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When Don Shank was a child, his father regularly took his family on summer trips from California to Colorado. The elder Shank loved the history of railroading in the Rockies, and he shared with his son tales of narrow-gauge lines weaving precariously at the edge of 1,000-foot cliffs, tunnels being blasted through walls of granite, and eccentric millionaires losing entire fortunes on impossible schemes to run rail lines over the Continental Divide.
"We'd walk the old railroad grades," Shank remembers. "I was pushing around toy trains before I could walk."
Father and son would spend days retracing the route of the legendary Denver & Rio Grande, the line that finally connected Colorado's eastern and western sides and played a crucial role in the settlement of the state and its emergence as the most powerful force in the Rockies. Over the years, the Shank family acquired a number of old rail cars and other narrow-gauge equipment, much of which they sold or donated to Colorado museums.
Shank, now 51, found that his interest in Colorado railroads grew as he aged. Ten years ago he moved to Durango, where he began to dream about buying a piece of the old Denver & Rio Grande. So when he heard that Union Pacific was going to sell the old rail line between South Fork and Creede, which hadn't seen a train in nearly three decades, he leapt at the opportunity. In 1998, Union Pacific took bids on the 21-mile line, which it had acquired in a series of railroad mergers.
Although the company received several offers, it chose the nonprofit Denver & Rio Grande Railway Historical Foundation, which Shank had created the year before. The foundation offered $624,616 for the line, to be paid in installments. Shank, a real estate investor, says that although he has invested little of his own money, he does have a financial backer, whom he declines to identify. The backer has already paid off more than half of the total, he says.
"I've always had my eyes on the Creede branch," Shank says. "It's in my blood and in my genes. It's who I am."
Shank then turned his attention to the task of launching a tourist train on the route. The track was a mess after years of disuse, and thousands of rotted rail ties would have to be replaced. A locomotive and antique rail cars would need to be bought and refurbished. Staff would need to be hired, marketing begun, volunteers brought on board. It would cost millions, and the foundation would have to win contributions from wealthy rail buffs all over the country.
As he expected, South Fork officials, who are strong proponents of tourism, enthusiastically backed the project, which they hope will help fill the motels that line U.S. Highway 160.
But Shank was in for a surprise in the scrappy old mining town of Creede. There he found that the prospect of hundreds of tourists disembarking every day at lunchtime horrified many locals who had come to cherish the town's intimacy and isolation.
"Creede may be the only old mining town that hasn't been overrun by tourism," says Mayor B.J. Myers. "We don't want someone from the outside bringing lots of people into Creede and changing the character."
At one of the first public meetings about the train, the reception was so hostile that Shank says he wondered if he'd be able to leave safely. "There was a lynch-mob mentality," he says, "to the point that I leaned over to the mayor and said, 'Do I need a police escort to get out of town?'"
The meeting was only the beginning of Shank's problems, though. Last April, Creede held a non-binding referendum to gauge residents' feelings about the proposal; they opposed it by a vote of 103-52. The chamber of commerce surveyed its members as well and found a large majority against the train. Since then, the town has challenged Shank's federal transportation permits; solicited the help of the Colorado Attorney General's Office; and sued Shank, accusing him of trying to undermine Creede's zoning laws. An anonymous opponent of the project even hired a private investigator to research Shank's past.
The legal situation gets even murkier because of a quirk in the town's history: Creede was platted more than a century ago by someone who had evidently never been to the town. As a result, legal maps show the railroad right-of-way extending underneath the rear third of many of the buildings on the west side of Main Street. The tracks themselves come in from the southeast and run behind these buildings.
Shank says he's now afraid to even venture into Creede, and the pending litigation has made his life even more difficult. "I've got 15,000 ties to replace and bridges to build and repair, a depot to lease and cars that have to be bought. But I'm constantly doing damage control. It's very frustrating. That's their plan. They want me to give up."
Creede is about as far removed from the world as a town served by a paved highway can be.
That highway, which meanders along the Rio Grande River for miles, passes ranches and scattered vacation homes before reaching a couple of brightly painted old miners' houses perched on a bluff, the first sign of Creede. Most of the town is shoehorned into a narrow canyon that's within walking distance of the Holy Moses mine, which brought thousands of miners to Creede during the 1890s. Despite its origin as a rough-and-tumble miners' camp, Creede is strikingly lovely, with rows of small wooden houses and nineteenth-century brick buildings set against the canyon's sheer walls.