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Rail Ride Out Of Leadville Offers Scenery, History

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The Leadville train has been running since 1894.  (credit: CBS)

The Leadville train has been running since 1894. (credit: CBS)

This story originally aired in the fall of 2010. It aired again on Colorado Getaways on June 4, 2011.

LEADVILLE, Colo. (CBS4) – “All aboard!”

For more than a century, those two words have been synonymous with train travel and for almost as long trains have been running in and out of Leadville.

Today tourists can take the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad loop to learn more about the area’s rich rails history and see the views near the top of Fremont Pass.

“This line has been here since 1894,” said conductor Gary Snider. “Originally ran to Denver as the Denver, South Park & Pacific.”

Back then, it was gold and silver drawing people up to the highest incorporated city in North America.

“There were 250 mine claims up in the hills. The railroad brought supplies up to those mines,” said Snider. “It was the place to be. It was bigger than Denver at the time because so many people were coming to try to strike it rich.”

Leadville’s fortunes were tied to whatever came out of the ground. By the 1920s molybdenum replaced gold and silver.

“The Climax Mine opened right next to the railroad, but the railroad was here first. So it was convenient for both the mine and the railroad,” Snider explained.

The molybdenum mine shut down in 1980, leaving the tracks dormant. The Burlington Northern Railroad offered to sell the stretch from Leadville to the Climax mine to the city.

“The feasibility study for that was done by my dad, Ken Olsen,” said engineer Derek Olsen. “The town decided that it couldn’t be done at the time. The economics in Leadville didn’t look good and there wasn’t much future in it.”

So Olsen’s dad took matters into his own hands, negotiating directly with the railroad to buy what is now the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad.

“The final deal was $10 for the locomotive, train cars, and the track,” Olsen said.

It sounded like quite the bargain, but there was still plenty of work to be done.

“It took quite a bit of repair because the track hadn’t been used in a number of years,” Olsen said. “All the train cars were a flat car and had to be built up into the passenger cars you see now. So by the time we started operating, it was a big gamble, especially at that time because there wasn’t a lot of hope here.”

Today that gamble seems to be paying off.

“We just wanted to come up here and see the wildflowers,” said Vicky Rowley from Loveland on the railroad. “We heard it was really pretty up here this time of year and we’ve always wanted to ride the Leadville train.”

The 2 1/2 hour train ride loop travels 9 miles through the San Isabelle National Forest, gaining nearly 1,000 feet in elevation along the way. Near the the top of Fremont Pass at the highest point on the ride passengers can explore relics of the railroad’s past and tour the locomotive.

For an extra fare passengers can even ride in the cab, though Janet and Mike Votteler preferred to ride even farther forward.

“It was a seize-the-moment type opportunity,” Janet said. “It’s an experience we felt we just had to have today.”

It’s all about making the passenger feel like family. Not surprising from the family-run railroad.

“I worked here since I was 11 years old,” Olsen said. “My sister and I get to work hand-in-hand every day and my folks are around day in and day out.”

Additional Resources

To get there take Interstate 70 to Copper Mountain and Highway 91 to Leadville and look for the depot. Visit leadville-train.com or call (866) 386-3936.

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