narrow valley and then set off by foot.  There is no other practical way in.

All the locomotives date to 1923-25 and along with open gondola cars and historic parlor cars, are indigenous to the line.

The scenic train has been used in films such as “Around the World in 80 Days,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and operates year-round, running on an abbreviated 26 miles of track in winter when snow closes the upper mountain passes.  Both Durango and Silverton are classic Old West mining towns with swinging door saloons, clinking pianos and Victorian architecture.   www.durangotrain.com

CUMBRES & TOLTEC

SCENIC RAILROAD:   

America’s longest (64-miles each way) and highest (10,015 feet) narrow gauge steam railroad starts in Antonito, Colorado and angles southwest through rolling high-country before beginning a steady climb through the forested slopes of the San Juan range, passing through groves of pine and the craggy sheer rock walls of Toltec Gorge of the Los Pinos River, before beginning a precipitous 4 percent grade drop into Chama, New   Mexico.  All aboard!  It can be the trip of a lifetime back into the Old West. www.cumbrestoltec.com

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