Leadville Train: Sit Back and Enjoy the View!
Like a wolf’s lonely cry in the night, the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad’s (LCSR) whistle echo off the cool, crisp bright blue Leadville sky. It’s 10 a.m. as the LCSR’s morning run of the scenic-railroad trip departs from the century-old depot at 326 East 7th St. in Leadville.
“A happy, high-mountain howdy to you,” calls the rail line’s conductor, whose rhetorical, historical, and hysterical facts of the ride make this scenic-train journey one of the best in the state
Before you’ve even left the station, the conductor has informed the passengers about “Old Engine No. 641,” the retired steam locomotive that sits in front of the train depot. Brought onto the Leadville rail scene in 1906 by the American Locomotive Company, No. 641 was considered the cream of its 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 LCSR’s scenic railroad tour is guided by Engine No. 1714, a diesel-run powerhouse. Pulling a fleet of 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 Mine, one of the most vast and profitable molybdenum reserves in the world.
All Aboard! 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 knowledgeable conductor points some gulches and glory holes along the way. 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, more commonly known as 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).
And while the train’s productive use slowed down a bit after that due to other means of transporting passengers and precious metals to and from the mountains, it was revived again in the latter part of the 20 century.
It was in December 1987 when 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 LCSR made its maiden scenic-railroad voyage on Memorial Day 1988. It’s opened for passengers every summer since.
And like many Leadville businesses, this one too was passed down to the next generation. Today Ken and Stephanie’s daughter Kirstin (Olsen) Ayers along with her husband Steve and brother Derrick Olsen own and manage the tourist operation. It’s a family tradition!
As the train moves north out of Leadville, it follows the headwaters of the Arkansas River: Up ,up up. Meandering through aspen and spruce groves that force passengers to breath in the smells of high alpine forests. For those passengers whose interests lean more toward flora and fauna than gold findings, the narrative 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 on-board conductor/ travel guide knows her stuff.
The end-of-the-line is glorious Fremont Pass, named after the 19th century pathfinder Lt. John C. Fremont. At 11,318 Fremont Pass is home to the Climax Molybdenum Co., the world’s largest producer of molybdenum, a mineral that – for one – is used in the hardening of steel. After many years in dormancy, the mine began commercial production again in May 2012.
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-gallon wooden tank holding the water necessary to operate the old steam engines. It’s at this point in the journey when the cameras come out and the instagram pictures are posted! It’s also a great opportunity for folks to check out the engine car and/or caboose, which you can also ride privately for an additional fee – $40/30 respectively.
This time of year the fall colors put on a show all their own. What better way to enjoy them than off the crowded highways, with somebody else at the wheel?! In fact, the next two weekends – September 22 & 23 and 29 & 30, the Leadville train will host its Fall Photo Specials. Each of these trips last 3 hours and include wonderful opportunities to go through “tunnels” of color and take photographs of the reds, golds and orange leaves. The trips include traveling the extra mile of track to a location across from a red aspen grove. This is a wonderful way to view the high mountain colors while relaxing on the rails. See their website for details and price.
Ticket prices range from $35 for adults to $20 for children (4 to 12); children 3-and-under are free. The train currently has their Fall schedule in place: Weekdays (M-F) one trip at 1 p.m., then on weekends (Sat & Sun) two trips run at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., running through Oct. 7.
So hop aboard a piece of history and let the Leadville, Colorado And Southern Railroad take you for a ride! All Aboard!