Smoke, Steel and Fire
By RICH GRANT
There is no sound quite like a steam whistle echoing off a mountain, as plumes of black smoke rise in the air, the steel wheels screech around a bend, and ahead is the chug, chug, chug of a massive steam locomotive straining up a four percent grade. Riding outdoors in a gondola car with the big skies of the Rocky Mountains above you and a horizon filled with jagged peaks, meadows of wildflowers, forests, streams and elk herds — it’s the dream of railroading in the Rockies.
Two things made the development of Colorado and New Mexico possible: gold and railroads. The gold, silver, copper and many other natural elements were always here. But getting them out of the West was really not possible until the coming of the railroads. To get to the gold in the 1880s, narrow gauge railroad lines were punched up nearly every canyon and high pass, making them the lifeline to mining communities and towns along the way. At one point, more than 2,000 miles of narrow gauge track probed the mountains, curling along riverbanks, burrowing through sheer rock tunnels and steaming over trestles. Narrow gauge was necessary because these smaller railroads could make tighter turns and climb steeper grades.
They also became the post picturesque railroads of the world. Walk in any model railroad shop from England to Germany, and there are shelves filled with miniature Colorado trains. The railroads have been romanticized in movies from “Butch Cassidy” to “Indiana Jones,” and attract rail buffs who come West to live by the words of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.
And it is where these steam-breathing dragons go that make them so appealing. Through the efforts of states, historical societies and private individuals, many of these incredible steam machines still exist. For those with smoke, steel, steam and fire in their blood, here’s the ultimate Rocky Mountain “bucket list” train trip:
Railroading in the Pandemic
Most of these trains were operating in 1880, a time where Jesse James was still robbing trains, Wyatt Earp had yet to meet destiny at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, and Billy the Kid was wanted for murder. These trains have steamed through history – through world wars, depressions and droughts – all before the Statue of Liberty was built or the Titanic sank. And they will steam through the current covid-19 pandemic too.
Operations will vary from previous years and are able to change throughout the 2020 season, so always check websites before planning your trip this year to check schedules and operation times. Every effort will always be made to ensure personal safety on the trips.
It was the railroads that changed Denver from a wild frontier town to the largest and most sophisticated city between St. Louis and San Francisco.
Today, Denver still loves its trains. The restored downtown Union Station has become the “living room” of the Mile High City, with dozens of bars, breweries, fine dining restaurants, hotels and shops within a few blocks of the station, or in the massive lobby built in 1914.
There is direct rail service from Denver International Airport to Union Station, with trains leaving as often as every 30 minutes. You can also catch Amtrak here for daily trains to Chicago or San Francisco, with trains on weekends during ski season to Winter Park Ski Resort, passing through 28 tunnels on the way.
Nestled between high rocky buttes just 12 miles west of Denver, you’ll find the state’s largest collection of railroad stuff, including locomotives, historic photos, cars and cabooses. Most fun of all, the museum has a half-mile circle of narrow gauge track – like a giant’s model train set — allowing monthly “steam-ups” for their fleet of authentic steam locomotives.
On steam days, the trains circles three times every hour, providing hundreds of photo opportunities to catch locomotives in action. Events include a Polar Express that runs throughout the holiday season.
On weekends without steam, the museum runs the equally fun Galloping Goose, a crazy contraption of a 1920s Pierce Arrow Limousine on wheels with a bus welded on the back. The vehicle was actually used to run mail and passengers over Lizard Head Pass near Telluride.
In the basement of the museum is one of Colorado’s largest HO model railroads — more than 20 years of work in an area 45 feet long with a circus, mountain passes and full cities, much of it recreating a cross-section of the state’s most interesting railroads such as those at Cripple Creek and Tennessee Pass. A giant outdoor garden railroad offers electric model trains traveling through cultivated forests of miniature trees and buildings.
This little village was constructed in 1915 at the site of an old stagecoach stop just outside of Denver, when George Turner began erecting one-sixth-sized buildings for his young daughter. In 1920, the town was open to the public, and in just five years it became one of Colorado’s top five attractions.
In 1939, a miniature railway was added, but a flood, a fire and changing economic conditions forced the attraction to close.
But then in 1988, volunteers began the resurrection of Tiny Town. Today, more than 100 colorful buildings are in place, all beautifully handcrafted with wonderful details, many with full interiors.
Some of the buildings are exact replicas of famous structures from Colorado’s history, but all fit the character of a Colorado village at the turn of the century. The one-sixth-size village is circled by the miniature tiny town steam railway, a mile-long run with open-air cars pulled by an authentic steam locomotive similar to the narrow gauge locomotives that once worked the mountain lines of Colorado.
