The Leadville Train: 25 Years of Family Tradition!
By Kathy Bedell, Leadville Today © 2013
A Silver Anniversary marks 25 years. And in this case, it’s 25 years in business, as the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad (LCSR) celebrates a quarter of a century this season. So take a trip back in time, to discover how it all came together. All Aboard!
“When we started this in 1987, Leadville was in a depression,” said LCSR’s owner Stephanie Shaw Olsen during a recent interview with Leadville Today. “We were a mining town – totally and completely. All we knew – Ken and I – was that we wanted to stay in Leadville; we believed in Leadville. Everything else was up in the air. No one knew what the future would be and that’s how we started the railroad: with the love of the history of Leadville.”
It’s that same unsinkable spirit that people read about Leadville legends like the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, that was instilled in the Olsens and the many other people that helped them along the way.
“There is a future here, because you look at Derrick and Kirstin (the Olsens’ son and daughter who presently manage the business), and it’s not that we need new blood – that’s not Leadville’s history. It’s being a survivor: we’ve gone through the booms and busts, and we will continue to do so. So celebrating 25 years, this is Leadville’s story,” added Stephanie.
So why a railroad? After all Stephanie’s an attorney and Ken, her husband, is a CPA.
“We were anything but railroad, even though we loved the history,” she explains. But the seed was planted for Stephanie during her time when she worked as a truck driver for Jon Mallette, of Acorn Petroluem. Part of her route included filling the old train engine which was stored in the railroad round house. “I had a brass key to the building; that was my experience with railroad.”
During that time Stephanie’s husband Ken was working for the city, that had been approached by Burlington Northern (BN). The railroad giant was highly motivated to get rid of the railroad. The city couldn’t afford to do anything with it. But it sparked an interest with the Olsens and the city didn’t stand in their way.
Now for anyone who’s familiar with the railroad industry, they have a reputation for not getting along with anyone. And they certainly didn’t deal with small towns or small people. Regardless, the Olsens decided to they would peruse the idea, “until someone said no.” Burlington was looking to dump the line from Leadville to Climax, but would they be interested in dealing with a private buyer?
A bit of background first. It was 1987 and the EPA was firmly entrenched in Leadville soil. Driven during the Reagan administration and motivated by the possibility of becoming a Cabinet position, this environmental agency was looking for a place to make its mark, show its muscle. Leadville – with a mining history and a target on its back – lost out. The words contamination and remediation had BN looking for a way out – desperately. They needed to unload the dormant railroad line or face the possibility of very expensive “clean-up.”
“Looking back that’s how I see it,” reflects Stephanie. “I didn’t know what in the world was going on at the time.”
In addition to the motivation prompted by the EPA’s action, there was a simultaneous situation in place that also lined things up for the Olsens’ purchase. At the time, Burlington’s (Now BNSF) chief officer was an outsider, a non railroad guy who was advocating for the company to get rid of these lines, something railroads DID NOT traditionally do. The railroads were huge monopolies at the time, with one out of four people working for the rails in 1900.”
Once the Olsens were able to determine the motivation for each entity, they were able to bring the major players to the table for negotiations. So now it’s December 1986 and with the “deal” for purchase settled, the Olsens found themselves the owner of the railroad. Sale price? Ten bucks!
It would actually be almost another year before they had an actual contract in place, “even then we didn’t know what we were getting,” Olsen explains.
Then on December 11, 1987, Stephanie received a phone call she’s not likely to forget. It was Dr. Bernard Smith whose family homesteaded their ranch south of town in the Arkansas Valley, adjacent to the railroad tracks.
“Your train’s coming!” exclaimed Dr, Smith as he saw the recently purchased railroad cars being run up the valley; tracks that had not seen active traffic for years. The train was switched out at Malta and it was Irv Goetsch who hauled it up to the round house. A point of reference here: these rail lines are now part of the paved Mineral Belt Trail; at that point they were still active lines, allowing them to bring the train all the way into the round house, located behind the Stop-n-Save on Hwy 24 North.
