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"I call this 'Reptile Tourism,'" Fehr adds. "It's what they did 25 years ago. You know--you're driving through Wyoming, and you see the big sign: 'COME SEE THE REPTILES!'"
Fehr's interest in roadside bridge promotion is, by his own admission, a recent preoccupation. Until late last year, all he really cared about was starting a gravel-mining operation at the mouth of the Royal Gorge. Before that it was Breckenridge's next big powder day.
"I don't like to be treated as somebody who has money," he says. "That's why I liked Breckenridge. I could go there and act like a ski bum and no one knew. I got the local discount."
That wasn't too likely to happen in Reading, Pennsylvania, where Fehr is from and where his family is the well-known--and well-to-do--owner of Berks Products, a large mining- and construction-materials company started in 1896 by Horace Fehr. It was practically preordained that Bill would someday run the family business, and after earning a master's degree in international management at a college in Arizona, Bill, like his father and grandfather before him, returned to Reading and joined the family business.
But by 1995 "it had got to the point where I didn't want to be in the family business anymore," he says. "So I took a payoff from my sisters and went to Breckenridge to become a ski bum." (In a February 1996 article, the Reading Eagle hinted at a slightly different version of the story, noting that "the company still refuses to comment on the abrupt ouster of William Fehr a year ago.")
Still, Fehr says he was more than ready to leave the company town. Reading, Berks Products and the ubiquitous Fehr family presence had become far too stifling. "I mean, my sister's president of the Junior League," he explains. "I'm like...uuuuurrrrelll," he groans, sticking his finger down his throat. "Barf me out."
One day, after about a month of playing in Colorado's brilliant champagne powder, he was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling when, he recalls, he had a revelation: "I'm bored to death." Searching for direction in his life, his mind soon wandered to the one thing he knew more about than anything else, and he formulated a plan. "I thought to myself, 'I'll go look for an aggregate deposit,'" he remembers.
After scouring geological maps of Colorado, Fehr settled on the Canon City area, where hard, beautiful rock lay just beneath the surface. His attentions soon focused further on a 700-acre ranch at the head of the Royal Gorge. It had been homesteaded by the Harvey family in 1860; now it was owned by two descendants, one of whom lived in Englewood.
Fehr wooed her aggressively, visiting four times in six months. At last the woman agreed to sell the ranch. "She told me, 'My mama always told me that the only thing this place was good for was a rock farm, and somebody finally figured that out,'" Fehr recalls her saying as they struck the deal.
As luck would have it, at precisely the same time that Fehr was trying to convince the Harvey sisters to give up the farm so that he could move in, Southern Pacific Railroad was looking to get out of the Canon City area.
In 1996, Southern Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads, seeking greater efficiency, decided to merge. Prior to that time, the Southern Pacific had used what was known as the Tennessee Pass line, which rolled through the Royal Gorge, to run rail shipments between Salt Lake City and Kansas. But after the merger, the new company decided it made more sense to run its trains on the better-maintained Union Pacific line that bisected northern Colorado.
"The Tennessee Pass line was not seen as necessary to our operations of the railroad," explains UP spokesman Ed Trandahl. But to the new owner of a fledgling rock-and-gravel operation in Parkdale called Agile Stone Systems, the abandoned tracks through the Royal Gorge looked like cheap, scenic transportation.
As it did to about 185 other companies. But Governor Roy Romer had made it clear that whoever bought the line should use it as it had been used for the past century: to carry passengers and cargo. Fehr quickly teamed up with another person looking to buy the line--Lindsey Ashby, better known as the owner of the Georgetown Loop Railroad, a successful tourist attraction in Clear Creek County. Last June their new partnership, Rock & Rail Inc., was awarded the twelve-mile line. Although Fehr declines to name the price, it was reported to be less than $1.5 million.
Fehr signed the purchase papers with Union Pacific in July. At the closing, he says, one of the railroad's lawyers confessed that he hadn't read all the old contracts very closely until then. He told Fehr: "You're getting something interesting."
"So I got this stack of documents this thick," Fehr continues, holding his index finger and thumb a couple of inches apart. "And I start reading them, and it was like: 'Look at what we've got here!'"
What he had, in effect, was a piece of the Royal Gorge Bridge. It all boiled down to an esoteric idea called "air rights."