Passengers board the small train for a ride over a trestle and through tall pine trees.
This one-of-a-kind collection began with antique cars, but soon expanded to include vehicles of all kinds.
One of the main reasons to visit is to stand beside one of the seven last remaining Big Boys in the world — the largest steam locomotive on the planet.
The Union Pacific has just restored a Big Boy and it is currently touring the country.
If fate does not let you catch up with a Big Boy at a rail show, you can always see the one in Denver.
Caboose Hobbies (one of the largest model railroad stores in the nation) is a virtual supermarket of trains with all scales and sizes, as well as operating miniature railroads and memorabilia, books, video tapes and more.
It is located just outside of Denver, near I-70 heading up into the mountains.
This a reconstruction of one of the most famous engineering feats in railroad history.
Originally in 1877, a railroad ran from Denver 42 miles west to the silver mining town of Georgetown.
Because there was more silver just two miles away in Silver Plume, they decided to push the railroad up the valley.
The challenge? Silver Plume was 600 feet higher in elevation. To gain that much altitude that fast, the railroad had to twist and turn four and a half miles, making two and a half complete circles and, at one point, crossing over itself like a corkscrew on a 90-foot-high trestle — the Devil’s Gate Bridge.
With the collapse of the mining industry, the railroad was closed and, in 1939, torn up for scrap metal.
For 35 years the grade lay abandoned, but then the Colorado Historical Society bought it and steam returned to the valley in 1975. Today, steam-powered locomotives make the climb up the valley in summer months.
The train can be boarded in Georgetown or Silver Plume and offers panoramic and often scary views, particularly when crossing the bridge. From the open-air viewing cars, it is possible to see big horn sheep and other wildlife, but it is the sound of the train whistle echoing down the valley that is unforgettable.
There are wine trains and an optional tour of the Lebanon Silver Mine along the way. The railroad is located in Georgetown, 42 miles west of Denver on I-70, exit 228. In town, the Old Georgetown Station has exhibits and a railroad gift shop.
Built in 1880 as part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western’s San Juan Extension, this was the main line from Denver to Durango, and all the gold and silver in the San Juan Mountains.
Up until 1970, the railroad never ran anything except steam locomotives, but in challenging economic times, this American treasure was in danger of closing.
Instead, the states of Colorado and New Mexico stepped up and purchased it. They continue to run it as an historical museum — a national landmark that moves. And move it does. It is America’s longest (64-miles each way) and highest (10,015 feet) operating narrow gauge steam railroad. The tracks cross the borders of Colorado and New Mexico 11 times.
In 2020, coal-powered steam locomotives are scheduled to leave from Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico on alternating days, rolling through the high-country and forested slopes of the San Juan range and San Luis Valley, passing through groves of pine and aspen, crossing the spectacular 10,015 foot high Cumbres Pass, curling along the lip of 700-foot deep Toltec Gorge, and steaming through tunnels and over trestles along the Los Pinos River. You can walk around the train, ride in the outdoor gondola, ride between cars, visit the restaurant car that has a bar and snacks, and, of course, there are restrooms on each train.
Readers of USA Today have twice voted this (most recently in May 2019) to be the “best train ride in America.” The full-day ride includes a delicious lunch stop at Osier Station with panoramic views. Almost all the ride is off the grid, passing through country where no road goes. It is common to see deer, antelope and elk ,and even bears have been spotted as the train chugs along at a pleasant 12 mph.
The railroad has been featured in many films, including “Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade,” as well as, most recently, “Hostiles,” with Christian Bale, and “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” with Seth MacFarlane.
Antonito is located 30 miles from Alamosa, Colorado, or about an hour from Taos, New Mexico. Chama has lots of accommodations and is located 45 minutes from the resort town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
Train excursions leave from the popular tourist town of Durango in southwestern Colorado, traveling through the San Juan Mountains to the old mining town of Silverton, passing through areas accessible only by rail.
The experience includes a railroad museum in Durango, coaches, open gondolas, a parlor car, and diesel and steam-powered narrow gauge locomotives.
It is even possible to get off the train in Colorado’s backcountry for river rafting, climbing and hiking 14ers, and then reboard the train days later to come home.
The railroad has been featured in numerous films, including the classic, “Around the World in 80 Days.”
All train operations will be subject to change in 2020, so please consult their websites. Bringing hand sanitizer, and face coverings are recommended on all trips.
…May 29, 2020