Saturday, February 4, 2023

Bert Renck, South Park fireman, shares his adventures at Alpine Tunnel

Bert Renck, born in Missouri, started railroad work on the Santa Fe in 1906.  In 1909 he went to Como, Colorado to work for the Colorado & Southern narrow gauge on "The South Park Line."  He fired on many parts of the line including the Fish Special between Denver and Grant, the Boreas Pass route from Como to Leadville, and the Gunnison Division which included running over Altman Pass through the Alpine Tunnel.  Famously, he was involved in a wreck outside of the east portal of the Alpine Tunnel (Covered in this part of my video).  

Later in life he would join with the likes of George Champion (another C&S employee who worked on the Alpine Tunnel route), Mac Poor, Dow Helmers, and Francis Trudgeon to meet up at the west portal for Alpine Tunnel Days and help with stabilization and reminiscing.  

I came upon his story when I bought a magazine on Ebay entitled Old West, Winter 1976 edition.  The article was titled "The South Park Narrow Gauge: a treacherous stretch of rails that you could slide on a while before you jumped the track and hurtled down the mountain" by Bert Renck submitted by Hank Givens.  

This is an audio of that article that I narrated.  I put images and video to match up with his story, though, of course, the time frame of the photos doesn't match up in many cases.  

Part 1 can be found here

I hope you enjoy another edition of C&S Tales with part 2 of Bert Renck's story!

Kurt

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop - Part 6 (The finale)

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop
-part 6

by Kurt Maechner

Here is Part 3    
    
Here is Part 5

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25th, 1983
GEORGETOWN, COLORADO

Almost five months after their last visit, Mae Boettcher is back with her friend Katheryn Willard Biese.  They approach the remaining massive 30-foot-long span sitting on the ground.  An even more massive crane towers behind it and from its powerful hook numerous cables descend to wrap around the steel span.  

At one corner of the bridge piece is a small table, adorned with an oversized white table cloth hanging just a bit askew.  On the left of the table top is a silver bowl of ice with one bottle of champagne resting inside it.  To the right of this are a number of pristine glasses next to another champagne bottle.  

With Mae, Katheryn, and other important onlookers present, the final bridge span, adorned with numerous signatures, is christened, glasses are raised, and all eyes watch as the final gap between the north and south abutments is about to be erased.  With this raising, not only is the flag of Colorado attached, but the flag of the nation, gently undulating in the westward flowing wind, also proudly accompanies this historic move.  

Rising higher and higher, the span carries not only flags, but two passengers.  Two members of the Colorado Historical Society climb aboard wearing safety helmets and eagerly snap photos from on the bridge piece itself.  

At last, the Grett Steel Company employees settle the eighth span into place against the south abutment, and the Devil’s Gate Viaduct, while still in need of rails, spans the Clear Creek Valley for the first time in 44 years.  The happy crowd below now celebrates, as so many early visitors to the Loop did in its heyday, with a picnic.

With the bridge structure complete, work continued with railroad ties laid across in November ‘83.  However, as happened during the original Loop line’s construction, the winter weather in Colorado made work difficult for the crews.  It wasn’t until the spring of 1984 that rails were spiked down across the bridge. 

First Train Over the Viaduct

In the early morning of a cloudy Friday, June 1st, 1984 “a semi-secret unofficial test run” at 7:58am occurred with the Loop’s diesel.  Good news: it survived!

Media at the official first run -
July RMRail Report
With this successful test and confidence in the structure, the first public run of a train across the bridge occurred at 10:00am as Shays 8 and 14 pushed ex-D&RGW caboose 0586 and a gondola with very lucky passengers across the bridge from the south to north abutments.  This run was no secret.  Television and newspaper representatives were there to capture the historic occasion for posterity and free rides were offered to all.

The Rocky Mountain Railroad Club captured the enormity of the occasion in their Rocky Mountain Rail Report of July 1984 in a piece by Bob Griswold.

“Do a little wishful thinking! Try to imagine yourself riding in an ancient narrow gauge gondola car behind an honest-to-goodness operating 1922 Shay through a magnificent Colorado mountain canyon. Then try to think of those cool alpine breezes blowing down the canyon and the fleecey [sic] white clouds skimming the mountain peaks. Next, try to think of yourself looking over the side of the old car through the ties to the churning, rushing stream ninety feet below.

“Stop fantasizing! Now you can actually ride such an unbelievable train on the Georgetown Loop Railroad and across the famous Devil’s Gate Trestle.”

No. 14 blows off steam on the first official run- July RMR Report

Regular excursions began operating from Silver Plume over the bridge with the old Silver Plume station order board listing in all caps “DEVILS GATE NOW OPEN,” but the Loop was not entirely a loop as of yet.  The remaining mile down grade from the north abutment of the bridge west and the curve crossing Clear Creek one last time while angling back east under the high bridge were not yet complete.  

Work progressed that summer on this stretch.  The Burlington Northern railroad, which had absorbed the Colorado & Southern Railway officially in 1981, located a 50-foot bridge in Ashland, Nebraska for use on the final Clear Creek crossing.  This bridge was installed the same day as the first public run across the high bridge.  During the remaining summer months track was laid from the north abutment all the way to this bridge and around until it reached under the great high trestle.  With this, the Georgetown Loop was officially a loop once again.

It had taken a decade from the very first work train to reach the completion of the Georgetown Loop.  All that remained was the party, and, with plans of grand proportions, the party was fixing to be a Colorado Day celebration like never before.

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 1, 1984
COLORADO DAY – 10am
GEORGETOWN, COLORADO

With the clock at 10am, the Clear Creek Secondary School Band launches into a rousing rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.”  The music echoes off the valley walls as hundreds of onlookers, whose string of parked cars reach nearly to the town that gave the Loop its name, stand with hats off and hands over hearts.  They honor their country but also the 108th birthday of their state on this Colorado Day.

Nearly one year has passed since the last time Mae Boettcher stood on the ground beneath the Devil’s Gate Viaduct to christen the last bridge pier before it was installed on the grand structure.  With E. Warren Willard’s widow Katheryn Willard Biese again next to her today, she is standing inside the middle of The Georgetown Loop on a stunningly sunny day.  Ahead of her is a striped, raised platform with a brown podium astride the top, flanked on either side by poles holding the American and Colorado flags, both symbols of the ingenuity of the people who built Colorado, built such a spectacular railroad, and then built this railroad again.  600 people are in attendance for the dedication of the new bridge, though some believe there to be more.  There are so many visitors this day, in fact, that quite a few happy onlookers are even standing behind the stage for the festivities.  

In the distance farther behind the podium is the brand-new Georgetown Loop High Bridge standing again for the first time in 45 years and strung with long strands of patriotic red, white, and blue-colored balloons from one end to the other, designed by Ron Garrison, a balloon artist from Denver.  Since Mae’s last visit in the fall, rails have been laid westward across the structure, down the northern slope of the valley, across one more bridge over Clear Creek as it curves again eastward and underneath the High Bridge, completing the entire loop.  

With cheers and applause after the conclusion of the high school band’s performance of the national anthem, Mrs. Boettcher, Mrs. Willard Biese, and the crowd with seats available, sit down as the program begins with a welcome from Barbara Sudler, president of the CHS, followed by Roger D. Knight III, the CHS vice-chairman who honors significant donors with lifetime passes to the Georgetown Loop.  These passes, made of sterling silver, the precious metal that birthed the motive of the arrival of the railroad here and linked the two towns by this thread of rails, have the governor’s signature and the recipient’s name and pass number on one side and an 1884 replica railroad pass on the other.   The passes are given to Mae, Katheryn, and others who have given so much to see this triumphant day become a reality.  

