The Whistle Stops Here
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.
The mine is what brought the railroad to Creede in the first place. But the last train left the station in the 1970s, and the mine closed in 1985. For years the town struggled to re-establish an economic base, and today it survives on what mayor Myers describes as "low-impact tourism."
Ringed by guest ranches that attract hundreds of people every summer, Creede is where those tourists come to shop, dine and drink. The well-known Creede Repertory Theatre also attracts people who often stay for several nights in local bed-and-breakfasts. Creede's six art galleries and several local gift shops depend on the patronage of these visitors, and the shopkeepers pride themselves on getting to know their customers.
"The people who come here stay for two or three weeks, and their families have been vacationing here for generations," Myers points out, adding that many of them are almost regarded as locals. "The businesses have been created around the people who come here every year. Compared to every other tourist town in Colorado, this is pretty laid-back. We know a lot of the summer people, and they're considered part of the community."
Myers, who owns the Amethyst Emporium gift shop, believes the fierce reaction to Shank's railroad comes from the fear of losing the close connections between locals and visitors in a community of only 400 full-time residents.
Myers's parents moved to Creede in 1972, and she tells the story of her father's funeral the following year to illustrate the point: Everyone who arrived in Creede for the service was offered a place to stay in a local home, and all of the guests were fed and cared for by volunteers. Later, when Myers's mother, who has also since died, became ill, people from town offered to stay with her overnight, because they knew Myers was exhausted from working and tending to her.
"It's almost impossible to fathom what it's like to live in Creede," she says. "That doesn't mean everybody should come here. It takes a special kind of person to live here. You have to be able to entertain yourself."
You also have to be able to earn a living. While summer jobs in Creede are plentiful -- many of the local dude ranches, restaurants and stores can't find enough help from June to August -- winter jobs are hard to come by. Myers says the train, which would run from May to September, wouldn't do anything to ease that situation, and she insists it would ruin Creede in the summer, bringing in hordes of day-trippers who would only want to buy "T-shirts and rubber tomahawks" before getting back on board. "We really feel that for this tourist train to be economically viable [for Shank], it would have to bring 400 to 800 people a day into Creede, seven days a week for five months," she says. "It would overwhelm the town and change its character."
Shank's opponents point to Silverton -- the destination of Colorado's best-known tourist train, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad -- as an example of what can happen.
"Silverton people can hardly wait for the train season to be over with," says Jessie Gilmer, a former New Yorker who has lived in Creede since 1992. "The ambience of Creede could not be sustained with the train. Those people will stay in South Fork and ride the train up and buy cotton candy and chewing gum."
"Why should this city be destroyed by a man with a fantasy of being a railroad mogul?" she asks. "There's an arrogance and grandiosity here that I find frightening."
"The majority of people think that Silverton is not what we want to turn Creede into," adds the mayor. "People come to Silverton, and the shops open for an hour and a half and then shut down. It doesn't bring any overnight travelers. The majority of business owners don't live there; they're only there in the summer."
At the other end of the line is the town of South Fork, which "is run on sales taxes," according to South Fork town manager Linda Tippett. "We've aggressively pursued tourism to handle the town's expenses. We can assume if people get on the train and plan to come back, it would have an impact on our lodges."
With about 1,000 full-time residents, South Fork has a very different history than Creede. Incorporated in 1992, it grew up quickly as an unattractive hodgepodge of motels, gas stations and curio shops strung out along the intersection of U.S 160 and Colorado Highway 149. The surrounding area has become a popular place to build vacation homes, and during the summer, the population more than triples. (Texans, in particular, are fond of both South Fork and Creede, which are both closer to the Lone Star State than other parts of Colorado are.) The first hundred lots in a planned 2,000-home development built around a golf course were sold in just a few hours recently, and vacation-home buyers are already in line to buy hundreds more.
"The development there is astronomical," says Creede's Gilmer. "South Fork doesn't have a downtown and has no defined neighborhoods. It has no zoning. South Fork could be like Breckenridge, if they would plan. South Fork could be a special place, but they're going to turn it into one big truck stop."
Tippett insists that her town is committed to responsible growth, however, adding that it is now in the process of revising its master plan. She explains that most of the other towns in southern Colorado have had the advantage of a century's worth of settlement, and it will take time for South Fork to develop a central business district and coherent neighborhoods. "We don't have 100 years of history," she says. "These things are being built as we speak."
Myers, who lives in a tiny, old, 12-foot-by-24-foot mining shack, says she doesn't want high-volume tourism in Creede. "I think the majority of people who voted against the railroad feel the same way," she says. "We care about our community more than we care about money. If we wanted to make a lot of money, none of us would be living in Creede...In Creede, it doesn't matter what kind of car you drive or how much money you have. You're judged on who you are and what you contribute to the community."
