Heed The Call: “All Aboard”
By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
Like a coyote’s lonely cry in the night, the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad’s (LCSR) train whistle echoes off the cool, crisp Leadville sky, listening for its Rocky Mountain reply. Perhaps during this Summer of COVID-19, that same horn serves as a comforting reminder in such uncertain times. The train still runs on schedule!
While local public health restrictions continue to mandate passenger numbers, this established Leadville company (since 1988) conducts its business with the same successful model that it always has – and at its core is family.
“This year has been difficult,” stated LCSR President Kirstin (Olsen) Ayers. “However, the crew has worked hard to make it a safe place for families.” Fortunately, for this family of railcar operators, shifting gears to climb a high mountain pass or blast through a formidable snowdrift is just another day of working on the railroad. And to think it all began with just ten bucks.
That’s right if you’ve never heard the story, it was in December 1987 when the high line rail was sold to Leadville locals Stephanie and Ken Olsen for the bargain-basement price of $10. Of course, the real cost came in converting the flatcars into spacious excursion cars and refurbishing the rail bed and track. After a brief five months from the date of purchase, the work was complete and the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad made its maiden voyage on Memorial Day 1988.
Today, the operations are being run by the next generation, with the Olsen’s children, Derek Olsen and Kirstin (Olsen) Ayers now firmly at the helm, along with their growing families and 25 employees. Looking down the tracks, the future looks strong for the Leadville Train.
Take the High Line To Leadville
By mid-morning, the clouds have rolled in over Mounts Massive and Elbert as if they want to climb on board for one of the best seats in town. Today, the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad offers daily scenic train trips at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. (Schedule varies, check website). The adventure begins at the historic depot located at 326 E. 7th Street.
Before riders even leave the station, they learn about old Steam Engine #641, the retired locomotive that sits in the train’s parking lot. Brought onto the Leadville rail scene in 1906 by the American Locomotive Company No. 641 was considered the cream-of-the-crop in its day, transporting tons of supplies – and passengers – in and out of The Cloud City. When it crossed its last railroad tie in 1963 Old #641 was hailed as the last Class-1-freight steam locomotive to operate in the United States.
Today, the Leadville scenic railroad tours are guided by Engine No. 1714, a diesel-powered machine. Pulling six passenger cars, a caboose, concession car, the potty car, and the new Lounge Car, the engine begins its 10.5-mile journey up 1,100 feet in elevation, through some of the richest mining country in the world.
From the first blow of the whistle, riders can expect some Old West entertainment. The conductor’s rhetorical, historical, and hysterical narrative informs guests on the way up. The speech is an often-noted crowd pleaser.
The 2.5-hour venture is a true round-trip as the train begins its trek through an area known as Poverty Flatts and ends up with at the world-famous Climax Mine, one of the most profitable molybdenum reserves in the world. As the train clacks along what is also known as the last remaining section of the old South Park line, remnants of over 100 years of tilling the earth for its precious minerals are evident at every turn. Originally built as a narrow-gauge railroad (rails 3 feet apart) used to transport heavy mining machinery, as well as the profits they turned, this piece of track was formally owned by the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad. In 1943 the Highline between Climax and Leadville was converted to standard gauge (rails 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart).
Following the headwaters of the Arkansas River high above Highway 91 north of Leadville, the train’s end-of-the-line is glorious Fremont Pass named after the 19th-century pathfinder Lieutenant John C. Freeman. At this point, the train goes from a push-me to a pull-me motion and travels back down to Leadville. The return trip offers a stop at the French Gulch Water Tower, a 47,500-gallon tank that would hold the water necessary to operate the old steam engines. This brief stop allows for some great photo opportunities as well as a quick tour of the engine. Riders can even meet the Engineer!
For those passengers whose interest leans more toward flora and fauna riders can find everything from two varieties of spruce, some impressive groves of mature aspens and a vast array of alpine wildflowers. Plus keep your eyes open for any number of bushy-tailed creatures that can be seen in the forests along the way. This season more than ever, families are finding it the perfect rocky mountain getaway, offering a relaxing trip through the mountains.
