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Saving the High Line: An expensive $10 bargain

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Transportation – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

STEPHANIE AND KEN OLSEN recently celebrated a special anniversary. But instead of champagne and candlelight, they marked their milestone with a locomotive grease job and the blast of a train whistle.

The Olsens’ Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad Co. turned ten years old this May. Like the little engine that could, the LC&S has helped put Leadville back on track toward economic revitalization. In the process, it’s also given thousands of passengers a close-up look at some of Colorado’s most spectacular high country scenery.

“When we started out, I called it a train ride to Climax (the Climax molybdenum mine site),” Stephanie remembers. “But the train doesn’t go all the way to Climax, so I changed it to a `Ride to Timberline.’ Then I described the route as overlooking the headwaters of the Arkansas River.

“But people who don’t live near timberline or a river’s headwaters are sometimes unfamiliar with these words,” she continues. “So now I’m back to calling it a generic, scenic train ride.”

Yet that’s rather like calling the Taj Mahal a nice building or a Rolls Royce a decent car. The two-and-one-half-hour ride on this gleaming buff, burgundy and forest-green train — the highest standard-gauge railroad in North America — treats passengers to unforgettable vistas of the scenic Upper Arkansas River Valley and the towering Mosquito and Sawatch ranges.

In spring, snow still blankets the talus slopes and rock outcrops leading to the high point of the “High Line” journey–a scree field below the Climax mine site called Devil’s Tail Tangent, elevation 11,200 feet. Summertime excursions rumble past an abundance of wildflowers, while in autumn, the slopes blaze with the gold of the aspens. Every trip offers opportunities to observe deer or elk grazing in alpine meadows, glimpse a soaring eagle, or watch a marmot sunbathe on a boulder.

The LC&S makes its run through both space and time. From the 1884 depot, where frontier luminaries like Doc Holliday and the “unsinkable” Molly Brown once embarked, the train travels the same route as the old Denver, South Park & Pacific and the Colorado & Southern railroads.

During the 26-mile round-trip, Bill Nelson, the LC&S’s self-proclaimed “Eng-A-Mech-Elec-A-Ductor,” dons one of his numerous hats to regale passengers with stories of Leadville’s wild and woolly days as the Old West’s roughest, richest silver camp. To explain area geology, this former Climax miner even dresses as a frontier prospector and passes around local mineral specimens.

While the train ride is a smooth one, thanks in part to Nelson’s replacing the former, and bumpier, air brakes with dynamic brakes, the past ten years have had their ups and downs for Stephanie and Ken.

The Olsens began their venture in the wake of the infamous Climax Molybdenum Co. shutdown of the 1980s. As Leadville plunged into the “bust” end of the mining town’s all-too-familiar “boom/bust” cycle, the couple began eyeing the recently-abandoned Burlington Northern railroad freight line to Climax.

“Those were hard economic times, and we wanted to do something to help Leadville move forward again,” Stephanie recalls. “We weren’t then, and we’re still not, railroad buffs. But we’ve always been, and we remain, Leadville buffs.”

What they did next has, over the years, taken on almost epic proportions. And as with most myths, the reality of their day-to-day struggles quickly got lost amid the hype.

It’s true that, for the token sum of $10, the Burlington Northern sold the Olsens 13 miles of track, a roundhouse, and some older rolling stock–including two massive, 1,750-horsepower, GP-9 diesel-electric locomotives, a hopper car, and several boxcars, flatcars, and cabooses.

But that sum was merely the start of hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into refurbishing the dilapidated depot (purchased separately from the City of Leadville), transforming rolling stock into excursion cars, and repairing and maintaining the buildings, track and the train itself, not to mention paying the salaries of 17 employees hired each season. (The Olsens, Nelson, and marketing director Shelley Dennis are the LC&S’s only year-round employees.)

“Ken calls it the most expensive ten dollars we ever spent,” Stephanie says.

Along with financial pressures came the emotional risks of entering completely unfamiliar territory.

“We didn’t know anything about building excursion cars or maintaining track,” says Ken, a certified public accountant and fourth-generation Leadville native. “But fortunately we learned–fast.”

Ken became the “track man,” making daily inspections of the rails and right-of-way. Stephanie, an attorney whose eclectic background includes an associate’s degree in auto mechanics and a stint as a truck driver, took on the locomotives, learning diesel-engine repair and maintenance.

WHEN ROCKSLIDES or toppled trees blocked the tracks, or the locomotives derailed while clearing away a particularly heavy accumulation of winter snow, the Olsens donned overalls and worked long hours alongside their crews.

And somehow, they made time for their real priority–raising their two children, ages 11 and 12.

Although Stephanie now concentrates less on the hands-on tasks, “It still takes all of us working together,” to make the train a success, she says.

That includes the citizens of Leadville, who encouraged the Olsens from the start. It also includes the Leadville, Colorado & Southern’s passengers.

“I’m not a believer in a tourist economy,” Stephanie maintains. “We have visitors to our train, not tourists. To call people tourists separates them, pushes them away from you. Our visitors are real people, and our job is to teach them about, and help them enjoy, Leadville.

“There’s a genuine sense of community to Leadville,” she explains. “Living here makes you independent. And at the same time, it also teaches you that we all have to rely on each other.”

“We like the train,” she adds, “but the important thing is not so much running the train. It’s running the train here, in Leadville, that makes what we do so meaningful to us.”

Lynda La Rocca lives and writes from Leadville, but hasn’t tried writing on the train yet..