Whistle Stopped

A proposed railroad merger threatens jobs throughout Colorado -- and, up in Minturn, a way of life.

Though the state is ready to hop aboard the merger express, several federal agencies have declined a ticket. Earlier this month the federal departments of Justice, Agriculture and Transportation announced their joint opposition to the merger as now proposed. The Justice Department estimated the new mega-railroad would cost consumers an additional $800 million per year due to reduced competition, and agriculture officials said higher rail fees would hurt American grain exports.

But Union Pacific's Bromley says the railroad isn't as powerful as its opponents charge. He insists that the federal agencies' opposition to the merger shows Union Pacific isn't the well-oiled political machine its critics make it out to be. "If we were so well-connected, we wouldn't have had all those headlines about Justice and Agriculture being against us," he says. "I wish we were that powerful."

The lunch-hour rush at the Turntable is winding down. And if anyone doubts this is a railroad restaurant, the clock on the back wall will let them know otherwise. The clock's hands spin around a cartoon train passing through the mountains, and every hour on the hour, the train's whistle blows and the lights on a rail-crossing sign flash. Soon it may be the only train whistle heard in Minturn.

Only about 40 of Minturn's 1,500 residents still work for the railroad. Once dependent on the Southern Pacific and the local mines for survival, the town is now populated by people who work at jobs related to the ski industry. But Minturn still prides itself on being a workingman's town, and residents desperately want to maintain the non-glitzy, small-town feeling that sets its apart from its neighbors in the Vail Valley. Many of the humble one-story homes now sell for $200,000, but old-timers vow a fight before they'll let Minturn become just another resort town. They especially fear a real estate free-for-all if the railroad departs and eighty acres of vacant land hit the market.

"This is a place where people can buy a home and raise their kids," says Bellm. "It's a different world when you drive into Minturn than when you drive into Vail or Avon. That's why people live here.

"If they vacated all the railroad land, you'd see all of Minturn change," Bellm adds. "If it happens overnight, there would be such a flow of people coming in it would be like Central City or Black Hawk. You'd have an awful time trying to control it."

City Manager Richard Dangler, another Turntable regular, says Minturn wants to keep its identity, even as developers float proposals for the Southern Pacific land--including visions of new homes, a gondola to lift skiers three miles to the Eagles Nest summit, and a parking garage. "This town has a 100-year existence," Dangler says. "It's not Beaver Creek. Everyone in the valley comes here for Halloween because it's the only place that has a Main Street and neighborhoods. It's the only place where you can go door-to-door trick-or-treating. You can't do that in Vail."

The old turntable that gave the restaurant its name once was used to move steam locomotives into sheds where railroad mechanics performed basic maintenance. The Rio Grande kept a large crew of mechanics in Minturn, and the railroad linked the isolated mountain town with the rest of the world. As a boy, Bellm remembers seeing hoboes come through town on the train. "They might stop here and try to get something to eat," he recalls. "Then they'd move on."

The turntable was abandoned with the advent of diesel locomotives in the 1940s, but it still makes its presence felt. The Railroad Hotel was built on top of the aging mechanism, and every now and then the building settles, and doors in the hotel become jammed. "Sometimes we hear people yelling because they can't open the door in their room," Goodell says with a laugh.

Goodell thinks the railroad is a big part of what makes Minturn unique, and she's dreading the day the last train passes through town. She fears that along with its loads of freight, that final train will take part of the soul of Minturn with it. "I grew up here, but if they put a ski lift here, I'm leaving," she says. "We don't need this to be a little Vail.

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