Finally, three-term Colorado governor Richard D. Lamm steps up to the podium.

Gov. Lamm waxes eloquent, discussing a lamentable characteristic of civilizations that die.  This characteristic, he says, quoting famed Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Carl Sandberg “‘is that they forgot where they came from.’”  With triumph and a nod to the rebuilt Loop line, Lamm exclaims, “I am here to celebrate the fact that Colorado doesn’t and won’t forget where we came from.”  Mae and Katheryn clap their hands in delight along with the other 600 or more guests.

The two women have something else to applaud as well.  On this day, the Colorado Historical Society places two plaques.  One honors major benefactors, such as the Colorado General Assembly, the Atlantic Richfield, Boettcher, Burlington Northern, and Gates Foundations, and the Pauline A. and George R. Morrison Charitable Trust.   

The second plaque, though, is much more personal to the two women.  It reads, “The Devils Gate High Bridge has been reconstructed by the Boettcher Foundation in memory of E. Warren Willard longtime trustee of the Foundation and president of the Colorado Historical Society.”

As the ceremony proceedings conclude, it is time for the climax of the day: the inaugural ride on the High Bridge itself.  

Todd Hackett photo

Governor Lamm and his wife climb aboard the cab of locomotive No. 44, and 300 others clamber into the cars behind the steaming engine.  With a blast of a whistle, the train slowly chuffs upgrade, turning from the southern side of the valley, crossing the first bridge across Clear Creek, and continuing the 2 percent grade up the north side of the valley with I-70 safely overhead on the mountainside.  The train edges out onto the high bridge and, to the curious note of everyone around, stops.

What the onlookers back at the Georgetown boarding site cannot see behind the trees is that the fourth car in the train, a cattle car converted for passengers, has derailed.  Later the railroad would find out that the derailment was not due to the cattle car, but that “the new track was not level and properly ballasted.”

Once the shortened train of three open-air gondolas is ready to proceed, it continues out onto the high bridge, bursting glorious steam skyward as each of the tethered balloon strands are cut loose by the train and released to the Colorado heavens.  

Todd Hackett photo - balloon strands released


Mae Boettcher and Katheryn Willard Biese marvel as they look down at the stout viaduct beams below them.  What was an empty chasm for nearly half a century is now filled with a living breathing echo of history.  Engine 44 lets out a soaring blast on the whistle that bounces off the canyon walls, nearly drowning out the excited banter of the passengers around a man who had a hand in making this a reality.  Steve “Buzzsaw” Hart, the 17th Street pestering attorney who unceasingly pursued Cris Dobbins of the Boettcher Foundation for a contribution to build the bridge, is on this train grinning from ear to ear.  In the words of his biographer, “Steve was as proud as a new parent when he rode on the inaugural trip of the railroad over the restored high trestle in 1984.”
Todd Hackett photo

How can one capture all the stunning work that has happened since that bright, August Colorado Day in 1984?  From the development of the Everett and Lebanon Mine tours, the Devil’s Gate boarding area named the Pauline A. and Georgetown R. Morrison Valley Center and Theater, and the 2-stall engine house and maintenance facilities at Silver Plume, more volumes could be written, and maybe will someday.   Many more books could also be written on the numerous locomotives and cars that have graced the rails, the most curious of which was the one-season bittersweet resurrection in 2006 of C&S engine No. 9 that had actually run on the Loop in its original form.  

In the meantime, the resurrected Georgetown Loop continues to transport over 100,000 riders a year back in time to the early days of Colorado’s mining boom and to one of the most stunningly-constructed, hard-working, tenacious railroads that stretched its rails into the Rocky Mountains to bring its treasures to the outside world.  Today, through noteworthy vision, humble hard work, admirable sacrifice, and incredible teamwork, that same railroad remains a treasure in itself, proof that an impossible dream, like the American Dream, can indeed become possible.





Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Twisted Tale of the Georgetown Loop - Part 5

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop
-part 5

by Kurt Maechner

Here is Part 3    
    

Todd Hacket photo-end-of-track
before high bridge-1983
Thankfully, there was still Dobbins’ cohort in the Boettcher Foundation board, E. Warren Willard, the man whose comment had given some real hope that the money just might come to aid the Loop.  This hope was also cut short when three months after Dobbins’ passing, Willard died on September 19th, at the age of 83.   

It had been six years since the first train on the truncated Georgetown Loop, and still there was no way forward over that gaping valley.


In the meantime, while the CHS worked to get the funds to complete the Loop, the actual operators of the line were seemingly left out of the loop of these details or its timeline.  The Ashbys and their partners, while running a successful operation, continued to struggle financially as they carried the whole burden of operating expenses in addition to a yearly fee to the CHS for the rights to run it.  According to Lindsey, “We lost money at Georgetown for the first, whole bunch of years.  We made little off of it for a long, long time.”  As if this wasn’t enough, he and Rosa, while running this railroad plus the one in Central City, were still working full-time jobs, Rosa as a teacher and Lindsey with Marathon Oil, jobs without which they would never have been able to make the Georgetown Loop work.  

Henry Fonda

There were some public attempts to raise money to build the high bridge such as a plan to bring famed Academy Award winning film actor Henry Fonda to ride the line in the winter in the early 1980s and do a promo for the railroad.  Work went into the visit including fabricating a makeshift snowplow out of a smooth metal culvert for a diesel to deal with the snow on the tracks.  Disappointingly, all came to naught when Fonda got sick and was unable to make the visit.  He died not long afterwards. 

In 1981, it was finally time to let go of at least one burden, the Central City Narrow Gauge Railway.  The obstacles to extend the short line were insurmountable and the track was at last pulled up.  With the group’s focus now solely on the Loop, they brought Shay locomotive No. 14, among much other equipment, with them to Silver Plume.  

Without any knowledge of the plans for funds to construct the high bridge besides what could be garnered from information accidentally dropped, the Ashbys and their partners carried on hauling passengers from Silver Plume to the side of a forlorn abutment.  

And then, like a locomotive whistle in the distance piercing a silence, nearly three years after Dobbins’ and Willard’s passings, the hope these men had sparked suddenly came into view down the track.

The Million-Dollar Announcement

Saturday, May 15, 1982 was the watershed day.  While the loss of Dobbins and Willard was a blow to the railroad’s hopes, the hard work undertaken by many to inspire the Boettcher Foundation to give to this diminutive railroad finally paid off when the Boettcher Foundation made a public announcement that a million-dollar grant would be given to resurrect the Devil’s Gate Viaduct across the valley once again.  One of the great chronicles of the Loop’s resurgence, Georgetown and the Loop, put it this way, “Truly, Saturday, May 15, 1982 was a glorious day as it enabled those who had dreamed, planned, struggled and worked for so many years to see the completion of the rebuilding of the ‘Far Famed Georgetown Loop.’” 

The Impossible Bridge

With the money in place at last, activity in the valley took off.  The United Research Services Corporation accessed the C&S’s 1919 plans for strengthening the High Bridge to help guide their engineering plans for the new one.  While taking into account the need for changes to match updated safety requirements, URS was able to recreate the character of the bridge as closely as possible to the original.  In the meantime, the Union Pacific Railroad, which had provided the line with old, but usable rails previously, now gave one and half miles more along with ties.  These arrived in February near the construction site.  Most crucially, the construction job for the High Bridge itself was awarded to Flatiron Structures Company based out of Longmont, Colorado, who put the cost at $808,755.  

Before the full work could begin, though, an important ceremony took place.

MONDAY, MAY 2, 1983
GEORGETOWN, COLORADO

Just shy of one year has passed since the Boettcher Foundation announced the generous million-dollar gift towards the reconstruction of the Loop’s High Bridge.  On this day Mae Boettcher is handed a shovel.  

