The Great Train Robbery

Black Hawk boasts more violent crimes per capita than any other community in Colorado. But the caper the town contemplated last Saturday was completely bloodless.

It set out to hijack Central City's train.
Like almost everything else that's happened to these two adjacent mountain towns since gambling was legalized five years ago, though, things didn't go as planned.

When Central City visionaries joined forces with Cripple Creek in a push to gain voter approval for "limited-stakes gaming" (that's gambling to the rest of us), they didn't see much of a problem in their puny sibling just a mile down the gulch asking to tag along. After all, Central City and Black Hawk have been closely linked--and bickering most of the while--since the mining towns first sprang up after gold was discovered in Clear Creek in 1859. But Central City eclipsed Black Hawk early on in size, and even after the mines were played out, it enjoyed the major portion of the tourist trade attracted to the increasingly dilapidated Victorian towns. Limited gaming was promoted as a boon to historic preservation; cutting Black Hawk in on the action seemed the neighborly thing to do.

In doing so, however, Central City forgot that Black Hawk had served as the transportation center for the mines, that it lay a mile closer to Denver, and that it, unlike Central City, actually possessed some flat land suitable for buildings and parking lots.

The rest is history. Today vans pull up at Black Hawk's jumbo (compared to Central City's, at least) casinos, unloading hundreds of gamblers who in turn unload hundreds of dollars into slot machines. Black Hawk alone now accounts for more than 50 percent of Colorado's gaming revenues, and the town's treasury is overflowing. Central City, on the other hand, barely scrapes by.

Enter the train. In 1941 the Colorado and Southern Railway retired old No. 71--a steam locomotive built in 1897 that had done most of its work along the South Park line--and gave it to the Central City Opera Association, a then-decade-old group that had helped revitalize the town. Since Central City's original train station was buried under a heap of mine tailings, the association placed the locomotive on the railroad grade at Spring Street, where it sat for 45 years. But in 1986 the association transferred ownership of the engine--for a buck--to the Colorado State Historical Foundation, which wanted to move No. 71 to Georgetown, where it had resurrected the narrow-gauge loop. In those days, though, Georgetown was Central City's big rival for day-trippers, and angry residents set up a blockade around the locomotive. Although the state eventually managed to take the engine to Georgetown, wheels were already in motion to bring it back. The Gilpin County Historical Society started a train fund, fueled by a gift from out-of-state businessman Glenn Alegre; ultimately, the society paid $25,000 for No. 71 and brought it back to Gilpin County.

At first the train was housed on a strip of donated Black Hawk land, but when a Central City resident offered to get the locomotive up and running, it was moved back to Spring Street. And for the next several years, No. 71 made daily (in season) runs up and down four-tenths of a mile of track, its whistle sounding clear in the mountain air. Unfortunately, though, the fellow running the train proved less reliable than the machinery, and the society took the operation away from him. "The police had to chase him off about three times," remembers one boardmember.

From 1990 until early 1993 the train sat idle on land now owned by Alegre. Hoping to sell the property for a casino, he asked that No. 71 be moved; when the society failed to do so, he sued. The train's next trip was a brief stop in court, but the legal action was settled when the historical society moved the locomotive to the Coeur d'Alene mine above Central City.

The new location wasn't exactly a major tourist attraction, however, and last fall people started talking about getting the train moving again. Or if not moving, at least moved. The historical society asked for lease proposals from interested parties. Central City decided to go one better: It came up with a lease/purchase proposal. And, of course, Black Hawk was not about to be left behind.

On Saturday the historical society's board met at the museum in Central City to consider their proposals. From the window of the third-floor meeting room, you could see the old cemetery up on Bald Mountain under all the newfangled lights of nearly empty parking lots; down the gulch, Black Hawk was doing a brisk business. It didn't take long for the competition between the two towns to spill across the table. Black Hawk was prepared to see Central City's $90,000 bid, up it another $5,000 and throw in a long-term maintenance deal. Colorado Central, Black Hawk's casino with a train theme but no train, would not only provide a home for No. 71, but would donate to its annual upkeep--up to $30,000 the first year alone. And the Black Hawk Casino Owners' Association further sweetened the pot: If Central City sued the historical society, as it had threatened to do if the train was removed from the town, Black Hawk casinos would foot the historical society's legal bills.

After several hours of huffing and puffing, though, the board decided it didn't want to sell the train after all. Instead, it announced it will consider amended proposals--lease only, no sale--at a meeting May 4, where the board will make its final, final decision. Maybe.

Black Hawk city manager Lynnette Parker will discuss the matter with her town's council this week. Leasing may not be an option; her town is in the game for good. "We're very pro-development," she says, adding that if Black Hawk can't buy old No. 71, there are other trains available for purchase. And Black Hawk has the money to move mountains.

Central City does not. But if Black Hawk pulls out, Central City could win by default--even if it doesn't lease the train, the locomotive is likely to stay put. Unless, that is, the society goes for an unexpected, third option. Jarrett Carlson, who worked with his engineer grandfather on No. 71, wants to lease the locomotive and get it running again as a tourist attraction. "This is the type of project that everybody's for but nobody's for," he says. Carlson is willing to raise the money, but he can't remove all the roadblocks. He admits that owing to other historic feuds in the area, it's probably impossible to link the two towns by train, as he originally proposed; his route would begin and end in Black Hawk.

And as long as Central City still stands, it won't stand for that.


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