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Backing up the Rockies on the LC&S RR

Article by Sharon Chickering

Transportation – June 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

“All Abooooard!” conductor Carl Benz shouts as the whistle wails.

With a jerk, the maroon, green, and white diesel engine of the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad begins backing up the track — red caboose in the lead. The rear brakeman keeps an alert eye on the track unraveling before him. The rail cars slip past the back alleys and Victorian shotgun houses of Leadville, then the old freight depot and boarded-up former St. Vincent’s Hospital. Colorado’s two highest peaks, Massive and Elbert, loom to the west.

By running its tracks into Leadville in 1884, the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad entered the competition for carrying passengers and freight from the Cloud City to Denver. The line was narrow-gauge (three feet between the rails) until 1942, when it was converted to standard-gauge (4’8″). For the next 40 years, it stayed in business to haul supplies to, and concentrated ore from, the Climax Molybdenum Mine at the top of Frémont Pass.

The Climax-Leadville portion of the track, which had become part of the Colorado & Southern subsidiary of the Burlington Northern system, was scheduled for abandonment in 1986 after the mine closed.

But it was purchased the next year by Stephanie and Ken Olsen, lawyer and accountant, who welcomed the challenge of owning and operating a railroad, compete with red brick depot built in 1893. Rechristening the line the Leadville, Colorado & Southern, and rebuilding engines, flatcars, boxcars, and cabooses, the Olsens established a scenic tour along the highest section of the Arkansas Valley.

Passengers on the 21-mile, 2-hour run pass barren piles of overburden marking prospect holes, and wire still hanging from tilting Western Union telegraph poles. Rotting rail and mine timbers litter the ground, evergreens crowd the rails, and blooming flowers add touches of color. The Arkansas River, narrow enough to jump across, meanders along the valley floor below.

At Birdseye Gulch, below some early log structures, the train turns almost 180. Depending on where you sit, it’s a good place to photograph the front or back of the train as it turns back on itself.

From a vantage point near the Climax mine, the cars end their backward ascent, and begin their forward journey downhill. Originally the train was to turn around at Climax, but when that didn’t work out, the railroaders discovered that backing the train up the hill worked just as well.

Stopping at the 1940 water tower in French Gulch, travelers can leave the train to explore and stretch their legs. Coffee and hot chocolate, available in the boxcar, are welcome in the cool mid-summer temperatures at 11,000 feet.

The gently swaying cars, as well as the abundance of fresh air, hush the passengers. Children, formerly full of questions, are content to huddle under a blanket as the train rumbles back to the station.

Sharon Chickering has a “real” job as a college librarian, and free-lances in her spare time. She has lived in Colorado nearly 20 years, most of it in Leadville.