Mae Boettcher

Despite the spring date of May 2nd, 1983, a snowstorm has whipped through the valley likely requiring Mae to squint.  The stately, dignified widow of Charles Boettcher’s grandson, Charles II, is not here to shovel snow, but to turn the first shovel of dirt on the rebuilding of the Devil’s Gate Viaduct.  Surrounded by one hundred eager supporters, including numerous others who have played crucial roles in reaching this day, she feels honored to finally begin what she and her family and fellow trustees at the Boettcher Foundation had discussed for so long.

But today is really not Mae Boettcher’s day.  Today is the day to honor Mae’s late husband’s grandfather’s long-time employee, friend, and fellow trustee, E. Warren Willard, the man who served as president of the Colorado Historical Society, and as president of the Boettcher Foundation for nearly a quarter of a century.  It was Willard who, before his passing, had suggested the idea of a grant to build the High Bridge.  To honor his memory and his wish to protect and preserve Colorado history, the million-dollar grant to the Georgetown Loop was given in his name.  

Mae is not alone in turning over the symbolic first shovel of dirt.  While Willard himself cannot be here to enjoy this scene, his widow Katheryn Willard Beise can.  With likely a shiver in the spring storm, the two ladies, and John C. Mitchell, the current director of the Boettcher Foundation, drive their shovels into the hard ground and turn over the dirt.  

In a moment reminiscent of Lindsey Ashby’s trigger upon hearing of the Seabee’s interest in railroad construction, another starter pistol shot bursts out when Katheryn Willard Beise climbs the yellow, steel steps into a Caterpillar, while Mae and the others watch with anticipation, and starts the tractor’s engine, symbolically calling the workers to burst into action.  

The motor of the Caterpillar roared to life that day, initiating a sound that was to become familiar as the canyon came alive with loaders, cement trucks, and cranes.  In two months’ time, the sixteen concrete piers were in place and, by September 1st, eight steel legs, placed by the Grett Steel Company, towered above Clear Creek, casting long shadows on the valley floor. 

Lindsey Ashby photo
The week of September 19th, 1983 was filled with excitement.  Beginning on Tuesday the 20th, one
hundred years from the day that the iron for the original bridge arrived in Denver, a mammoth Grove crane started the immense process of gently raising the primer-orange painted 30-foot sections of the bridge and guiding them into place on top of the towering legs.  Work began from the north abutment with the first, second, third, and fourth sections.  The center span was left agape temporarily and the 5th span was also set on its legs.  

On Thursday, September 22nd, the middle 60-foot lattice span was ready to be installed.  One crane lifted it off the truck that ferried it to the spot, and set the girder on the ground spanning Clear Creek, 75 feet below where it would soon be placed.  Two cranes on either side of the creek had their cables fastened to the bridge piece.  The span then ascended with the state flag of Colorado flapping in the fall sunshine all the way up until it came to rest on its fresh legs.  

Eventually two of the three remaining 30-foot sections were also put in place, but a special celebration was left for the eighth and final piece. 

Todd Hackett photo-Sept. 24, 1983



Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop - part 4

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop
-part 4

by Kurt Maechner

 Great Growth and a Big Barrier

Less than a year later, on June 21, 1975, the Georgetown Loop, even as construction continued, began occasional public excursions.  In time trains began to cross the first bridge headed east out of Silver Plume, but early in the 1976 season, the railroad reached another milestone as excursion trains began to steam across the newly completed second bridge, extending the active line to nearly one and a half miles.  This bridge, known as the turntable bridge since the last span in this spot was originally used for this purpose, was found south of Denver being used as a road bridge.  To much surprise, many concluded that this was the very bridge used at this spot on the original Loop line.  Somehow it survived the scrapper’s torch and came back to carry trains in the Clear Creek Valley once again.

Excitement and construction continued over the following years, and, in 1977, a second steam locomotive, 2-8-0 No. 40 was also brought over from the Central City operation to Silver Plume.  However, the swell of amazement at the railroad’s resurrection during its second operational year, with its continued track growth and now a second steam locomotive, received a jolting blow as it came face-to-face with a massive obstacle.

In 1977 track construction ceased, and for some, enthusiasm ceased as well, at the site of the biggest hurdle to the railroad’s future.  There, high on the southern side of Clear Creek Valley, at former C&S milepost 51.70, lay the crumbling remains of the abutment that once connected the track to the famed Georgetown Loop bridge.  Now, in the place of the viaduct was a wide 300 feet of empty valley.  Quite simply, without this bridge, the Georgetown Loop would never be a loop at all. 

BETWEEN 1977-1982
SILVER PLUME, COLORADO

Locomotive smoke wafts into Harry Brunk’s nostrils.  Consolidation No. 44 puffs restlessly next to the Silver Plume depot, eager to pull this morning’s train towards Georgetown.  The news of the resurrection of this rail line has been spreading.  Harry heard of it as far back as 1971.  At the time he dismissed the whole idea as “a nice dream.”  Even after the news that several major railroads had donated to the project, Harry was convinced it was a lost cause.

Harry is a young man with a love for painting and a love for model railroading.  He will later gain

Harry Brunk later in life with his layout

fame as the man who spent three decades building a model railroad of the Clear Creek narrow gauge, including the Loop itself, a home layout that will become world-famous, eventually being so renowned that it will be enshrined in the Cheyenne Depot Museum.  

Too many tourist railroad dreams come and go and Harry knows it.  Still, he came today to see what has been happening, to at least give it a shot.  He hands a few dollars over to a woman seated behind a card table inside the freight room of the old C&S depot.  The woman’s name is Rosa, one of the operators of the line along with her husband Lindsey.  With her faithful assistant, a white dog named Tara next to her, she gives him change out of a metal box and hands him a ticket.  Ticket in hand, Harry, along with other passengers, boards the train.

Engine 44 gives two long blasts on the whistle and begins the journey downgrade.  The doubtful Brunk is struck by how much masterful engineering is traversed.  To him, the main thrust of the Loop is the high bridge, which he knows is only a ghost still lost in the past.  Still, as the narrow gauge train chuffs and twists through the valley that he assumed was nothing to shout about, he is surprised, when finally up close, at just how stunning the accomplishment of rebuilding this part of the line truly is, even without the Loop’s viaduct.

Finally, with one short blast from the locomotive’s whistle, the train comes to a stop high up on a mountainside.  Just ahead of the train is an enormous, crumbling piece of stone and mortar stuck in the south side of the valley.  This is where, until 1939, trains would have ventured out onto a spindly high bridge balanced precariously 95 ft above the creek below.  Today, however, it is the end of track, and possibly the end of hope.  Construction reached this point in 1977, and there it still sits, year after year, a gaping hole dead ahead.

A semblance of a station-stop is here at this odd end-of-the line.  The spot, referred to as Upper Georgetown is reached by those parking below at the bottom of the valley via a bridge over the creek and a mixture of trails and stairs.  With the new riders now boarded, the train begins its return journey to Silver Plume.

Despite Harry’s newfound enthusiasm for the restored segment of the line, he comes to the conclusion, as he will later write in one of his many model railroad magazine articles, “Without the high bridge, the ‘Devil’s Gate Viaduct,’ the Georgetown Loop [will] never seem complete.”  He, as well as many others, are “sure that the expense of building that tall metal structure would be so astronomical as to doom the rebuilding of the Loop.”

Despite these well-founded doubts, the operators of the line seemed convinced the line had viability even without the bridge, so much so that in 1978 they added a third steam engine to their roster with 1922 Shay geared locomotive No. 8 purchased from Oregon.

