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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 — Part II
08 October 2004


 

Last week was the first part of our adventure in the high country of Colorado. After thawing out in the Royal Gorge, Joan and I headed back into the mountains. Our first stop was Manitou Springs home of the world famous Pikes Peak Cog Railway that runs up to the top of Pike's Peak. You would think that on a Thursday in late September that would be no problem getting tickets-wrong. They were sold out for the day. Since we were on a tight schedule, we headed for another of my favorite towns in the mountains of Colorado-Cripple Creek.

Cripple Creek is the home of the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. I find it hard to believe that I volunteered there twenty years ago. Cripple Creek was the site of one of the last gold rushes in the country. A down on his luck cowboy and part time prospector, Bob Womack, discovered gold in what was a large valley while he was taken care of cattle. Due to his reputation and the unusual ore, he had a great deal of difficulty getting anyone to believe him. Well finally, some other prospects came up and validated his find and the word was out--GOLD! And the rush was on. In the best traditions of the west, Bob sold his claim for $500 and a case of whiskey. Of course, the claim produced millions of dollars and Bob died broke.

Cripple Creek was not a flash in the pan gold rush. There was gold and plenty of it but the ore needed to be taken to mills to recover the gold. There was money to be made if the ore could be transported. So, in addition to a gold rush there was now a railroad rush to Cripple Creek. Not one or two railroads, but three railroads all headed to the new boomtown. In addition to the railroads there was also a trolley system built to service the gold camps. All of this activity took place up in the clouds; Cripple Creek's elevation is 9,494 feet.

When I volunteered there those many moons ago, Cripple Creek was dying. The ore had long since played out, the railroads had been torn up, and people had moved away. The population dwindled from over twenty thousand people to about one thousand inhabitants.

Cripple Creek tried to develop into a tourist town. A little excursion railroad was built on the abandoned right of way of one of the original railroads. This little railroad was the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge railroad. It was projected to link Cripple Creek with Victor, another gold rush town. The gauge chosen was two foot. That's right, the rails are only two feet apart. The locomotives and passenger cars are cute; there just isn't another word for it. The railroad never did make it to Victor. It stopped at the town site of Anaconda, another gold rush town.

Now twenty years later, I barely recognized Cripple Creek. Cripple Creek was chosen as one of the towns that the Colorado legislature would allow gambling in. The plan was to develop a reason for people to go to Cripple Creek; it has been wildly successful. The town has grown and the streets are packed. But there has been a cost to this change. Going to Cripple Creek from Colorado Springs you would follow an old railroad grade that was turned into a state highway. One of the highlights of the trip was going through an old railroad tunnel. The road narrowed down to one lane, you waited your turn, and zip, you when through the tunnel. Now, with the amount traffic on that road, the tunnel has been bypassed and is fenced off.

I can't even imagine what Cripple Creek is like in the summer; it has to be packed. The railroad is in a great location. The road into town makes a ninety-degree curve right in front of the railroad. There is plenty of free parking for train patrons.

Anyway, Joan and I made our pilgrimage to Cripple Creek. The town might have changed, but the railroad is just about exactly how I remember it. You had your choice an open car or a car with roof and windows, but again no heat. The sky was cloudy and we had hit a little snow on our way into town. There was only one person in the open car; every one else was in the windowed car. Joan and I hesitated. The person in the open car encouraged us to join him, which we did. Sitting there in the car we exchanged pleasantries. Our fellow passenger was a train fan like us only he was from Illinois. The conductor came up to shut the doors and asked, "Are you ready to brave the snow?" I took another look at the cloud that was hanging over town and decided that discretion was the better part of valor and answered, "No." Our fellow rail fan was crestfallen as Joan and I abandoned him for the car with windows. After all, we had already gone through two blizzards and I did not like the looks of that cloud hanging over the town.

Our conductor buttoned up the car, punched tickets, and headed for the steam locomotive. It turns out our conductor could multitask with the best of them. For not only was he the conductor, but he was also the engineer, fireman, and narrator. Again right on time we whistled off and our little train headed down the track. During the trip, the narrator explained the highlights of the route and provided background stories as he operated the locomotive and maintained the fire. We arrived at the end of the line and listened to more stories of the "Greatest Gold Camp." After finishing his spiel, it was time to whistle off and head back to Cripple Creek. Now the locomotive pushed the train backwards and as we started, the cloud that concerned me opened up and it started snowing--hard. Our Illinois rail fan didn't look too happy covered in snow. I was busy patting myself on the back for having the change of heart and changing cars. Once back in Cripple Creek, we visited the gift shop. Out of all of the gift shops we visited, I found the one here to be the best: Great selection, reasonable prices, and it was warm, heated by a potbelly stove.

