by Forrest Whitman
Fun Fall Train Trips
Fall is a great time of year to take a train trip anywhere … crisp fall mornings add a little zest, and when those steam whistles blow you step right along the platform. Rail history buffs enjoy train trips just for the chance to retrace old routes from a century and a half ago, and hear those steam whistles scream. But you don’t have to be a history buff to ride the Georgetown loop railroad or the San Luis and Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. Those rides are just plain fun. AMTRAK riders have some news this fall too, which I’ll get to in this column.
The San Luis is a neat little railroad
137 of us were signed up when I boarded the San Luis and Rio Grand La Veta Pass route not long ago. Most got on with me in Alamosa, but we picked up 35 passengers at Fort Garland. It’s not much of a drive from any place in Colorado Central land to La Veta or Alamosa, and well worth the drive to catch this train.
Those San Luis cars have a lot of history. Lots of folks remember the old Steve Goodman song “Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans.” Goodman wrote that song sitting in the bar car on the Illinois Central R.R. “City of New Orleans” train. That’s the very bar car in use today on the daily San Luis train between Alamosa and La Veta. Nothing much has changed, including the comfy old green lounge chairs. Even the Illinois Central yellow and brown colors still grace the Calumet Club. It’s quite a nice experience.
The old steam engines that pull that route chug up through some of the most impressive mountain scenery I’ve seen. It is high too; the highest railroad pass in North America is at Fir, 9,244 feet. It’s a steep grade going down the other side to La Veta too, but the retainers slow your descent. The aspen are turning and should be showing their gold beauty all through October. A good place to catch that scenery is from the ex-Southern Railroad open observation car at the back of the train. Even bear viewing is possible. A few years ago the San Luis derailed a couple of hopper cars full of barley. The barley got mixed into the trackside dirt and today bruins show up to dig and enjoy the fermented brew. It’s a Coors banquet beer for the bears. The San Luis doesn’t derail freight very often, by the way. The nightly freight train from Alamosa to the interchange with the Union Pacific at Walsenburg has an excellent safety record. The profits from the freight help keep the passenger operation going.
Some fun rolling stock
The list of cars on the train the morning I took it was small, but impressive. Old number 18 has been steaming over those rails for over a hundred years, but chugged along just fine, belching out plenty of black smoke like a steamer should. The dome cars with lower level diners are interesting too. The Budd company made just 20 of those full length stainless steel domes. AMTRAK owns just one, while the San Luis owns nine. The Royal Gorge route is said to own three more, but the rest are history.
Last week the diner offered a large and juicy hamburger with grilled asparagus and some other trimmings for just over nine bucks. The chicken entrees were priced at seven and the pasta was still less expensive. Prices are pretty much what you’d pay at any of the nicer Salida restaurants, maybe even a bit lower.
Halloween pumpkins too
Any time you’re in La Veta it’s worth stopping in the little grocery store there. They have the biggest and best ice cream cones in Colorado! I’m not kidding. Few can finish one and they’re only a buck. If the rail history of this route isn’t enough, there are pumpkins too. Some of the San Luis trains in October give free pumpkins to kids. Might be you could even carve one along the way. I’m not kidding, the staff really seems to enjoy chatting with the passengers and getting into the trip. They might just help with pumpkin carving.
A mixed train for fall
One of the last mixed trains in America runs between Alamosa and Monte Vista on the San Luis. I remember working those trains back in my brakeman days on the old Burlington. They were rough riding, unpredictable, but always interesting. There was once a mixed train through Rollinsville called by the locals the “Hog and Human.” Both species rode. Then, as now, these trains consist of a single passenger car hitched to a local freight switcher. The San Luis is marketing this mixed train. It picks up grain and spud cars from the San Luis Central R.R. at Sugar Junction and sets off fertilizer cars there. It’s a tourist attraction so they give you a free San Luis Valley potato. It’s wise to call in advance though. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are your best bets to catch it. It is said that the restaurant in Monte Vista is great and you’ll have plenty of time for lunch. The train crew won’t leave you there. I hope to ride this train one golden October day. Even a little snow wouldn’t be bad. Fall is the time for a mixed train day.
An historic train in Georgetown
A major rail study has just been just completed by the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority. The engineers of the Georgetown, Breckenridge and Leadville Railroad scratched their heads in 1880 about how to get up the grade at Georgetown. The authority worries about that same Georgetown grade today. Even the famous Jay Gould of the Union Pacific wondered if it would ever make sense to come through the Rockies along what is today’s I-70. William A. H. Loveland did get rails to Georgetown, but it took Frank Maxwell to build the loop up to Silver Plume. That took five years and featured a 143-foot rise to the mile for four and one half miles. The route never did make it to Breckenridge, much less to Leadville. You can ride it every day this fall.
The Georgetown loop was completed, but never became a way through the mountains. When jay Gould took it over for his Union Pacific he decided it would be best run as a tourist route. As you ride it you’ll realize why. Big tonnage never was put over the loop and big tonnage was what those early railroad builders had in mind. It did serve admirably as a route to Silver Plume and the silver mines. That kept it running till the 1930s.
A fun little silver hauler
If you decide to take the Georgetown loop ride today, you’ll stop at the Lebanon Silver Mine. It’s located about half way around the loop and is interesting to visit. Guides take you five hundred feet back into the mine to learn a lot about silver mining. The tour guide will show you how to find silver ore on the sides of the mine. The trip is still awe inspiring. The 4% grades and the three mile ride are all guaranteed to capture your attention. At one point you can look out the window or lean out of the observation car and look 95 feet down to the pines by Clear Creek below. The Georgetown loop is a perfect fall trip, especially if you’re into rail history. You can even pause on the way and wonder at rail skullduggery. Halfway up old U.S. 6 you’ll see the opening of “Brick” Pomeroy’s “Great Atlantic and Pacific rail tunnel.” Plenty of folks invested in that scheme before Brook took off for his native Brooklyn with the cash.
A more pleasant AMTRAK trip
If I meet you on the platform in Trinidad, Colorado this fall, we’re in for a better than usual trip on the good old Chief. AMTRAK is using federal stimulus money to buy new rolling stock, and a lot of it too. We’re talking about 25 sleepers, 25 baggage/dorms, 25 diners and 55 baggage cars, all building right now in Elmira, New York at C.A.F. We may not see them on our Southwest Limited for a time, but we do see a couple of old favorites. Two of the old high level lounge cars have been competently refurbished at the Beech Grove, Indiana shops and are running on the Southwest Chief. I promise to spend some time in those two oldie (but goodie) lounge cars and report here next time.