Still, Harry Brunk’s lament carried ominous legitimacy.  The line’s longevity was doubtful without the rebuilt high bridge.  Harry was also right that the cost was far beyond the means of those involved, so high in fact as to be, quite plainly, impossible.  

Yet, Harry later wrote these words, “and then the impossible happened.” 

The American Dream

The first step to make the impossible possible is to find someone with the means to change a circumstance.  The second step is to convince that someone to apply their means to the circumstance.  The story of the application of these two steps towards the modern-day Georgetown Loop’s missing high bridge goes back to one man, Charles Boettcher, whose last name adorns two commemorative plaques inside the Loop today and whose life captures the heart of the American Dream.  The story of his acquisition of substantial means begins in 1869, fifteen years before the original Loop bridge was completed.

In the same year that the United States completed its first transcontinental railroad, Charles Boettcher stepped off the gangplank from a steamship that had carried him across the Atlantic from Europe.  Gone was his native home, gone was his family, gone was everything familiar.  His homeland had turned into a disaster.  Prussia was involved with numerous wars, including wars with France, Russia, and Poland, and was also attempting to unite the German states, requiring military operations which in turn required draftees to fight the battles.  The Boettcher family refused to let their children become cannon fodder, sending their son Herman years earlier to make a life in America.  Herman’s brother Charles, at age 17, the year a Prussian boy could be drafted into the military, was also sent off to America.

Charles planned to track down Herman who now lived in Wyoming.  The two met in Cheyenne and Charles joined his brother in working at a hardware store, sleeping under the counter at night to double as a security guard.

Weekends for many hard workers in Cheyenne meant hard drinking, hard living, and quickly vanishing money.  Charles was not going to fall for it.  He worked and saved, saved and worked until those who were blowing their money found out he was a willing lender, albeit one who collected the money back with interest. 

Charles Boettcher

The sagacious, young Charles Boettcher decided to make some big moves.  First, he and his brother bought out the Cheyenne hardware store for themselves.  Then they traveled south to Colorado where they set up more of their own hardware stores.  Charles, recently married to Fannie, built his first independent store in Boulder, where he stayed until a move to Leadville, possibly arriving by the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad.  

Charles’ move to Leadville was motivated by the exploding craze of silver mining there.  However, Charles knew better than to place his bets on mining.  He always had an eye for the future and realized that more money could be made selling a miner’s pickaxe than could be made actually using it in a mine.  While in Leadville, Charles also came to another conclusion, one that would set him on a course to greatness as well as generosity: a great deal of necessary materials to develop Colorado came from other states, which led Charles to ask, ‘Why not make it here?’  

Charles Boettcher inaugurated a laundry list of Colorado businesses including a dynamite manufacturer, a bank, an electricity provider, a sugar beet company, and the business for which he is most famous, a cement producer by the name of Ideal Cement.  By the time he left Leadville for Denver to set up an investment firm with various partners, he was one of the wealthiest men in the state.

Exit the Loop; Enter the Boettcher Foundation

While Charles’ and his firm Boettcher & Company’s fortunes took off, the fortunes of the C&S narrow gauge ran out.  In 1937 the majority of the South Park district of the railroad, from Denver to Climax, was abandoned and on April 30th of that year the Interstate Commerce Commission authorized abandonment of the line west of Idaho Springs, essentially signing the death certificate of the Georgetown Loop.  Yet, happenings were afoot in this same year at Boettcher and Company that planted seeds for a Loop resurrection nearly a half century later.

Charles’ fortune had not turned him into an Ebenezer Scrooge.  The man to whom Colorado had given so much decided that he wanted to give back to his adopted home.  In 1937, Charles, along with his son Claude, decided to formalize their excitement to give back to the Centennial State and started the Boettcher Foundation with the goal of giving sizable grants to major projects within the state.  In perfect alignment with their goal, one of the first gifts from the foundation went to the founding of a school for handicapped children.

In the following year, 1938, the last year of the Loop’s operation, another important seed in its future was planted as Warren Willard took over the helm of Boettcher and Company.  Willard, along with Cris Dobbins, the eventual president of Ideal Cement who worked his way up from his start there as a teen office boy back in 1919, became a great team as they worked together on the Board of Trustees for the Boettcher Foundation.  

In 1948, Charles Boettcher, the generous, hard-working entrepreneur who still went to the office daily, died at the age of 96.  The face of the foundation he started with his son now shifted to Willard and Dobbins, who would later become important players in the Georgetown Loop’s future.

Willard, the oft-suited man with his ever present dark rimmed glasses and slicked back hair did not just love business; he loved history, joining the Colorado Historical Foundation on their board and even rising to the helm of the CHS’ presidency.  Here was a man with the love needed to spearhead historical conservation, but with the other trait that is equally necessary: the means to fund it.  That love and those means came together in a comment made in the last year of the 1970s.  

Since 1977, the Georgetown Loop had been running trains from Silver Plume, all the way to the gaping valley edge where the Devil’s Gate High Bridge once stood.  That unbridged gap looked small compared to the enormous financial valley it would take to reconstruct the mighty span.  Like Harry Brunk, many wanted to be optimistic, but too many other failed historical preservation plans had worn these hopes down to reality.  A few words, however, gave reason to believe that this railroad’s story might have a different ending.

In the late 70s, Warren Willard made a small, but thrilling comment.  The plight of the Georgetown Loop’s situation had reached his ear and he remarked that giving a grant from the Boettcher Foundation towards the reconstruction of the Loop bridge was something he was considering.  This opened the doorway just enough to let in a small ray of hope.

And Willard wasn’t the only one open to the idea of helping out the tiny railroad.  His close business partner and friend on the board of trustees, Cris Dobbins, came to the same position, albeit with some very persistent, possibly even annoying, persuasion.

“We’ve Got To Do It”

1979
DENVER, COLORADO
OUTSIDE THE BOSTON BUILDING
17th STREET

“Not again,” Cris thinks as he tries to avoid the man approaching from behind.  This is much harder to do at age 75.   On the other hand, his pursuer, Stephen H. Hart, is only four years younger.  Cris had hoped to make it into the Boston Building at 828 17th Street in Denver and upstairs, like he had been doing for decades, starting as a teen-aged office boy in 1919 and working his way up to president of the Ideal Cement Company by 1952.  In 1944 he became a trustee with the Boettcher Foundation where he and E. Warren Willard spun a vision for philanthropy together for over three decades.  

But, no, Hart will likely catch Cris once again.  This is becoming a pattern and an annoying one at that.  For Steve, it’s no problem.  He knows persistence.  He’s been talking about rebuilding the Loop since the ‘60s.

Compared to the sophisticated Cris Dobbins, Steve Hart, the one on Cris’ avoid-list, is a character,

Stephen H. Hart

though a very helpful one.  Lawyers are always good to have in your corner, especially one as good as Stephen Hart.  That doesn’t change the colorful personality of Hart who won his earlier job in the Colorado House of Representatives when his wife campaigned for him in, of all places, a bordello.  Since his switch to the law field, Steve is quite well known for his “gracious and kind” manner, along with his cuss-worded socializing and ruthless card-playing tactics with clients.  He and a colleague once beat Cris shamelessly in poker.  Dobbins, who knew his own stature in the community, was not pleased to be treated without deference, even if it was at the card table.  

Cris hurries up to reach the door of the Renaissance Revival-styled Boston Building.  As he reaches out to open it, he is successfully accosted once again by Steve, nicknamed “Buzzsaw” due to his unceasing energy.  

