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.

At the time, the company had several hundred salesmen in rural areas all over the country. And after the firm newsletter ran a picture of J.D. with his renovated Kissel, Forney's employees realized their boss had a soft spot for antique cars. Several of them found that J.D. would even accept vintage cars as payment for his welding equipment, and a stream of old autos that farmers had hidden away in their barns began flowing back to Fort Collins on the company's delivery trucks.

Over the years, J.D. built up a collection of dozens of cars, which his employees would drive in parades in towns all over northern Colorado. Eventually, J.D. put up a building in Fort Collins to house the collection and allowed the public to visit.

In the mid-1960s, developer Gerry Von Frellick built Englewood's Cinderella City, one of the largest shopping centers in the country. Looking for attractions to draw visitors, he invited J.D. to house his collection in the mall. By 1968 the collection had outgrown its space in the shopping center, and J.D. had forged an alliance with a local physician whose passion for railroads matched J.D.'s love of the automobile. Together they came up with a plan to create a new transportation museum in the Central Platte Valley.

James Arneill was a prominent local doctor who loved railroads and collected railcars and steam engines. He and J.D. struck a deal with the owner of the old Denver Tramway powerhouse, and in 1969 the Forney Transportation Museum opened to the public.

While J.D. was quiet and thoughtful, Arneill was a flamboyant man well-known in Denver society circles. He enjoyed hosting luncheons on the old Pikes Peak dining car he donated to the museum, which still sits in the yard outside the building. Arneill would even hire a veteran black porter to serve lunch while he and his friends spent hours over cigars in the dining car, telling railroad stories and remembering the good old days when elegant meals were served on fine china and dining-car tables were covered with white linen.

In 1970 the museum snagged one of its most important acquisitions when the Union Pacific Railroad donated one of its "Big Boys," the largest steam locomotive ever built. The 132-foot-long engine, which weighs 1.2 million pounds, ran for years between Green River, Wyoming, and Ogden, Utah, hauling mile-long freight trains over the Wasatch Range.

Moving the Big Boy to the Forney's new home will be one of the more difficult problems faced by the museum's small staff. Jack Forney says it will probably have to be cut into four pieces, trucked to its new home and reassembled. Since the railroad tracks along the Platte River have been torn up, moving the locomotive by rail isn't an option. Forney says his staff is already talking to railroad museum officials around the country, trying to figure out the best way to handle the job.

"It will be like Humpty Dumpty trying to put it back together again," predicts Charles Albi, executive director of the Colorado Railroad Museum, which is working with Forney's contractor on the plan to move Big Boy up I-25. But Forney is so confident that the museum will soon have a bigger, better home that he's already going ahead with the renovation of an 86-foot-long Union Pacific snowblower whose enormous rotary blades once cleared ice and snow off railroad tracks in Wyoming and Utah. "It could be that same snowblower opened up the tracks for the Big Boy," he says, a railroad buff's gleam in his eye.

The Forney Museum is not high-tech; in fact, it's downright gloomy and unkempt. But the museum's fans believe that's all part of its oddball charm.

In an era when museums increasingly model themselves after meticulously groomed family theme parks like Disney World, the Forney Transportation Museum is an eccentric exception, mirroring its founder's whims rather than the stratagems of marketing consultants. While the museum staff scrambles to patch broken windows and shore up walls in the 1901 building, the dozens of antique cars collected by J.D. Forney provide a fascinating tour through American history.

Inside the building, visitors walk down aisles covered with worn carpet between dusty cars that don't seem to have been touched in twenty years. Some of the vehicles have been extensively refurbished, while others beg for attention.

A 1907 Nyberg eight-passenger limousine still has the original upholstery with a fleur-de-lis pattern, lanterns on the side, a copper hood and brass headlamps. The car was entombed in Chicago in 1912 when the carriage house where it was stored was walled over. It was rediscovered in 1960.

A 1926 Packard sedan features an electronically heated carburetor and a battery set in the fender. A 1916 "Dodge Brothers" Roadster looks like it's still in good enough shape to be driven down the street.

However, antique-car buffs say the collection could use more attention. "It's an interesting collection, but the condition of the cars is a turnoff," says Terry Johnson, who serves on the board of the local chapter of the Classic Car Club of America. "They have some wonderful cars there; it's just disappointing to see them in such a dilapidated state. Jack's just never had the money to take care of what he has."

Forney believes all that will change after the sale to REI goes through. He won't disclose how much the company is willing to pay for the old powerhouse, but he makes it clear it will be enough to fund a new building and refurbish much of the collection.

"The building is valuable," says Forney. "We're taking that value and making our other dreams come true. The expense of maintaining the building was taking all our funds."

The sale to REI, however, is contingent on the company's ability to negotiate a subsidy from the city. REI has reportedly requested as much as $12 million in tax-increment financing from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. While the Seattle firm had hoped the project would be under way by this fall, it probably won't meet that deadline.

"The building is falling down," says REI's Cannard. "We're trying to work with the city on coming up with a site plan and some potential financial assistance. We're just trying to make the economics work."

If the deal goes through, the new REI store will be modeled after the company's megastore in downtown Seattle. Cannard says that store has become the number-one tourist attraction in Seattle, surpassing even the Space Needle. "It attracts a huge volume of people," he says. "A lot of people spend hours there."

Forney says the city wants the REI store because of the potential tax revenue it could generate. "The mayor likes to take projects like that and get all the credit for it," he says. "They've never given us a dime."

City officials, though, say Forney has never understood how nonprofit groups in Denver need to go about fundraising. They say the city can't help the Forney until it shows an ability to attract private-sector dollars.

"Jack has never been able to understand the Denver situation and fundraising," says senior city planner Ellen Ittelson. "It would be sad to see the Forney Museum go, but we're not in a position to just step up and hand him something. It takes a lot of wherewithal to operate a private, nonprofit museum."

The city hasn't hesitated to help several of the other attractions going into the valley. Denver gave Colorado's Ocean Journey a $7 million loan and provided the for-profit Elitch's with $8.5 million in funding through the Denver Urban Renewal Authority in addition to a $7 million loan from federal community block-grant development funds. Denver is also spending $21 million to develop the 25-acre Commons Park between 15th and 20th streets on the south bank of the South Platte River.

Ittelson says Ocean Journey and Elitch's raised millions on their own before asking the city for help. That's what Denver expects when nonprofits like the Forney come calling, she adds: "We should be a fundraising source of last resort."

With only 50,000 visitors per year, the Forney Museum is hardly a huge moneymaker for anyone. Jack Forney says all the money that's raised from the $4 admission charge goes into maintaining the building. "We've spent $350,000 to $400,000 on the building in the past few years," he says.

Should the sale to REI fall through, Forney expects to sell the building to someone else. In addition to having an option to buy land north on I-25, he says he's also looking at other potential locations for the museum.

Forney's plans for a new facility include moving the railcars and locomotives indoors, putting the museum's now-hidden collection of seventy wax figures on display, building an outdoor pavilion for motor clubs and making the museum more child-friendly. He also believes he'll be able to hire more staff to refurbish the collection, something he hopes will encourage more collectors to donate their old cars to the museum.

"We'll probably sell off less interesting cars and open up the way for cars that collectors want to give," he adds.

The irony of the city losing its only transportation museum even as it develops flashy new entertainment venues on the site of former railyards isn't lost on Forney. But he says he's convinced that the Forney Museum's future now lies outside of Denver.

"We'd like to be part of the Platte recreational area," he says. "But when you hit a brick wall, you have to see what your options are.

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