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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Friday edition of the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 ext. 7 or e-mail: director@nnry.com

 


A Busman's Holiday
01 October 2004


 

2004 is a successful year for the museum: ridership is up, projects are being completed, and new ones are being started. With the end of the major portion of the tourist season, it was time to take a little R & R. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

So it was time to head out of Dodge and relax from the everyday cares of running a railroad museum. So where to go and what to do? How about heading for the high country of Colorado to watch the leaves change and ride tourist trains, a nice busman's holiday.

So it's time to load up the Joan's PT Cruiser and head east. First stop, Mack, Colorado. (Before I get to deep into railroad talk, you do owe it to yourself to drive I-70 across Utah. It is the most remarkable drive in the country and this is from a person who has driven through forty-eight of the fifty states--but I digress.) Mack was the starting point of my all time favorite railroad the Uintah Railroad. Never heard of it? That's not much of a surprise. The Uintah was built as a narrow gauge railroad. It is similar to the Nevada Northern in that it was built to haul one commodity--gilsonite (bet you've never heard of that either. Gilsonite was used in black paint. It was Henry Ford's favorite color. (Remember you could have a Model T in any color you wanted as long as it was black.) In any case, the Uintah was an incredible railroad. It ran the steepest grades, 7%, and the tightest curves. It has one curve so tight it was called mule shoe curve because it was tighter than already tight Horseshoe Curve. Not much remains of the Uintah today. Part of the railroad hotel in Mack still exists and you can drive the grade up to the mines. In Grand Junction at a museum, they have some of the cars that they are restoring and a depot.

After an overnight in Grand Junction, it was off to our first operating tourist railroad, the Leadville, Colorado and Southern in Leadville, Colorado. One of Leadville's claims to fame is that it is the highest incorporated city in the county at 10,208 Feet. Grand Junction is at 4,586 feet so we were really going to climb--right into a blizzard. But the intrepid railroad explorers, Joan and Mark, were not to be discouraged. Off they drove through the blinding snow on narrow two lane mountain highway. (There is an advantage to driving narrow mountain roads in a blizzard especially when one of the partners suffers from acrophobia. The advantage: you can't see how high up is.)

Over legendary Tennessee Pass, we arrived in Leadville just as the sun was breaking out of the clouds and the snow stopped. Following the signage we turned up a street and started climbing, an odd place for a railroad I thought. But there was a GP-7diesel locomotive with a string of passenger cars. Train time was 1:00 p.m., tickets were secured, a trip to the restroom and then onto the train. The train consisted of flatcars whose sides were built up about three feet high. There were two with roofs and windows, a few with roofs and no windows, and a few without roofs. There was a boxcar in the middle of the train and a caboose on the end. The train was nicely painted and lettered. Right at 1:00, the locomotive whistled off and started pushing the train down the track. Our conductor was wearing the traditional hat and also did the narration on the trip. The train was not heated. The boxcar served as the concession and gift shop car, with plenty of restrooms. The other neat thing is that the conductor passed out blankets to those who wanted them, which was just about everyone on the train. For as we left the station the clouds closed in and it started to snow.

Our speed was ten miles an hour for an eleven-mile trip to Climax. The train passed through aspen forests and finally broke out of the clouds for a stunning view of the valley below--and it was below. We were thousands of feet up in the air, climbing even higher on the side of a mountain. This rail line had started out as a narrow gauge railroad. I mention this only because it was changed to standard gauge and in that process it appeared that the railroad bed was enlarged, only as wide as it was absolutely necessary. This meant that at the end of the ties was the end of the roadbed, just a little disconcerting when you're climbing to 11,120 feet. Anyway, we kept pushing back until finally Climax came into view. Climax was a molybdenum mine that is now closed and it is huge. This was the end of the line for us. After an explanation of the mine, the engineer whistled off and it was back to Leadville. Shortly after we started back, we ran into the clouds and it started snowing to beat the band. The concession car offered coffee, hot chocolate, and chili. The interesting thing to me was that it was serve yourself; very similar to what you would find at a 7-11. Back in Leadville, we checked out the gift shop, which is with the ticket office in the original depot. After purchasing some souvenirs, it was back into the cruiser to head south to Royal Gorge country.

The Royal Gorge is located just outside of Cañon City, Colorado. It is where the Arkansas River cuts through the last mountain range on its way to the plains. The mainline of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad ran down this gorge on its way to Salt Lake City. When the railroad was built, the gorge was the site of the Royal Gorge "war." Both the Denver and Rio Grande and the Santa Fe wanted to build through the gorge. That was just one small little problem; the gorge at its narrowest is just over thirty feet wide. At this point there are sheer granite walls, one thousand feet high. There isn't enough room for one railroad let alone two. So both railroads built forts in the gorge to protect their interests. They hired gunmen such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. No one was killed and the right of way issues were decided in the courts, the Denver and Rio Grande persevering.