With a likely small eye roll, and a sigh, Cris turns to his addresser.  He knows what this is about before Steve, a former CHS president, even opens his mouth, but stopping Buzzsaw’s tongue is hopeless in this case and he once again takes an earful of why the Boettcher Foundation needs to give a large grant to that tiny tourist railroad up in Silver Plume so they can re-build an old high bridge. 

It is difficult to know exactly which plea of Hart’s finally pushed Dobbins over the edge, though Hart’s biographer called his pursuit of Dobbins on the matter “relentless.”  He was not alone in making this entreaty either.  Barbara Sudler, the CHS president, was also pressing their cause to the Foundation.  In the end, a history changing decision took flight in a comment Cris Dobbins made in response to Hart’s unending solicitude.  To whom the comment was made it is unclear, but the story is told that Dobbins sputtered the following exasperation: “We’ve got to do it.  If Steve Hart comes up to me on 17th Street one more time and talks about this, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”     

A grant from the Boettcher Foundation would be the golden spike that would finally launch the Georgetown Loop over that great open chasm and allow it to live out its name in a full completion of the Loop.

And, then came the news.  

On June 16th, 1979, Cris Dobbins, who seemed to be at last close to tipping the scales in favor of a grant, died at age 75.   



Sunday, January 15, 2023

The Twisting Tale of The Georgetown Loop - part 3

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop
-part 3

by Kurt Maechner

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 1972
CLEAR CREEK VALLEY BETWEEN GEORGETOWN AND SILVER PLUME, COLORADO

Each member emerges from their respective cars, ready for the brisk walk.  It’s time to pull this dream up on a mast to see if the wind catches it.  Either that, or it will be time to put it back in a trunk and store it in the attic once again.  

D&RGW 491
Signs of life in this long-dead railroad greet them.  The once-derelict Silver Plume depot, now sitting
up on blocks, has had work completed the previous summer to create a crawl space for the station’s new foundation.  Work has been been done to create a parking lot.  Nearby, two narrow gauge pieces of rolling stock are on the ground, a donation to the CHS from the Rio Grande when it finally abandoned its narrow gauge lines two years ago.  Four more cars and a locomotive, D&RGW 2-8-2 No. 491 were also a part of this gift, though they have yet to arrive.  Even a fence has been erected around the station site and yard to protect it.

The group sets out, trudging along the aged, vacant grade.  Aided by the sights in Silver Plume, heavy trepidation may have given way to a subtle lightness as they see a number of changes since they last walked this route.  Work has been done on the old grade to make it possible to relay track.  Near an area called Lebanon, a deep rock cut built by the original railroad has been secured after decades of disuse.  Of even more startling knowledge, these encouraging renovations were not completed by good-hearted volunteers, but by the U.S. Army with whom the CHS had worked out an agreement. 

Back in Central City, every last bit of the group’s work has been done with their own sweat, blood, and pocket books.  But here, before their eyes, someone else has begun the work and made their own investment.  Could this be the truly collective venture they have long dreamt about?

With each eastward step the group rises gradually with the incline of the roadbed, and at last reaches the empty expanse that once was the Devil’s Gate Viaduct, their hopes inwardly soaring as high as that missing structure once did.  

Looking across Clear Creek Valley to a point slightly above the site of the north abutment of the old high bridge, they can see busy Interstate 70 on the mountainside.  Compared to out-of-the-way Central City, where their present tourist railroad is located, the Loop line would have enviable public visibility as well as much more room to grow.

This might really work.  Instead of throwing their backs into a short, hard-to-support line in Central City, they could operate what Gary Morgan in his book The Georgetown Loop would later call "one of America’s most spectacular achievements in mountain railroading,” constructed by the Navy Seabees themselves.  Here was a venture to join, with all the aspects missing from Central City: visibility, support, partnership, and a promising future.  

After their walk, the group’s excitement must be palpable.  It’s time to make a proposal to the Colorado Historical Society.  If the CHS will have them, they are ready to join the work to animate the process of rebuilding the historic Georgetown Loop and in time become the operators.  

As the New Year dawned in the first month of 1973, the Central City group scheduled a meeting with the Colorado Historical Society.

JANUARY 1973
DENVER, COLORADO

    Four men enter the room for their scheduled meeting with the Colorado Historical Society.  With bated expectation, Lindsey Ashby and Dave Ropchan hope this is not only the way out of their Central City dilemma, but also the way forward.  

Along with Lindsey and Dave is Ed Gerlits, the curator of the Georgetown Loop.  They know they have an uphill road ahead as the CHS is in the middle of a public fundraising campaign to build a new museum structure in hopes of getting out of the aged building that is their present home.  How can they possibly get the society behind an even grander project at this time?  

  The answer to this question comes with the fourth, and most important, guest in the room: The Seabee commander from Dave’s office.

In the course of the conversation with the CHS, the Seabee commander presents, on paper, an official proposal.  This document spells out the details of three two-week summer camps, six weeks of bringing in construction experts to educate the battalion in the expertise of railroad track laying.

The CHS responds with an obvious question, considering that their funding is tied up with the museum building campaign, “Where are you going to get the track?”

Lindsey and his partners are ready for this question. “We’ll get it donated to the Colorado Historical Society.”  This was not an on-the-spot reply.  They had this proposal ready before the meeting, along with plans for the military to provide transportation of the track materials.  An Air National Guard group in particular was even prepared to offer use of its flatbed trailers.  And who is going to pay for all of this?  Lindsey and the others from Central City explain that they plan to cover much of it themselves. 

After talking through the details, the society representative looks at the four men and says, “We’ll go with it, but...we cannot give you a dime.  You may put our hat on and whatever you can get given to the state of Colorado, wonderful.”

With this, the two groups worked through the details of a working relationship.  Finding the Ashbys and their partners on the same page with how to go about the restoration, the CHS formalized an arrangement.  Now, while continuing their operation at Central City, the Central City Narrow Gauge Railway group also morphed into the prime movers that brought the essential pieces together to resurrect the far-famed Georgetown Loop.

Operation Silver Spike

Just a few months later, on a cool, late winter day in March, Seabee Battalion 15 arrived in Silver Plume to walk the empty grade of the Loop.  As their boots crunched on the cold dirt, the men talked through the exciting details of building an entire railroad.  The training and hands-on work “would give Reserve Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15 the skills necessary to make it the only fully organized and trained crew within the entire Naval Construction Force capable of undertaking a sizable railroad construction mission without delay under mobilization conditions.”  

Dubbing the project “Operation Silver Spike,” the Seabees set their sights to build the Georgetown Loop Railroad.

By the summer of 1973 the Georgetown Loop was seeing more activity than it had since 1921 when the original high bridge was reinforced, over a half century ago.  As the Rocky Mountain peaks heated up, donated rail began to arrive on trucks powered by the Seabees.  Several railroads, some former owners of the Georgetown line like the Burlington Northern and the Union Pacific, became benefactors and offered old rails.  Track was at last laid in Silver Plume to hold more rolling stock; there were 17 freight cars by October.  One of the steam locomotives, No. 44 from the Central City operation, later replaced there with Shay engine No. 14, followed in the path of its railroad ancestors on September 18th to Black Hawk, traveling by truck, not far from the old C&S narrow gauge roadbed, through the former railroad division point at Forks Creek, and on to Silver Plume.   

A fire was lit in No. 44’s boiler and steam drifted up from the engine’s smoke stack into the air above Silver Plume on Friday, September 21st, three days after its arrival, heralding the true arrival of the first live steam engine in the valley in almost 35 years.

The excitement continued to build with each new arrival and one year later an operating railroad would officially return to the valley.

