The Little Engines that Can, in Buena Vista

Article by Martha & Ed Quillen

Museums – May 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Before the turn of the century, central Colorado boasted nearly 600 miles of railroads — the main lines of the Denver & Rio Grande, the Colorado Midland, and the Denver, South Park and Pacific, as well as branches to Westcliffe, Crestone, and Monarch.

Most of those tracks have since been ripped out in the name of progress, but in condensed form, these lines continue to operate on the second floor of the old county courthouse in Buena Vista — one of many attractions in the Heritage Museum.

There the Buena Vista Model Railroad Society has pretty well filled a 20-foot by 40-foot room with a layout that offers railroad scenes selected from the 140 miles between the Royal Gorge and Tennessee Pass and the years between 1900 and 1940 when steam reigned.

“On account of space limitations, we had to take some poetic license,” confesses Bob Johnson, a retired Buena Vistan who just stepped down as club president. “For instance, trains enter the Rio Grande’s Tennessee Pass Tunnel, and emerge from the Midland’s Hagerman Tunnel. Or they go into the Royal Gorge, and come out the east portal of the Alpine Tunnel.” Near that portal, though, is the aerial tramway to the Mary Murphy Mine amid other landmarks of the St. Elmo area.

Just west of the Royal Gorge lie the Salida yards, complete with the steel truss bridge that survived until 1985 and the Salida Coal Co. across the river. There’s a three-stall roundhouse — “Salida actually had two, both with more than 20 stalls,” Johnson points out — and the main line heads toward Buena Vista.

Since this is in Buena Vista, that probably explains why this town naturally gets the most attention and detail, from storefronts downtown to the ice house and lettuce-packing shed. Rio Grande trains stop at the depot in the foreground; behind the courthouse are the South Park yards, and up on the hill, Colorado Midland passengers can catch the hack that will take them into town, or they can ride on, through the tunnels and past Elephant Rock.

Up the river is Leadville, with mines, mills, smelters, and stations served by all three railroads. Along the way, there’s a hobo camp under a bridge, and on the wrong side of the tracks in the Cloud City, a row of cribs, complete with red lights, invites railroaders with some spare time between runs.

All told, there’s close to 500 feet of HO-gauge track in place, room enough for 25 steam locomotives and dozens of cars that range from familiar flats and boxcars to exotic flangers, cranes and rotary snowplows, all in scale.

The model railroad society just celebrated its 10th anniversary in March, and Johnson recalls that initial construction of the layout was something like boring the Alpine Tunnel — cold. “There wasn’t any heat up here then, and so we had to wear coats and sweaters, and work as long as we could without gloves.”

Currently, the society has 19 members. None is a retired railroader, Johnson says. “Maybe they got enough of it during their working days.”

When they meet, at least once a week, the session could be devoted to maintenance, or to operations, where a model railroader gets a waybill and has to assemble a train in the yards, then make pickups and deliveries throughout the system.

In the summer, the railroad room is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Mondays.

“We get about 1,500 visitors every summer,” Johnson says, “and they come from every state and a few foreign countries. There’s one German fellow who comes every other year. He and his wife stay in Aspen. She doesn’t want anything to do with trains, but he drives over the pass to visit us almost every day that they’re in the country.”

Until Memorial Day, the model railroad display is open by appointment, which can be made by calling Johnson at 719-395-2277 or Loren Yuill at 719-395-8170.

“It’s not very hard to persuade one of us to come down and open up,” Johnson laughs. “We have a lot of fun here.”

THE MINIATURE RAILROADS take up only one room in the old Chaffee County Courthouse which was built in 1882 after Buena Vista became the county seat in an 1880 election.

But at that point, Granite, the prior county seat, refused to give up the county records. Granite believed the election to be somewhat questionable, since Buena Vista, with a total population of 1,200, had cast 1,128 votes — apparently not recognizing age restrictions with such an important issue at stake.

After an investigation upheld charges of fraud, but named Buena Vista the county seat anyway, Granite still refused to relinquish their advantage. Buena Vistans, however, weren’t so easily foiled. They recovered the records in a night raid, and held onto the coveted county seat until 1928, when Salida put the issue back on the ballot.

By that time, Salida was far more populous than any other town in the county, but Buena Vistans still refer to the maneuver as the time “Salida stole the courthouse.”

The original courthouse building, however, still remains in Buena Vista, where it was used as a schoolhouse until the 1970s. Now, the Buena Vista courthouse serves as a museum, complete with a research room which stores data, records, and a picture file.

Today, the Buena Vista Heritage Museum is in the process of acquiring a heating system, and hopes to eventually serve as a year-round facility, a true rarity in mountain Colorado. Yet even in the pre-heat days, Buena Vistans used their museum fully — by encouraging school tours, and by building the featured miniature train display — even when coats were required.

The Buena Vista museum features an old-fashioned schoolroom, a vintage kitchen complete with bathtub, a room highlighting mining and ranching history, a front room with a rare grand square piano, and a clothing room which features clothing from 1865 to the present. The museum also attempts to offer a variety of touchable exhibits — so that visitors can discover the different feel of fabrics and materials once used.

Gallery space is also provided for local artists.

A mining, railroading, and ranching community much like Salida, Buena Vista was founded first, in 1879, and has looked upon its upstart neighbor to the south as a rival from the beginning.

It’s a rivalry that Salidans seldom seem to note, but one that many Buena Vistans seem to take seriously, and over the years, that rivalry has served Buena Vista well. Today, Buena Vista has a first-class community center, and is in the process of building its museum into something more than just a tourist attraction.