June 17 – Like a wolf’s lonely cry in the night, the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad’s (LCSR) train whistle seems to echo off the cool, crisp Leadville sky. By mid-morning, the clouds have rolled in over Mounts Massive and Elbert, as if they want to climb aboard for one of the best scenic-train tours.
It’s 10 a.m. as the LC&S’s morning run of the scenic-railroad trip departs from the century-old depot at 326 East 7th Street in Leadville. But before you’ve even left the station, the sight of “Old Engine No. 641,” the retired steam locomotive that sits caged in front of the train depot, makes visitors feel like they’ve already stepped back in time. Brought onto the Leadville rail scene in 1906 by the American Locomotive Company, No. 641 was considered the cream of the crop, hauling thousands of tons of supplies and passengers in and out of the Cloud City. When it crossed its last railroad tie in 1963, No. 641 was hailed as the last Class-1-freight steam locomotive to operate in the United States.
Today, the LC&S’s scenic railroad tour is guided by Engine No. 1714, a diesel-run motor. Pulling mulitple passenger cars and a caboose, the engine begins its 10.5-mile journey, up 1,100 feet and through some of the richest mining country in the world.
The venture is a true round-trip, as the train begins its trek through an area known as Poverty Flats and eventually ends up at the Climax Molybdenum Co., the site of Bartlett Mountain, one of the most vast and profitable molybdenum reserves in the world. And one that just re-started commercial production in May of this year – happy news for Leadville and Lake County!
As the train clacks along what is also known as the last remaining section of the old “South Park” line, the remnants of over 100 years of tilling the earth for its precious minerals are evident at every turn. And the train’s conductor is quick to point out every gulch, glory hole and broken-down, abandoned mine site. After all, it was the mountains of bullion, extracted and transported from the high Rocky Mountains to the plains and eastern markets, that made it economically feasible to build these treacherous passageways.
Originally built as a narrow-gauge (rails 3 feet apart) railroad used to transport heavy mining machinery (as well as the profits they turned), this piece of track was formerly owned by the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad or, as it was known back inteh day: the “Darn Slow-Poke, Pretty Rough Riding” Railroad. In 1943, the High Line, between Climax and Leadville, was converted to standard gauge (rails 4 feet 8.5 inches apart).
Following the headwaters of the Arkansas River, the train’s last stop is at glorious Fremont Pass, named after the 19th century pathfindcr, Lt. John C. Fremont. At 11,318 feet, Fremont Pass is home to the Climax Molybdenum Co., the world’s largest producer of molybdenum, a mineral that is used in the hardening of steel. The open pit of Bartlett Mountain is clearly visible at the “end of the line,” and surely a welcome sight for Leadville locals with the recent activation of commercial production and many wanted jobs.
At this point the train goes from a push-me to a pull-me engine motion and travels back down to Leadville. The return trip offers a stop at the French Gulch water tank, a 47,500-gal-lon wooden tank holding the water necessary to operate the old steam engines.
For those passengers whose interests lean more toward flora and fauna than gold findings, the tour certainly delivers. Identifying everything from the two varieties of spruce and the vast number of sub-alpine wildflowers, to the bushy-tailed marmot and the stately mule deer, the train staff/ travel guides knows their stuff.
It was in December 1987 that the High Line rail was sold to Leadville locals Stephanie and Ken Olsen at the bargain-basement price of $10! Of course, the real cost came in converting the flatcars into spacious excursion cars and refurbishing the roadbed and track. But only a brief five months from the date of purchase the work was done, and the LC&S made its maiden scenic-railroad voyage on Memorial Day 1988. These days the family tradition continues with Ken and Stephanie’s children running the show. Kirstin Shaw Ayers is the Director of Sales andMarketing and their son Engineer Derek makes sure that things “stay on track, “ with train operations and maintenance.
Since that first blow of the train whistle, 24 years ago, thousands of people from all over the world have yielded to the cry of “All Aboard!” So whether you’re in Lake County to enjoy the beauty of the high country or the colorful history, this train ride is a must do.
Prices range from $35 for adults to $20 for children (4 to 12); children 3-and-under are free. The train currently has two runs: 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. They also offer special wild flower rides and of course there’ no better way to see all of the high country’s fall glory from that the seat on the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad. All Aboard!