The First Train

SATURDAY, JULY 27, 1974
SILVER PLUME, COLORADO

The rumble of a powerful engine fills the air near the old C&S Silver Plume depot.  This is not a locomotive; that will come soon.  For now, it is the rumble of a front end loader, property of the U.S. Army.  The driver rolls his vehicle to the enormous pile made of a mix of gravel and sand, shoving its teeth into the mixture.  The driver now swivels its massive rubber tires and roars off toward the tracks.

1984 photo of No. 15
The front-end loader with gravel high in the air now, maneuvers around rail lengths on the ground to
reach Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow gauge drop-bottom gondola No. 767 and lets its payload thunder with a deafening roar into her aged hold. Soon the whir of diesel No. 15, a former Oahu Railway engine that came to the Loop this month, will take over the noise competition to haul this, the very first work train on the new Georgetown Loop, down the line.  Active railroading has returned to Clear Creek Valley.

The work train’s purpose is to ballast the new track.  The Seabees will do the shoveling while the Army will spread it on the roadbed. Typically ballast rock is made of rocks that allow water to pass through it without compromising the level of track.  The Loop couldn’t get their hands on any “real” ballast so they took what they could get: the gravel-sand mix from a facility in the area owned by the state.

Construction of the Loop’s mainline began in earnest about one year ago in the fall of ‘73.  In addition to some yard track next to I-70 adjacent to the new home of the original Silver Plume depot, the Seabees started work from the site of the first bridge across Clear Creek and built upgrade toward the yard, laying a half a mile of rail.  This new mainline was just recently connected to the yard track.  

The rumbling of the front-end loader has ceased and diesel No. 15 is ready to go.  Two short blasts on the whistle echo off the canyon walls as the first of two of today’s work trains begins to descend downgrade. 

The following month, in August 1974, the first rail bridge east from Silver Plume across Clear Creek was complete and ready for track installation.  This pin truss bridge, nearly identical to the original at this spot, was found on an abandoned railroad and moved to the site the previous year.

By the end of August steam engine No. 44 came to life again, the first steam engine on the line since C&S engine 68 backed downgrade with the 1939 scrap train.  Locomotive 44 pulled a late summer freight with three cars for a special weekend of operation.  The surprised few who happened to be able to ride on this train were the first to experience a small first seed of greater things to come.   


Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop - part 2

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop
-part 2

by Kurt Maechner

 The Trigger

In the late ‘60s yet another big Georgetown Loop newspaper spread came along and, while it might have seemed like just more fruitless grandstanding, there was a group of individuals to whom it held great interest.

This group of individuals, four families to be exact, had gambled their livelihoods on a risky venture to start a tourist route in nearby Central City, Colorado.  Lindsey and Rosa Ashby, Dave Ropchan, Dick Huckeby, and Don Grace, the operators of the Colorado Central Narrow Gauge Railway Company, had built the first reconstructed C&S line in history which opened in 1968 and had been running trains out of the old mining town tourist mecca.  While they loved running their own business and doing more satisfying work than their nine-to-five jobs, numerous problems beset the short half-mile route from ever being successful and the group, with Lindsey Ashby and his wife Rosa at the helm, were scanning the horizon for a way out.  The Georgetown Loop project had the potential to be that solution.

The Ashbys and their friends had walked the Loop right-of-way many times and considered the possibilities.  Unlike Central City where they ended their short first season essentially in bankruptcy, the state had already spent a great amount of money to preserve the Loop’s grade.  Another contrast was that in order to extend the Central City line to Blackhawk as they had hoped, they would have to pay numerous people to get the land, via mining claims, whereas the entire valley between Georgetown and Silver Plume was already owned by the CHS.

On the other hand, they would be starting from scratch again, resurrecting a long dead, dormant roadbed, though this time it would require reconstruction of seven times the length of their present line, not to mention the numerous expensive bridges needed to complete the full loop.  Back in Central there were a few bridges to build as well if they were to reach Black Hawk, but only one significant one over Packard Gulch.  The Ashbys and their partners eventually even came up with a way to grade around this trestle site to avoid the structure altogether.  The Georgetown Loop, in contrast, would require not just one, but four reconstructed spans, the most prominent of which, the Devil’s Gate Viaduct, would require a bridge spanning 300 feet across a valley, 75 feet higher than the track below it and 95 feet above Clear Creek.  None of these bridges could be built around either.  The very nature of the Loop line included the bridges themselves.

April 1969 Rocky Mountain Rail Report

In the end, Lindsey and Rosa knew their chances of rebuilding the Loop were as brittle as the crumbling south high bridge abutment that they visited on their occasional walks on the old grade.  Yes, they had the railroad equipment; yes, they had the experience, but their resources were in no way comparable to the enormity of such a construction project.  Every dime they made in Central City was going back into the line anyway and they were still trying to pay back the seed money that helped them start the half-mile railroad in the first place.  Neither they nor the CHS could afford the check needed to repair and rebuild 3 1/2 miles of treacherous mountain railroad. 

The Central City group, disheartened, went back to focus on their fledgling little line when suddenly, like an Armstrong pole turns a whole engine on a turntable, one connection changed the destiny of the Georgetown Loop.

Dave Ropchan, Rosa’s brother, an engineer for the Bureau of Mines, and one of the Central City Narrow Gauge partners, knew a fellow engineer who was in the naval reserves as a Seabee commander.  He was the training fellow for two-week training camps for Seabee reservists and was looking for a place for a summer camp.  As it happened, the Seabees wanted to build, of all things, a railroad.

Uncle Sam Builds a Railroad

“Build and fight in the Navy Seabees. Wanted - Construction workers.”  

This was the text of a sign seen around the nation in 1942.  As the last stretch of the C&S narrow gauge hustled back and forth between Climax and Leadville, the US military was sending troops to Europe and the Pacific.  On December 7th of ‘41 the Japanese had shockingly bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbor in a devastating attack.  Less than a month later on the 5th of January 1942, realizing the challenge of quickly developing military bases all around the globe, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell formed a unique group of soldiers.  Not only were they able to wield weapons but they would be specialists in construction, able to build bases, runways, roads, and anything else the Navy and Marines would need.

The elite Construction Battalion, known for its “Can Do” spirit was given a diminutive name hardly
representative of their enormous skills, the Seabees.  As time and wars changed, so did the need to develop ever-changing skills.  In the Korean War the Seabees moved an entire village and sliced half of a mountain away to build an essential Navy runway in the Philippines.  In the early 1960’s they constructed the first nuclear power plant in Antarctica. 

In the 1970s the Seabees’ skills were called upon once again.  A blow to the US occurred when England, a US ally, decided to pull their military out of the Indian Ocean.  America was desperate to keep a large presence in the area.  To assist, the British agreed to hand over an atoll named Diego Garcia.  In ‘71 the Can Do Seabees were called in to the atoll to engage in what would be an 11 year project and their largest-ever construction project during peacetime, to build the Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMMSTA). 

For the Seabees, each battalion’s construction skills have to be kept up to maintain readiness even when not deployed.  One important construction skill needed in a potential war is railroad building.  The ability to move heavy equipment, supplies, and troops long distances in war has often been the specialty of wartime railroads, yet there was not a Seabees battalion left with this skill.  All of those who knew railroad construction were retired.

While many of the Seabees labored on the project at Diego Garcia, Reserve Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15 had been in training back in the States for railroad construction in mobilized circumstances.  The battalion sat through lengthy sessions in a classroom learning the ins and outs of grading a roadbed, laying track, and operations.  Happily, they had a chance to get out of the stuffy classrooms and do some actual work on track at Fort Carson, Colorado.  

    Yet, something was missing as the work still rested largely in the realm of the theoretical.  This is where the Seabee’s need and the Georgetown Loop’s need crossed paths.

