Plans, Trains and Automobiles

Squeezed by big-bucks developments, the eccentric Forney Museum is ready to hit the highway.

Standing outside Denver's Forney Transportation Museum, in a yard filled with antique locomotives, cabooses and passenger cars, owner Jack Forney beams at a small nineteenth-century locomotive painted in splashes of forest green. The coal-powered locomotive would look more at home today in an amusement park than in a busy railyard, but for Forney it's a magical link to a distant relative who shared his own enthusiasm for railroads.

Matthias Forney, whom Jack Forney describes as a "third cousin thrice removed," took out a patent on his Forney locomotive in 1866, and his "little giants" were used on elevated transit lines in both Chicago and New York. For years Jack Forney hunted for one of the old locomotives, which he finally found in 1996.

Last fall Forney also acquired a cherry-red 1909 Swedish caboose, which he has attached to the old Forney locomotive. Since his grandfather in Oklahoma married a Swedish girl, he figures this is appropriate. "Once more, I've tied in a Forney with a Swede," laughs Forney, who recently turned seventy.

The Forney Museum moved to Denver's Central Platte Valley almost thirty years ago, when the area was still widely regarded as a run-down industrial wasteland. It was the first real tourist attraction in the valley, which today bustles with construction cranes building new attractions like the Pepsi Center arena and the Colorado's Ocean Journey aquarium.

Including the relocated Elitch's and plans for a string of new riverside parks, the City of Denver is spending more than $40 million to create a high-powered entertainment district along the banks of the South Platte. But the Forney museum won't be part of this rebirth. Instead, Forney has placed his building under contract to REI, the Seattle-based sporting-goods retailer that is planning an elaborate showplace for outdoorsmen in the turn-of-the-century building, complete with test paths for mountain bikes, a 65-foot-high climbing pinnacle, a rain room and an indoor forest. As with many of the other attractions now targeting the valley, REI is asking for millions in city subsidies; the final amount is still being negotiated.

But Denver has never offered to subsidize the Forney museum--and Forney is now planning to pack up his collection of antique automobiles, railcars and locomotives and hit the road. He'll likely move up I-25 to a site in Denver's northern suburbs. Either way, he says, the museum will no longer be in Denver.

"The city doesn't care about us little guys who don't provide them with taxes," says the soft-spoken Forney. "That's the name of the game: follow the money. Denver has never done anything for us."

By selling the building, which lies just off 15th Street along the Platte River, Forney predicts he'll make enough money to build the museum a new home. He also hopes to use the funds to properly restore the collection of nearly 150 vintage automobiles, as well as the rail equipment, and to hire professional curators.

"Over the years, any money we had available was spent on restoration [of the building]," says Forney. "We haven't been able to spend the money to make nice exhibits and displays, but that's what we want to do."

The Forney is housed in the cavernous former powerhouse of the Denver Tramway Company, which generated electricity there to power the vast network of streetcars that Denverites depended on for decades. The building's ceiling is more than eighty feet tall, designed to accommodate the tramway company's huge boilers and steam engines.

REI looks at the huge walls and high ceilings and sees mountain climbers scaling the interior of the building to test climbing equipment, bicyclists trying out new mountain bikes on the Platte River trail that runs just outside the building, and hikers testing out new boots on an artificial trail that will run beneath a canopy of pine trees.

"It's a unique building and a unique site," says Brian Cannard, REI's real estate manager. "It appears the whole Platte River area is in transition."

But the Forney Museum, with its eccentric collection of antique hearses and pre-World War I French taxicabs, won't be making that transition. "In our family crest, there's a wheel," says Jack Forney. "Maybe that's why we're moving, because we like transportation so well."

The beginnings of the Forney collection go back to the 1950s, when Jack's father, J.D. Forney, took up a new hobby.

The elder Forney was an inventor who lifted himself out of poverty by developing several innovative products, including a welding torch that could run off the weak amounts of electricity that ran over Rural Electrification Administration lines. Standard welding equipment couldn't be used on these lines, and Forney's invention was wildly popular with farmers who needed to repair tractors and other equipment.

J.D. ran away from his rural Oklahoma home at the age of fourteen, following the harvest and working on railroads. During the Great Depression he sold books and encyclopedias, then enrolled in college in Fort Collins. It was there that he courted Jack's mother, Rachel.

Playing off the success of his inventions, J.D. founded Forney Industries, a Fort Collins-based welding-equipment company that soon employed hundreds of people and boasted a national sales force. Rachel and Jack decided it would be good for J.D. to have a hobby to take his mind off the pressures of business, and in the late 1950s they found a 1921 Kissel, which they gave to him as a gift.

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