All the Live Long Day

Launching a tourist railroad is not for the faint of heart.

Just ask anyone who's been involved with the Georgetown Loop Railroad, a breathtaking route between Georgetown and Silver Plume that transports passengers up dizzying spirals in the rugged terrain between the two old mining towns. The route had been abandoned for nearly forty years when a segment was revived in 1973, but it took millions of dollars and years of work to get all of the line -- regarded as one of the engineering marvels of the nineteenth century -- up and running.

"It's a tough thing to do," says Lindsey Ashby, who runs the Georgetown Loop on behalf of the Colorado Historical Society.

Today the steam-powered train carries more than 100,000 passengers a year, a figure many tourist routes can only dream of matching. "Georgetown has the advantage of being close to Denver," says Ashby.

Colorado's most famous historic train is probably the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which carries more than 200,000 people a year. Many tourists plan entire vacations around a ride on the train, which travels through 45 miles of stunning mountain country and gives riders a close-up view of old mining sites. Ashby says the South Fork to Creede railroad, which has been proposed by line owner Don Shank (see main story), wouldn't be able to achieve that level of success since the area doesn't have the huge hotel base that Durango has.

Ashby has had even more recent experience in the difficulties of launching a passenger railroad. In 1998 he acquired the right to run a train on the spectacular former Denver & Rio Grande route through the Royal Gorge. Today Ashby's Cañon City & Royal Gorge Railroad runs up to nine cars at a time during the summer, transporting hundreds of tourists between Cañon City and Parkdale. The route hugs the edge of the Arkansas River, and open-air observation cars allow passengers to gaze upward at the 1,000 foot granite cliffs on both sides of the canyon.

It took millions of dollars to launch the route, and Ashby says he and his family risked it all on the for-profit line. "We mortgaged everything we owned," he says. "We went heavily into debt to do this."

Ashby won't disclose attendance figures, but he notes the train has been expanded since opening and now even runs on weekends during the winter.

The Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad runs a diesel-powered train over Fremont Pass during the summer; it has been in operation for fourteen years. Stephanie Olsen, president of the railroad, says that starting the line was difficult. "If we'd known how hard it would be, we never would have tried," she says. The group had volunteers who helped to build the "excursion cars" for the railroad.

The problems in operating a rail line in a relatively remote area are perhaps best exemplified by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which runs on a 64-mile line between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. That line uses the same equipment, track and buildings as the Denver & Rio Grande used eighty years ago and has been hailed as one of the most historically authentic rail lines in the country. "It is the most awesomely spectacular example of mountain railroading in all of North America," wrote Lucius Beebe, the late railroad historian and author.

Despite large subsidies from the states of Colorado and New Mexico, which own the line, the narrow-gauge route has struggled to break even. After several contract operators failed to get the railroad on a sound footing, a nonprofit company was formed to run the route last year. This summer, the Cumbres & Toltec carried about 50,000 passengers, enough to bring the railroad back into financial health. The route probably wouldn't have survived without the support of the 1,400-member Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, a group of rail fans that have tirelessly raised funds for the train and volunteered to help with maintenance and other chores.

While the struggling towns of Chama and Antonito have welcomed the train, Ashby says it's not unusual for small towns to resist the coming of a tourist train. Cañon City was in favor of the Royal Gorge train, but Silver Plume was leery of the revival of the Georgetown Loop Railroad in the 1970s.

"They didn't want tourists," says Ashby. "I think you find that to some extent with most tourist railroads. A lot of it is a reaction to change."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers