Colorado History

Burnham Railroad Repair Yard Reaches End of the Line, Opening 70 Acres in Denver

After more than a century as a repair and storage yard for locomotives, Burnham Shop, a mass of tracks and buildings in central Denver just east of I-25 between Sixth and Eighth avenues, closed on February 14.

Omaha-based Union Pacific shut the facility, citing the decline in coal production and train-transport demands; the railroad still has a repair yard in north Denver, just off West 48th Avenue. 

The repair area was created during the 1870s, and in its heyday, the site was a self-contained city that housed a foundry, blacksmith, upholsterer and multiple workshops capable of creating a train car from the ground up. Those cars would travel to every corner of the state and beyond.

Now some of those original historic cars and engines, many of which have been stored in Burnham for two decades, will again grace Colorado’s rails as they move to new homes.

Dan Quiat, the owner of 25 historic cars and an engine, spent a few months agonizing over where he would move them.

"I'm feeling a lot of stress," he said as he led a tour of the cars late last month.

In November, when Union Pacific announced that Burnham would be closing, "they kind of said, basically, if the cars aren't out, they're gonna scrap them," he recalled.

For the last two decades, Burnham has been the unofficial home of the Museum of Railway Workers, which so far only exists as a collection of cars and a Facebook page.

Quiat hopes to one day open an interactive exhibit where he can display his riveted chrome coaches, cast cranes and hand-painted engines.

But for now, the priceless history under his stewardship just needs a temporary home.

Though his cars sit on the largest network of rails in the country, Quiat can’t just roll his property out of the yard.

Only after the formality of federal approval, brake testing and final repairs will he be allowed to move his cars on Union Pacific rails.

But to where?

Quiat met with Union Pacific a few weeks after our tour and says he's been promised time to get his lot in order.

But he is still has to find a new yard soon.

In some ways, Quiat’s cars are emblematic of larger changes in the transportation world.

His shiny dining cars, built in Burham, were gilded and upholstered so that passengers could travel in comfort, enjoying food cooked in transit as they barreled through the still-wild Colorado landscape.

As the automobile became ever more popular, demand for commercial train travel diminished and the rails aged.

Restaurant cars were converted for derrick service, providing sleeping and dining space for crews deployed to repair damaged lines.

Fast-forward another eighty years and now, industrial use of the rail lines has slowed almost to a halt.

“Loaded coal trains originating in Colorado have decreased 80 percent since 2005,” Union Pacific spokeswoman Calli Hite notes in an e-mail.

The productivity of Colorado coal mines has dropped almost 30 percent since 2001; the announcement of Burnham’s closing came just two months before the federal government halted new land leases for such mines.

At the same time coal is in decline, the demand for property in the heart of Denver has been increasing rapidly — and the closure of Burnham Shop opens up seventy acres to possible development.

Union Pacific has yet to announce its plans for the property; Hite says a decision will be made in the third quarter of 2016. 

While the fate of Burnham Shop is unknown, Quiat remains committed to protecting some of the equipment that was built there and in turn helped build Colorado as we know it today.

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.