Now over 120 years later, the Denver and Rio Grande no longer exists, the Union Pacific Railroad gobbled it up. The line through the Royal Gorge and over Tennessee Pass is superfluous and has been mothballed.

Well, private enterprise could not stand to see one of the most scenic pieces of railroad track in the country remain closed, so an offer was made to the Union Pacific and accepted. Created was the Royal Gorge Railroad. This short line has the right to operate through the gorge and it does.

Pulling into Cañon City it was easy to find the railroad--just follow the signs. We stopped at the train station and got the train times for the next day. The next morning, we pulled up to the depot right after a tour bus. Oddly, none of the tour bus people had tickets. So Joan and I get at the end of a long line to purchase our tickets. While waiting to purchase tickets we had to make a decision, should we go regular fare or first class? We decided on first class and it was worth it. We boarded at a special gate, and were seated in the dining car with one other couple. We had our own car attendant who briefed us on what to expect, which was, that we were going to be treated as royalty. There was a fresh quiche, fresh fruit, fresh pastries and champagne and we had not even left the depot yet.

A few words on the train: there was a locomotive on each end of the train. The train itself was made up of normal railroad passenger cars. A few of the passenger cars that had their sides and roof removed. After all, the big selling point of this trip was going through the gorge and you would want unobstructed views. Right at 9:30 a.m., the train whistled off. We were headed into the gorge at twelve miles per hour. After having some quiche and champagne, I had to go out into the open car and watch the scenery roll by; it was breath-taking scenery. A little over a mile out of town, we entered the gorge. Running parallel to the Arkansas River the tracks hugged a shelf as the granite walls started to come into view.

Both the railroad and the river now started their plunges into the gorge. The granite walls reared up and started constricting the railroad and the river until finally, deep into the gorge, there was room for only one and that was the river. So what did the railroad do? In needed to go through the gorge, there just was not another way. So it built a hanging bridge. It literally hung a bridge off the canyon walls. And this bridge has been hanging there for over 130 years. First built for a narrow gauge railroad, the bridge has been strong enough over the years to handle modern locomotives and railroad cars, an incredible achievement.

At the end of the line, the train stopped and the engineer walked through the train to go to the other locomotive. Once there, he whistled off and we headed back to Cañon City. Once more through the gorge, on the return trip the railroad continued a tradition that started shortly after the hanging bridge was built. The tradition is stopping the train on the hanging bridge. Here the canyon is just over thirty feet wide and walls reach up one thousand feet. At this point, the gorge has another bridge over it. It is the world's highest suspension bridge, built on a bet seventy-five years ago. Now a tourist attraction, the people on the bridge were looking down on us, as we were looking up at them. After a few minutes of admiring the view, the engineer whistle off and it was back to Cañon City at a stately twelve miles an hour. Back at the station, it was time to check out the gift shop, make a few purchases, and then head to our next railroad.

Of course, I can't resist making comparisons between the two railroads we rode and the Nevada Northern. I think the most amazing thing was the amount of people riding both trains. The Leadville run had at least eighty people and this was in the middle of a blizzard in late September. Of course, at least sixty of the passengers were from two tour buses. The Royal Gorge line had close to one hundred passengers and there was only one tour bus. Joan and I went out on the morning train. As we came back to the Cañon City station the parking lot was packed. The next train out would have more than one hundred and fifty passengers on it and this was a Wednesday in late September!

Both railroads had their gift shops next to the ticket office in the depot, which is something we recently accomplished. Both railroads had original depots, but I think ours is the most imposing. Both railroads were located off the beaten path, but had good signage, something that we are lacking and need to address.

I liked our tickets the best. All three railroads had their conductors in the traditional hat and uniform. All three railroads had the train crew punch tickets once the train was underway. All three railroads have narration. On both the Leadville and the Royal Gorge, you can follow along with a trip book that you can purchase in the gift shop before the trip or can purchase on board the train. The Nevada Northern needs to do the same.

All three railroads have interesting history. The men who pushed the rails over mountain passes and through the gorge using hand tools and brute strength were, I think, supermen. Operating diminutive locomotives through a Rocky Mountain winter at over 11,000 feet--yeah, it was tough, but they did it. Or punching rails through an impassable river gorge-yeah they did it and they kept building.

The Nevada Northern faced its own special challenges: building a railroad and then operating steam trains across dry deserts; moving a mountain of copper ore down three and four percent grades. Maybe not as exciting as operating at 11,000 feet but we still had a rotary snowplow that was needed to keep the line open during the winter.

Next week we will continue Joan and Mark's railroad adventure as we head back into the high country and snow.

 

 


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