When Dave Ropchan’s fellow engineer, a Seabees commander, explained their desire for on-site railroad construction experience, Dave had the solution: Would you like to regain those railroad building skills on a state project known as the Georgetown Loop?

The Seabee commander’s affirmative answer to Dave’s question was the bang of the starter pistol.  In the words of Lindsey Ashby, “You know there’s want and there’s what actually triggers you to do it.  This was the trigger.”

A Way Out and a Way Forward

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 1972

THANKSGIVING DAY

GOLDEN, COLORADO

The discussion topic is a bit unconventional for a holiday and Rosa Ashby knows it.  The top subject to discuss at Thanksgiving, according to The Saturday Evening Post, is “The proper way to cook a turkey.”  This discussion wasn’t even close.  Instead of turkeys, the talk of herself, her husband, and three others circles around rebuilding a once-world-famous railroad that presently is a moldering wreck of empty, overgrown roadbed and missing bridges with crumbling abutments.

Despite the dismal memories of the group’s visits in years past to the abandoned roadbed between Georgetown and Silver Plume, today there is a touch of actual hope about the line, the most significant of which is Dave’s Seabee friend’s interest in getting the military involved to build the track.  On top of this, signs of actual renovation on the Loop, not just aspirations, had started.

Something about President Richard Nixon’s Thanksgiving proclamation this year may have resonated: “From Moses at the Red Sea to Jesus preparing to feed the multitudes, the Scriptures summon us to words and deeds of gratitude, even before divine blessings are fully perceived.”  Similarly, this group of five is looking ahead with seeds of hope just beginning to sprout from the ground.

This holiday gathering includes Rosa’s husband Lindsey, her brother Dave Ropchan, as well as Dick Huckeby, and Don Grace.  The group is working white-knuckled on the Colorado Central Narrow Gauge Railway in Central City, the first rebuilt C&S line in history.  The five-year-old line is a risky business venture and it is still hard work running a short tourist railroad that can’t charge a great deal for fare and has a questionable future.  Was the Loop the way out?   

The questions and emotions swirling about the room this day surround one crazy question: Can they put a fire under a listless idea and help actually reconstruct and then run the once world-famous Georgetown Loop?

Finally, someone suggests an idea: Walk the grade once again.  Maybe if they get out on the ground they can catch a vision, along with some courage to take this on, or maybe what they see will deflate them and redirect them to safer ground and the relief of letting go of an unachievable dream.  

The date for the walk was set for three days later. 



Monday, January 9, 2023

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop - Part 1

The following is a several part series I have been working on to chronicle the history of the restoration of the C&Sng's Georgetown Loop.  I've tried to research what happened from its abandonment in 1939 to the first train over the reconstructed bridge in 1984.  Sources vary from interviews and correspondence with some of the Loop's founders and some of those who worked the line in its early days.  I am particularly indebted to Lindsey Ashby for the time he took to share his experiences with me.  Of course many books such as DSP&P and its supplement, Documentary History of the South Park Line Vol. 7 and 8, C&S Clear Creek District Memories and Then SomeNarrow Gauge to Central and Silver Plume, The Georgetown Loop: Colorado's Scenic Wonder, and especially Georgetown and the Loop, along with online sources were also used.  I would be happy to receive any information that my readers may have to add to, adjust, or correct the content.  

The Twisting Tale of the Georgetown Loop

by Kurt Maechner

A Math Story Problem

1. Two towns both reside in the same narrow valley.  The second town is 2.1 miles west of the first and 638 feet higher in elevation.  What track layout would allow a narrow gauge railroad to reach from the eastern to the western town without exceeding a four percent grade (a rise of 4 feet for every 100 feet of track)?

This classic-styled math story problem is precisely what faced the perplexed engineers of the Colorado Central Railroad in 1881.  The railroad had reached from Golden to Georgetown, Colorado via Clear Creek Canyon in 1877.  Now, however, explosions of gold and silver mining in Silver Plume, just over 2 miles up the valley were beckoning the railroad on.  An even greater draw was coming from the mining boom in Leadville farther west.  While other railroads were already in the process of reaching Leadville, they all took long routes to do so.  In contrast, if the Colorado Central could build over or tunnel under what would later be named Loveland Pass, it would create the shortest, most direct route from Denver to Leadville in the state.  

The first step for the Colorado Central in a direct route to the cash cow called Leadville was to build 2.1 miles west out of the end-of-track at Georgetown to the next town of Silver Plume.  Due to the sharp rise in elevation between the two towns, this tricky bit of engineering would require a talented engineer.  Jacob Blickensderfer left his job at the Frisco Railway to take on the role of locating engineer under what was then called the Georgetown, Leadville and San Juan Railroad.  

Improving on an earlier survey completed by Captain E.L. Berthoud, Blickensderfer worked out a design for the railroad to leave Georgetown following the southern side of Clear Creek Valley and then cross the creek in a reverse curve and continue to climb up the northern side of the valley heading back towards Georgetown.  Then, at its most dramatic move, the railroad would suddenly loop over the trackage below on a high curved trestle, 75 feet above the track it just came from.  Now back on the southern side of the valley, the line turned again toward Silver Plume.  Farther upgrade, the track would veer towards the northern side of the valley, cross Clear Creek, take a sharp curve to cross back over the creek and, after a tangent, curve back toward Georgetown again and then enter a sharp opposite curve in serpentine fashion over a large dirt fill back towards Silver Plume, leaving two more curves before reaching town.  In the end, 2.1 miles of distance and 638 feet of elevation would require 4.47 miles of track with a gradient of 143 feet per mile, or 2.7%.

Construction began in 1881 and finally in 1884, after many years-worth of delays due to various problems including workforce issues, construction errors, and inclement weather, trains began slithering through Clear Creek Canyon from Denver to Georgetown and then over the great high bridge, dubbed the Devil’s Gate Viaduct, and on to Silver Plume in April on the stunning new Loop Line.  

The youthful Georgetown Loop quickly became a tourist sensation.  While its primary purpose was to serve the mines, the railroad ran excursions over the Loop from its very beginning, and tourism became its bread and butter.  Despite the railroad never being extended over Loveland Pass to Leadville and even the eventual decline in mining revenue, for over four decades tourists the world over came to ride the line that was described in brochures and news articles in such fanciful words as “The Serpentine Trail,” “the far-famed Georgetown Loop,” and “the famous Georgetown Loop.”

The Bridge Comes Down

Sadly, the excitement could only last so long.  In proof of the fickleness of man’s curiosity, the burgeoning popularity of the automobile and its individual freedoms in the early twentieth century stole hearts and pocketbooks away from the picturesque line.  By the late 1920s, passenger service was reduced, eventually dwindling in the 1930s to the offer of conveyance in the caboose on freight trains for the sporadic passenger.   With freight also falling precipitously, the railway called for permission to curtail service west of Idaho Springs, the last major town before Georgetown.  


In March 1938 Carl Hewett birthed what would become known as the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club when he submitted the following text for publication in Railroad Magazine: “I want to hear from persons interested in forming a rail fan group in Colorado, especially around Denver.  Also, I’d like to organize a narrow gauge fan trip over the famous Georgetown Loop.”  Surely knowing that the historically significant Idaho Springs to Silver Plume stretch was on the road to abandonment, Hewett rushed to beat the grim reaper.  The club had their inaugural meeting on March 30th, attended by individuals who are now iconic names in Colorado rail fan history such as Otto Perry and Richard Kindig among others, but for reasons lost to history, the Loop excursion never occurred and the Colorado & Southern Railway received the final green light from the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon this part of the line less than a year later in February 1939.