So the Olsens had a train.
“Well what do you do with a train?” says Stephanie Olsen as she continues with the story. “I didn’t know how to run the engines, nobody did. The Rio Grande people took it out to the (railroad) yards and put it up on our track for us.”
That’s when the real work began. Because, while the prospect of getting the $10 deal from BN might sound fortuitous to most folks, the real cost, the big dollar item, was a working railroad.
“The marvelous thing about miners is that most of them know how to do an awful lot of different things. They could work with metal, they could work with track,” she explains. The people that helped build the cars, some of whom are still here, it’s their railroad too, and it still is today.”
Now it’s January 1988 – it’s cold – and the group is building cars out at the rail yards and roundhouse, which were included in the purchase. They still have never started the engine, so Stephanie decided to go down to visit the Burlington Northern shops down in Denver. It was here that Stephanie met Jimmy Decker a mechanic who came up to Leadville to show them how to run the engines, although his passion and knowledge of railroads became invaluable to their plan.
It was a whole different language and vocabulary,” explains Stephanie. “We had a whole roundhouse full of tools and found ourselves saying things like, ‘Go get the frog, next to the angle bar at the sand house.’ It was a nomenclature!”
So they continued to work on the cars and the line, employing as many as 40 people through the winter and spring, edging ever closer to their May 1988 Grand Opening. It was Stephanie’s husband Ken who took on the role of track boss, clearing the lines, pushing rock and debris that had built up during all those years of dormancy.
And then Ken had another idea, one that would lead to a late night argument, but ultimately, would bring everything together as it is today. It was Ken’s vision that they bring the train all the way into to historic depot on East 7th Street, but that would involve putting in the track panels across 8th and 11th Streets. The original plan had been to build a gazebo on Poverty Flats by the roundhouse and board passengers from there. The depot was not in the original budget!
“He was adamant that we had to do it,” explains Stephanie. At that point, the City of Leadville owned the depot and old steam engine #641, which is still on display today. In early spring of 1988, they negotiated the sale of the historic depot, a renovation project with its own set of issues.
The now cohesive project was on track for success and on May 26, 1988 the first “All Aboard” was called, marking two initial days of special rides for Leadville locals. The Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad was officially open for business on Saturday, May 28, 1988!
Since then, hundreds of thousands of visitors have come to Leadville, to ride the train. There’s no doubt that it is a major tourist attraction for the area. After all, who can resist the train’s whistle, calling to climb aboard for adventure!
As for the business, the Olsens have been transitioning the management of operation to their two children Derrick and Kirstin, who grew up at the depot. Although philosophically, the Olsens don’t believe that you should make your kids come into business with you.
“We had to fight for it,” explains Kirstin Ayers, the Olsens’ daughter and LCSR’s Sales and Marketing Director. After both children graduated from Lake County High School, “we had four years to do whatever we wanted.” Derrick went in the military and Kirstin went to the University of Denver. “When we came back (2006), we were given the ultimatum that we were either going to take over the railroad or they were going to sell it.”
Both Kirstin and Derrick were on board, slowly taking on more and more responsibility. The siblings’ partnership continues to develop, with Kirstin taking on the front half of the business which involved sales and marketing. Derrick, following his father’s footsteps is the Road Master and competently manages all of the mechanical and structural responsibilities involved in maintaining a more-than-century-old rail cars and line.
“Derrick and I are still developing our partnership and how to work together,” explains Ayers whose husband Stephen is also the train’s chief Engineer. “Certainly our veteran employees help towards that goal.”
Today, the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad continues to offer daily rides during the summer season, departing from the century-old depot at 326 E. 7th Street.
“We work really hard to get people up to Leadville and then get them to stay around, partnering with various other local businesses and attractions,” says Ayers.
The LCSR also offers innovative packages to mix things up. From rafting and zipline packages to the popular wildflowers and BBQ rides, the Leadville Train’s whistle keeps folks coming back again and again.
So step back in time and take a ride on the Leadville Train – it’s a family tradition!