Last August, anger about the railroad came to a head after Shank used twine to fence off some of the land inside the railroad's right of way, land that runs right through the heart of downtown Creede and has been used for years as an "events center," a parking lot and a playground. Although the events center consists of little more than a few bleachers and a large open field, it's the site of the annual "Days of '92" festival, a celebration of Creede's mining heritage that attracts several thousand visitors every Fourth of July.
Under federal law, railroads have the right to control the use of property within 100 feet of their tracks, even if they don't own the underlying ground (in this case, the State Land Board actually owns the land). However, Creede officials and the state attorney general's office have both maintained that under Colorado law, a railroad loses control of this right-of-way once it suspends rail service for more than a year.
But the federal Surface Transportation Board has ruled that the line wasn't legally abandoned because the board was never officially notified, a prerequisite for abandonment, and never got a chance to approve it. Shank's attorney is arguing that under federal law -- which, for the most part, has been written to benefit the railroads, long a powerful lobby in Washington -- the railroad's access to the right-of-way cannot be terminated. "There can be no lawful termination of that railroad easement without consummation of a federally authorized abandonment of that right-of-way," Chicago attorney Thomas McFarland wrote in a September letter to Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar.
The matter will likely have to be settled by the courts.
Shank says he decided to fence the area because he believes the railroad has absolute control over its right-of-way, and he wanted to remind people that the railroad would need that property once the train pulls into town. As Shank and two friends strung metal posts and twine along the tracks on August 19, however, they were subjected to a barrage of verbal abuse. "People came by and used the filthiest language you've ever heard in your life," recalls Shank, who says a group of about twenty gathered around the fence. "One of them was a seventy-year-old woman."
Shank and his friends later went to dinner. When they returned, they discovered that nearly the entire fence had been torn down. A group that became known as "the vigilantes" took credit for the attack.
Over the next few days, Creede was abuzz with rumors over who the "vigilantes" were. In the meantime, Shank filed a complaint with the Mineral County sheriff, who began an investigation.
A few days later, one of the protestors confessed and gave up the names of the others involved. Charges of misdemeanor criminal mischief were filed against six people, including Jessie Gilmer.
A group of about sixty placard-waving individuals protested the charges by descending on the sheriff's office, singing "We Shall Overcome" and "This Land Is Your Land." They chanted "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Shank's railroad has to go" and carried signs saying "Thou shalt not cut a rich man's twine" and "Abandon town, all ye who will not be Shanked." A local mongrel even sported a bandanna reading "Poop on the tracks!"
The city council called a special meeting to consider the situation and passed a resolution banning the fence as a potential safety hazard, since the area is not well lighted and the public had been used to walking or biking across the land at night. A municipal maintenance crew took down the remainder of the fencing.
A substantial minority of Creede residents are in favor of the train, however. A meeting in September organized by Shank's supporters attracted more than sixty people who said they thought the train might benefit Creede. Shank told the group that he'd be willing to move the playground to another spot in the right-of-way, and he pledged to work with the town on finding another location for the Days of '92 celebration.
Longtime resident Sandy Kroll says that sounds reasonable to her. "I think Creede took over the right-of-way and used it for its own purposes. We all knew it was a rail right-of-way, but we went ahead and used it for the park since it hadn't been used for twenty years," she says. Creede could have tried to buy the right-of-way when Union Pacific put it up for sale, she points out. "The city knew it was for sale. I believe the [Denver & Rio Grande Railway Historical Foundation] bought the line in good faith, believing they could use it."
"A lot of people would like to have the business [the train] would bring," she adds. "If I owned a business here, you bet I'd want that here."
Myers says it would have been impossible for Creede to fund the purchase of the right-of-way. "We just don't have that kind of money," she says, noting that the town's annual budget is about $500,000.
Lindsey Ashby, the veteran operator of the Georgetown Loop Railroad, a popular tourist train in Georgetown, says a lot of towns initially resist tourist trains for the same reasons as Creede (see sidebar), and he credits Shank for having the wherewithal to pursue his dream. "From what I know of Shank, he genuinely wants to do this," Ashby says. "I think a lot of us are impressed that his group was able to buy the line. For everyone that buys a line, there are fifty that never get beyond the talking stage."
Many fans of historic railroads say getting them up and running is often an ordeal. "The first thing you have to do is win the accep-tance of the community," says Charles Albi, former director of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. "The whistle in the night is romantic, but not everybody feels that way. I admire Shank for what he is doing, but I wouldn't want to be in his shoes."
