In It for the Long Haul
Leadville Railroad: Coming ‘Round the Mountain
By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
While it wasn’t the first time a new railcar was transported to Leadville, it was an historic first for one that arrived by highway. And so it was for locomotive #1889 which was officially added to the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad fleet on September 14, 2021.
And if you thought there was any shine lost on America’s love affair with the railroad, all you had to do was follow the social media feeds as the new locomotive traveled the last leg of its journey, from Alamosa, Colorado to the LCSR roundhouse – by highway.
“Wow! That thing is awesome. One would think it would have been cheaper to run it on the rails to its resting place,” posted Derek Martin on the LCSR Facebook Page
“It is awesome!” replied Steven Ayers with the Leadville Railroad. “Unfortunately, we do not have an active connection to the railroad network. Trucking is expensive but our only option.” Ayers is one of the managers at the scenic train company and helped coordinate the logistics of the historic journey.
“We were extremely happy with everybody involved,” Ayers said in an interview with Leadville Today. The planning process began in June and involved detailed coordination with the LCSR track crew, crane companies, towing semis, and of course, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). The haul day finally arrived on September 14, 2021
“We saw it leaving Alamosa today! Quite the load!” posted LaVerne R. Perkins.
“Saw this coming down the La Veta Pass today! It was insane the people trying to pass tens of cars at once on both right and left side.” Kyle Lawrence
Most expressed awe in seeing such a ginormous load rolling down a high mountain pass which led to some interesting online conversations. One of the discussion
points involved the haul route. Why not make the straight shoot up Colorado Highway 17 over Poncha Pass?
“Our preference was to go that way,” explained Ayers, however the Highway 285 bridge at Poncha Springs had a weight limit that officials did not feel comfortable with even after the tow company made additional weight distribution adjustments to its hauling rigs.
What’s In A Number?
So just how heavy of a load was it?
“The locomotive was 160,000 pounds,” said Ayers. “The total weight of the entire trailer was 416,000 pounds.”
But as important as those numbers were to CDOT, when it comes to railcar designation the numerals on the engines don’t seem to have any official reason. In fact, the “89” on the new LCSR locomotive signals the year the Minnesota company acquired the locomotive from a Milwaukee Railroad who was its first owner back in 1959 according to Ayers.
“We’ll keep the 89, but add the “18” in order to fit into our fleet operations,” he explained. Regardless the iron workhorse seems to have enough fans to help it not lose sight of its bloodline.
“Former Mount Hood RR unit! I love it!” posted Garret Giordano.
“I was working for the Black Hills Central when they acquired their GP9 and had it trucked from Rapid City to Hill City, SD. It was transported similarly to yours. The highway grade up to Hill City is very steep and required a 2nd truck to help shove it up the hill which unfortunately burned up a transmission and required a third truck. Looking forward to seeing the 89 in Leadville!” shared Elven Marshall.
It seems there are a lot of folks looking forward to seeing the new addition take its place back on the rails. But it’s likely #1889 will look a bit differently next time, with a new paint job to fit in with the rest of the LCSR fleet. That will be next season, according to Ayers. “We have not had a chance to really go over the new engine yet,” with current operations full steam ahead for a growing, multi-generational family business in Leadville Today. By the 2022-23 season, the new locomotive should be ready to serve in rotation for a growing tourist attraction that now transports precious cargo of a different kind to America’s highest city.
Welcome to Leadville Today, #1889! All Aboard!
Locomotive #1889 Arrives in Leadville
A Sawbuck and Tons of Elbow Grease
To think it all began with just ten bucks, a mere sawbuck!
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 30 full-time, year-round employees. Since that #nextgeneration leadership, the scenic, tourist attraction has seen steady, measured growth that has produced record profits and a business model that has quietly taken the lead when it comes to economic development in America’s highest city.
A new engine this year. Last season it was the private lounge cars. So what’s next?
Looking Down The Tracks
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 (schedule varies, check website) in addition to a full series of add-on experiences and special combo packages.
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 Cars, 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!
More Lounge Cars
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.
For readers interested in seeing the rehab process, here’s the video series from the Leadville Train’s YouTube Channel:
Lounge Car Renovation: Part One
Lounge Car Renovation: Part Two
Lounge Car Renovation: Part Three
Upcoming Highlights on the Leadville Railroad
The extended second summer has set the stage for some spectacular leaf-peeping. The train will continue to offer its Fall Photo Special Rides through Friday, Oct. 8. While the peak for golden aspens has passed, there is still plenty of autumnal flora and fauna to be seen along the tracks! Plus the mountain peaks will likely see snow by then!
Then beginning weekends on October 9 & 10, Saturday & Sunday celebrate Oktoberfest on the Leadville train with culinary delights and seasonal libations sure to make you say “Prost!” 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.
And finally, a sneak peek of what’s new this year! It’s a bit of a tear in the Christmas wrapping as the railroad crew produces its inaugural The Holiday Express ™ Special Train Ride! Looking for a new family tradition? Maybe your family has been searching for that renewed magic of the holiday season? Then stay tuned for upcoming news about the LCSR’s Holiday Express! The plans and special decorations have been in the works and under (Christmas) wrap for months but it’s sure to be something unforgettable!
What LT has heard from the train elves so far is that the Leadville Railroad will offer it’s new The Holiday Express™ on a Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule with trips departing at 1 p.m. That schedule will continue into December 2021 until the 17th when the Express ramps up its sparkle and doubles down on trips into January 2021, finally shutting it down for the 2021-21 season on the 15th. Wow!
Stay tuned for updates as Leadville Today keeps you informed on all the #newsyoucanuse for Leadville and Lake County, Colorado. Until then, it’s All Aboard in America’s highest city!