The Steamboat Pilot newspaper of February 23, 1939 stated, “Work on removal of the track of the C&S Railroad started at Silver Plume last week.  It is reported that the famous Georgetown Loop trestle was sold for $450, the depot at Georgetown for $50 and four bridges for $50.  Rails and other iron will be sold at scrap prices.”  And so, in March of 1939, the rails of the line “once regarded as one of the outstanding engineering feats in the world” found themselves, as stated in the same newspaper a month later, “ripped up and unceremoniously hauled away.”  Three months after this, the railroad dismantled the bridge itself.  Some of the pieces of this renowned viaduct, whose image a few decades ago had graced ornamental pitchers and spoons, were now ignominiously sold off for use as supports in mine shafts.   

After 55 years, the cold wind could once again flow freely in the valley, no longer stopped by the spindly, but mighty, supports of the grand viaduct.  The only memory of the Loop besides the empty grade, the smaller bridges, and crumbling viaduct abutments became a mournful tombstone-shaped historical marker placed on August 17th, 1947 by the State Historical Society of Colorado.  

While the railroad became a silent memory, the valley was not to stay desolate for long.  Something was advancing from the east.  This time, however, it was not a train.  An interstate highway was on the march.

The Concrete Leviathan Cometh

Five years after the Georgetown Loop was torn up, the U.S. government passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 which led to the construction of an interstate highway spanning from Baltimore, Maryland, all the way to Colorado’s capital in Denver, named Interstate 70.  Considering the reality of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that had even become not-so-cold for three years in Korea from 1950-1953, national transportation was important for more than vacationers.  Consequently, a highway that struck out in the east and ended at the foot of the Rocky Mountains did not help connect our western flanked states.

Many were in favor of pushing I-70 west from Denver over and through the Rocky Mountains and up through Utah to reach the west coast.  Utah, however, dug in its heels against the plan.  It was quite aware that the portion of the highway through their territory would necessitate copious amounts of state money to build over their intimidating mountain ranges.  

At last, in 1956, following lengthy mediation with Utah, and after a push by supporters, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was enacted to push I-70 west of Denver to California.  Tackling the Rocky Mountains of Colorado was to be no easy feat.  As one chronicler described it, the “Engineers and construction crews had to cope with the high altitude, seemingly impassable mountain slopes, and harsh weather conditions.”

Additionally, to traverse these mountains, two large highway tunnels would need to be built, the Eisenhower Tunnel and the Johnson Tunnel, both just west of Silver Plume.  Millions of dollars, hundreds of workers, and repeated delays would be part and parcel of this endeavor.

The oncoming concrete leviathan, welcomed by many, struck fear into a few.  I-70, that many-laned monster, was slated to steamroll right through the valley between Georgetown and Silver Plume, obliterating forever the feeble remains of the once glorious Georgetown Loop.  

But it was just the scar of an abandoned railroad, so who could be concerned?  

As it turned out, preservation moves were afoot.  In 1959 Stanley R. Wallbank donated 100 acres of land and the Lebanon-Everett silver mine, in the midst of the old Loop, to the Colorado Historical Society (CHS).  In addition, James Grafton Rogers, Georgetown mayor and head of the CHS, had decided that the valley between Georgetown and Silver Plume would be ideal to develop as a representation of the state’s mining history, particularly because of the remains of the famed Loop, an idea shared by Benjamin P. Draper, an early supporter of Georgetown’s historical value.  

But just as the seeds of the idea of rebuilding the line were beginning to sprout, they were suddenly in grave jeopardy due to the impending highway onslaught.

At the time, one of the few intrusions into this unspoiled historical valley, was two-lane U.S. 6.  It meandered along through the valley, passing just next to where the north abutment of the high bridge once stood, and caused very little disturbance to the area’s historical remains.  This was due to change as the massive, wide I-70 was to mirror the same trajectory, demolishing much of the area.  

The Colorado Historical Society’s only hope to save the Loop and its surrounding historical sites was to convince the state to route the highway away from the valley, an idea that would oppose what surely seemed, to those building the road, as the most economical direction.  Considering the hundreds of millions of dollars required for mountain road construction and tunnels of grand proportions, the chances of the highway department being willing to complicate matters and increase finances even more than already planned must have seemed slim at best.

Sparks of Hope

A surprise awaited all.  Ironically, the almighty Road that killed the railroad in the first place became a part of its historical salvation.  In a perplexingly benevolent move, the Colorado General Assembly worked diligently to protect the valley, leading the highway department to construct I-70 on the northern slope of Clear Creek Valley above the level of the Loop’s high bridge site.   The State Highway Department not only worked together with the historical society, but even erected an overlook for travelers to stop and view the valley and the remains of the Loop. 

The positive outcome of the close-call with I-70’s construction was a serious sigh of relief for those who believed in the Loop’s future.  However, saving the land didn’t change the fact that the valley’s historical sites and railroad remnants were still a discarded, deteriorating wreck.  Thankfully, this did not stop the dream of the Colorado Historical Society to see the Georgetown Loop come back to life, even if the dream seemed quite hazy at times.  Thankfully, nostalgia kept this weak flame lit.

Nostalgia for the Loop was on display in many places, like the sight of angled, wet spring snow spattered on the side of C&S standard gauge engine 809 and its train at Denver Union Station on April 8th, 1959 as the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club’s special waited to haul over a hundred guests to Golden over the former dual-gauge track.  This was the club’s annual dinner and the focus of the night was to be the Georgetown Loop, with a presentation at the Holland House hotel by noted rail photographer R. H. Kindig, a man who had himself been present to photograph the last solemn move of rail cars over the high bridge just a hair over 20 years ago.  Slides of his photos from the Loop’s last days in 1939 were projected to the crowd as they reminisced about that seemingly lost treasure that might still rise from the dead someday.

Nostalgia and hope for the future of the Loop did not only float amongst rail fans.  Over the years, major Colorado newspapers like The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News would periodically raise the sails on the idea of the Colorado Historical Society rebuilding the Loop someday in full or two-page picture spreads.  The printed dreams likely emanated from the Society, now led by the vivacious Stephen H. “Buzzsaw” Hart with James Grafton Rogers serving as the board’s chairman. According to the January 1967 Rocky Mountain Rail Report these two men had “been talking reconstruction of the loop for several years.”

Still, these articles seemed like blowing smoke.  Unlike its present self, the comparatively tiny CHS did not have the means or expertise to put any actual wind in the sails of its bombastic claims of reconstruction.  In fact, to some, the society seemed much more preoccupied with blowing wind into its fundraising campaign to erect its own new museum building.

January 1967 Rocky Mtn. Rail Report

    
Despite the lack of working attention on the Loop, the turbulent ‘60s did see some small but important movement.  The rail company that once owned the Georgetown Loop, the Union Pacific (formerly known as the Union Pacific, Denver & Gulf), sent a gracious $10,000 to the project in 1966.  The CHS also got help from the Bureau of Land Management to keep new business and home construction out of the historical valley.  The Loveland Basin Ski Patrol even helped by moving the old C&S Silver Plume depot out of the path of the oncoming highway construction which had been bulldozing its oncoming path on all sides of the old station.  The Ski Patrol purchased the building as their headquarters until it might be used again for a reconstructed Loop in the future.  The move and new ownership also gave the derelict 1884 building some overdue roof and interior maintenance. 

These token gestures, however, did not change the fact that in the big picture little was happening.  Of course, the road to inactivity on the reconstruction dream was paved with good intentions.  The CHS even crowned a man by the name of Ed Gerlits as curator of the project, yet even he admitted that there was no active plan for the work.  Like a bucket list with no budget, the Georgetown Loop seemed destined to molder unless the money, expertise, and motivation could arrive.