Denver's smallest railroad is used to being overshadowed.
Sitting at its tiny station behind REI's superstore, the Platte Valley Trolley looks like a toy crafted specifically to enhance the riverfront's newfound glitz. Kayakers plunge down the rapids at Confluence Park, and runners and bicyclists share the path that stretches out in the shadow of expensive new residential high-rises, but they barely glance at what remains of Denver's vast rail network, which once ran from Golden to Aurora.
At one time, it was easy to get around Denver without an SUV. Though there are now more cars than residents, until 1950 hundreds of trolleys ran through the city on 126 miles of track, juiced by electricity from a power plant in what has become the REI building. "We used to take the trolleys every weekend to see how lost we could get," says Jerry Sigman, a 68-year-old Denver native who volunteers as a conductor for the trolley. "The trolleys were packed. I'd go downtown for my music lesson and be standing up with my trombone the whole way."
Now Sigman wears a conductor's cap and entertains the children riding the trolley with their parents. At the end of the route, as the driver goes to the other end of the car to change directions, he jokes with them that they "all have to get off and pick up the trolley and turn it around."
The trolley is a labor of love for a group of retirees and volunteers who spend their days maintaining the car, an exact replica of a 1903 Brill streetcar. Except for a diesel engine, the open-air trolley, with its tall wooden seats and shiny yellow trim, looks just like the streetcars that transported Denverites for years. It runs on a 2.5-mile route along the South Platte River, passing high-profile attractions such as Six Flags Elitch Gardens, Invesco Field at Mile High and Ocean Journey. The trolley runs every hour from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. on a 25-minute trip along the river; once a day, at noon, it goes all the way from REI to Sheridan Boulevard, carrying riders through a part of Denver that can't be seen in a car. Last year 22,000 people took the trip -- which cost fifty cents in the '40s and now sets passengers back $3 -- and ridership is up this year.
That's good news for the Denver Rail Heritage Society, because it runs the trolley on a shoestring budget and is struggling with an insurance bill that has skyrocketed from $7,500 per year to $21,500. "We've never filed a claim in fourteen years," says Mike Heirty, the trolley's general manager. "Another tourist railroad had an accident last year, and that affects all of us."
The rail line the trolley follows along the river was built in the 1880s by the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad Company to serve booming mining towns like Como and Fairplay, but never made it to the West Coast. Just past Invesco Field, the trolley veers off onto a line -- one of the surviving pieces of Denver's streetcar system that runs along Lakewood Gulch through thickets of cottonwood trees, creating a lush oasis in the middle of west Denver.
This is the old route to Lakewood and Golden -- the same one RTD plans to use someday for its proposed light-rail line to the Federal Center. But for now, it just belongs to the trolley. For two blocks on 12th Avenue, the line runs along a residential street -- just like in the old days -- and prompts Sigman to holler, "Now we're a streetcar!"
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And in fact, Heirty would like to see the trolley run into the streets of LoDo, something he's spoken to both REI and the Broncos about -- though no plans are in place. "Everybody on this side of the river wants to find a way to get into downtown," he says.
The trolley already draws passengers from the Children's Museum, and it got a big boost when Ocean Journey opened. The aquarium's bankruptcy hurt attendance, but Heirty is hoping its purchase by Landry's Restaurants Inc. -- and the company's plans to add a Ferris wheel and other amusements to the site -- will help the trolley.
As will a plug on national television. The dating show Elimidate, which features three singles competing for the love -- or at least fleeting attention -- of another, will film an episode on the trolley later this month.
"That will be quite a kick," Heirty says.