“Wonderful train ride and fantastic crew aboard the Leadville train. Great family memories made, thank you!” posted Jamie Sedlak to the tourist attraction’s Facebook Page. At the end of the journey, riders return to the historic depot which has a great gift shop offering a wide selection of souvenirs and Leadville history memorabilia, along with a helpful staff to answer any questions.
“We appreciate those who have joined us this season and helped us have a safe facility,” concluded Ayers.
What’s New? Looking Down The Tracks
Starting next week, August 17, the Leadville Colorado and Southern Railroad (LCSR) will shift gears to its one-a-day weekday schedule. From Monday thru Friday, the train provides daily trips at 1 p.m. On the weekends the popular attraction still maintains its two trips at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. with plenty of rail riding still left in the season, and some would argue, the best.
The New Lounge Car
Think old-style, early 20th-century railway service combined with 21st-century comforts, all laid out before timeless Rocky Mountain views, and that’s the new LCSR Lounge Car. A dream for years and a labor of love for months from a dedicated crew brought this beauty to life from an old boxcar. With floor to ceiling vintage charm, the booth seating is available in sets of 2 (2 Top) or 4 (4 Top). The seating is enclosed but the large windows can be opened, letting in that fresh mountain air and sunshine. The lounge car has a private attendant to assist in purchasing concessions or answering questions. Seats are staggered to enable social distancing. Book now to see if available for your trip. For readers interested in seeing the rehab process please connect on the Leadville Train YouTube Channel:
All Aboard: BBQ and Scenic Views
September delivers on the Leadville train starting with the noteworthy Devils Tail BBQ Train Rides on the first two Fridays, September 4 & 11. These rides go to the end of the line, giving passengers a vantage point and view they don’t get to see on the regular train ride. Add to that some award-winning BBQ, and brews available for purchase and it’s an evening ride you’ll be talking about for a while. It’s #AllAboard for the last hurrah of summer! Please note that these rides usually sell out, so make your reservations today.
Fall Colors From the Train
As COVID-19 restrictions make it challenging for businesses to operate in a normal manner, the open-air railcars and fresh mountain air have made it a great draw for families to get together, enjoy the scenic beauty of the Leadville area and leave the driving to someone else. From small family groups to limit-restricted bachelor parties in your private caboose car to homeschooled classes, the word is getting out and with plenty of good – albeit cooler – weather ahead, a ride on the rails could be just what Mother Nature ordered. But, you’d better plan ahead!
Every weekend in September the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad offers its Fall Photo Special Rides on Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. This tour goes all the way up, an additional mile and a half, allowing you to see the sweeping vistas of the Arkansas River Valley. These Fall Colors Special Rides are 3 hours long, so make sure to bring your camera and your jacket! Reservations are required, please book in advance at www.leadvillerailroad.com.
Oktoberfest on the Leadville Railroad
Last year was the inaugural Oktoberfest celebration on the Leadville train. And based on that popularity, this fall it returns with a hardy “Prost” to celebrate everything great about the fall season. Come, raise a glass on the Leadville Railroad and celebrate Oktoberfest in the Rocky Mountains. On weekends in October, hop on board and enjoy a special selection of seasonal libations. Take in the beautiful mountain views from the train as you take in ale on the rails! Or sip your cider as you watch the golden aspens pass by, breathing in the crisp alpine forest.
The Oktoberfest Railroad Rides depart every Saturday and Sunday in October – check the website for time and reservations. Enjoy the beauty of alpine autumn as you travel up above the Headwaters of the Arkansas River during this 2.5-hour scenic train ride. Special rides include seasonal add-ons from a flight of seasonal beers to fresh-pressed cider and some culinary treats you can only find this time of year.
The Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad closes for the season on Halloween, October 31, 2020. For more details connect online at www.leadvillerailroad.com -or- call 1-866-386-3936.
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, a digital media company located in Leadville, Colorado that publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at email@example.com.