The snow was coming down hard; it was time to leave the high country and head back to Colorado Springs. We spent the night in Colorado Springs and then headed for the Georgetown Loop Railroad, a three-foot gauge railroad, just outside of Denver. Without going into great detail here, the Georgetown has a problem. The original operator and the owner, the Colorado Historical Society, could not come to an agreement that would allow the current operator to continue. So, we showed up in almost the last week of operation with the current operator. We purchased our tickets and headed to the platform to await the train.

As we were waiting, Joan and I reviewed the plaques that were positioned around the waiting area. These plaques explained the building of the loop. Briefly, the railroad was built from Denver to service the gold and silver mines in the area. The railroad arrived in Georgetown and needed to push on to Silver Plume. There was a problem: the grade would be too steep if the railroad was to push directly on. Mountains hemmed in the narrow valley they were following; it was a real head-scratcher. How to get to Silver Plume?

The solution to the problem was distance. A longer the run would lessen the grade. But where would the room come from to extend the run? Where indeed? After kicking around different ideas, the light bulb when off and there was a Eureka! moment. Loop the railroad over itself. This loop would provide the necessary distance to keep the grade reasonable. So that's what they did. The railroad left Georgetown and headed up the valley. Once far enough up the valley, the railroad curved and started climbing up the one side of the valley heading back towards Georgetown. Climbing higher and higher it was now time to cross over the valley again. To cross the valley the railroad built a rather spindly bridge. This bridge crossed over the track on the valley floor and headed to the mountain wall on the other side. Here the railroad continued it climb to Silver Plume. It worked! The curve gave the railroad plenty of room and it kept the grade reasonable. All went well until the 1930's. Traffic dried up and the railroad was scrapped.

But people kept talking about the Georgetown loop and how the railroad climbed to the clouds. Twenty years ago, the Colorado Historical Society rebuilt the famous Georgetown loop bridge and re-laid the track into Silver Plume. Now the little narrow gauge trains could make the loop again.

The train pulled into the loading area. Powered by a narrow gauge steam locomotive, the train consisted of what I was beginning to consider "Colorado" passenger cars. The cars were built up from flatcars or cut down from boxcars. They had roofs but no windows. There were flip-over seats and a bench seat. The train arrived half full with riders from Silver Plume. As our group loaded, there were not enough seats. Joan got a seat and I stood next to her. Right on time the train whistled off for Silver Plume. The locomotive was really working as it started climbing the hill. Up we went, crossing over the valley and heading for the bridge. Once on the bridge, the view was great. The locomotive then plunged back into the trees as it kept working as we continued our trip to Silver Plume.

We arrived in Silver Plume and everyone except Joan and I got off. We moved to the front of the car and claimed the front seats. The locomotive ran around the train. It coupled up to our car with nose first. The locomotive would back down the hill tender first. In about twenty minutes, we were ready to start down the hill. The locomotive whistled off and away we went. Back through the trees, out over the bridge, once more into the trees as we headed down the hill. Where there was no narration on the uphill trip, there was narration on the downhill trip. I asked about this. Their reasoning was that people wanted to listen to the train go up the hill, the bark of the steam locomotive and the clickity-clack of the rails. Going downhill, the locomotive just coasts so this where they tell their story.

Soon enough it was all over. Joan and I had ridden four railroads in four days and driven through three blizzards--now it was time to head for home. Once more, we crossed the mountains of Colorado and Utah back to the Great Basin with sunshine and warmth. As we motored across Utah on Highway 50, the thermometer showed eighty-two degrees. We spent five days in snow while the Great Basin was enjoying Indian summer. Oh well, we'll thaw out soon enough.

We pack a lot into five days and I evaluated the Nevada Northern against all four railroads and we held our own and need to make no apologizes for our operations. We do have work to do. We need a tour booklet that explains our history, our route, and the layout of the yards. We'll have one for 2005. We need to make no excuse for our equipment or locomotives. Our strongest selling point is that we are the real McCoy--the original locomotives, leaving from the original depot, running up on the original track, on the original route. It just doesn't get much better than that. And our passengers ride in real passenger cars, which we only did on the Royal Gorge. Heat--what a concept! Only the Royal Gorge had heat, none of the other railroads did and they all operated high in the mountains. We need to look at heating out cars better than they currently are. Signage is another area that we are lacking in. All of the railroads had good-to-great signage (even the Cripple Creek), which was very hard to miss. We have no signage this need to be addressed. Our gift shop was slightly behind the one at Cripple Creek, but it is better then the other three. We can make some improvements to it to truly make it world class.

Another thing I noticed is that all of the railroads blew for all road crossings even if it was just a dirt path. I asked about this and all of them answered that the whistle provides ambiance. It is this ambiance that the riders are paying for. In regards to tickets and ticket prices, we were right in line, though I do give us high marks for our ticket--it does serve as a souvenir and it is handsome.

All in all, it was a great trip. I think the best part of the trip for me was that I got to go along as a passenger without a care in the world. That alone was worth the price of admission.

 

 


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