Shank didn't endear himself to the Creede community with his next ploy, however.
A century-old mapping fluke technically gives the railroad control of one-third of the buildings on the west side of Main Street -- including the mayor's own boutique. Platted in 1892, the town's official maps show a grid of streets running up the sides of the vertical canyon walls on the east side of town, and they give the railroad a large right-of-way extending beneath several buildings.
Myers says that Shank cited the map when he demanded that she pay him $226 per month in rent on a building she believes she owns. She has even heard that he wants to move his office into the rear third of her building. (Shank confirms that he asked the mayor for rent, but he says he has no desire to share offices with her.)
That rent claim is nothing new to Myers, however, or to the rest of Creede. Twenty years ago, she says, two men from the Rio Grande showed up demanding rent from Main Street merchants. At the time, Myers's mother still ran the family store. "The Rio Grande intimated that they owned the land under the building," says Myers. "One of the men said, 'If you don't sign the contract, I'll board up your back door.' She [Myers's mother] threw him out of the store."
The railroad actually tried to collect rent from several property owners along Main Street, as well as from the city itself, since the town hall is also on the disputed land. The city and most of the merchants refused to pay, and Creede residents spent the better part of a decade arguing with the railroad. Union Pacific raised the issue again after absorbing the Rio Grande.
"We've been fighting Union Pacific over this for six years," Myers says. "We had threat after threat from Union Pacific, saying they were going to take us to court."
The town finally had enough of Shank last month; in a lawsuit filed in Mineral County district court, the town asks the court to rule that its residential zoning laws can be applied to the land along the rail tracks. The suit also alleges that Shank has misled potential contributors to his foundation by claiming that he has the right to carry out commercial activities on land adjacent to the rail line. To help pay for the legal costs, the train's opponents have raised nearly $20,000.
Shank says the suit has cost him the support of a Texas family that was considering a multimillion-dollar donation to the project. "I'm constantly forced to deal with all this legal nonsense being thrown at me by a faction in Creede," he says. "The problem is, that nasty, vocal little group up there is costing us dearly."
Finding out that someone from Creede had hired a private investigator to snoop around and ask questions about him was something that Shank considered a new low, however.
The Denver firm that checked him out, Legal Investigations, was hired by an undisclosed railroad opponent. The firm's report, copies of which have been handed out all over Creede, contains information about Shank's finances and his real estate dealings in the Durango area, including some that wound up in court. The report quotes an attorney who represented one of Shank's opponents as saying Shank is "known for not having any money but instead using other people's money to 'roll over' or 'flip' deals." There is also information in the report about a falling-out with a former business partner; Shank and the other man had sued each other before finally settling.
"The report is written to make me look as poorly as possible," Shank says. "It's mudslinging garbage."
Constantly battling the residents of Creede is "not a pleasant way to live," he adds. "My mom gets nervous every time I go to Creede. She's worried something will happen to me."
The railway into Creede was originally built as part of 1,000 miles of narrow-gauge track through the Rocky Mountains that was controlled by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway. The decision to build in narrow gauge -- three feet across -- was controversial, but General William Jackson Palmer, who founded the railroad in 1871, argued that it was better suited to the narrow canyons and steep mountain passes the railroad would have to surmount in crossing the state. In 1883 the line reached Salt Lake City, finally linking Denver to cities on the other side of the mountains.
Along the way, Palmer established several new towns, including Durango and Colorado Springs. The railroad also built or acquired spurs to mining camps like Creede and became an important part of the mining industry, transporting precious metals and ore to the smelters along the Front Range. (In 1901 the line to Creede was standardized, and although Shank had hoped to convert it back into narrow-gauge, he now plans to run a standard-gauge train with a diesel engine.) To the consternation of rail fans, the Denver & Rio Grande disappeared during the wave of railroad mergers that began in the late 1980s, eventually winding up as part of Union Pacific.
Shank, who spends most of his time working on the railroad project, feels that he's bringing back a part of history, and he wishes that people in Creede felt the same way. "I thought they would be happy to have this," he says. "It's not like I'm putting something new in there. It's always been there; it just hasn't run in a number of years."
In a handout that Shank produced about Palmer, he quotes from a letter Palmer wrote to his wife just as the railroad was being born: "How fine it would be to have a little railroad a few hundred miles in length, all under one's own control with one's friends. To have no jealousies and contests and differing policies, but to be able to carry out harmoniously one's views in regard to what ought to be done."
It's a notion that Shank shares with Palmer, a decorated Civil War veteran who never walked away from a fight, and it's a dream that he vows to pursue, no matter what.
"I won't give up, and I don't quit," he says.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.