Dream of restoring a tourist train between Black Hawk and Central City
By Jaclyn Schrock
The train whistle could be heard in Central City again. Hopes circle like coal smoke for the chugging of steel wheels on 42” narrow gauge rails, July 4th, 2020. As a nonprofit group, Central City Railroad and Mining Museum (CCRMM) has made progress to restore the old train right of ways and acquiring IRS nonprofit status. Nonprofit grants for trains and History Colorado, diligent volunteer efforts cooperating with local government decisions can make reality the revival of engine #71 powered by steam, as in days gone by.
We can see the Colorado and Southern engine #71 with a baggage car on display at the Grand Z Casino and Hotel in Central City, resting after discontinuing service with the tourist train in 1990. At that time #71 was owned by the Gilpin Historical Society, since transferred to Central City. These are the two original pieces of 1870-1949 Colorado and Southern Railroad to be used in starting up phase one of the Central City Railroad and Mining Museum.
On Wednesday, October 23, from 6-8 p.m. the Little Kingdom Room in the Teller House was the gathering place for Central City historic train enthusiasts. The news that “the train is coming” was presented by flyers emailed or posted on social media. Braving the blizzard, about 25 people filled the room along with JKQ menu service, free snacks and beverages. One wall had three posters set on tables displaying photos and text explaining CCRMM’s plan to restore a tourist train beginning in Central City.
The purpose of the meeting was to make public information of the historical hands-on experience plan. Input from the local community was requested about the inclusion of the railroad and mining museum anticipating potential impact regarding more traffic for a hands-on and limited traditional static museum experiences.
The presentation began with Johnny Knapp, CCRMM Secretary enthusiastically announcing the nonprofit status being obtained along with a lease on 220 Spring Street. The funds appear to be in place to construct a temporary facility to dismantle and assure compliance with the mechanisms of engine #71. Moving the locomotive and baggage car to the workshop would follow construction of the building. The temporary design could facilitate a move if or when other station and rail yard options developed.
18,000 feet of track is part of the first phase of the railroad’s plan to allow up 25,000 railroad riders to enjoy the hands-on experience the first summer season. The rail bed would also need to be inspected and made secure for the one way travel of the train to return in reverse. Volunteers are welcomed to join in the restoration and other projects. Dream along with CCRMM on the other phases they ponder with realistic paths to arrive there.
Mr. Knapp explained that CCRMM’s board included himself as Secretary, Bob Bassett acting as President, and Court Hammond, CCRMM’s Chief Operations Officer. Mr. Bassett was unable to attend Wednesday’s gathering. A local citizens’ question about bylaws for CCRMM was answered with an assurance that those are in place and can be made available to those interested.
Also present and speaking was Candice Rosenberger, who brings financial and marketing experience along with personnel relations management to the project. She is working in the capacity of a grant writer as well with CCRMM and enthusiastic to make this dream reality.
It was recognized that there was an abundance of grant opportunities to restore trains. Most require that the rolling stock be owned by a nonprofit group to make funds available. CCRMM is offering options to Central City to consider providing funding to seek further funding to progress the project, or with responsible negotiations release ownership of #71 and the baggage car from Central City to another nonprofit organization. Many opportunities are on the horizon.
Court Hammond was with the previous tourist railroad between Central City and Black Hawk which ran in the late 1980’s. The original passenger and freight train ran from 1878 to 1931. Mr. Hammond is familiar with the operations, correctives learned from experience, and many of the train’s resources origin, condition, and current resting places.
Questions had a wide range, including sparks, noise, and parking from the previous experience with a steam train running through town. All were answered with plans for improvements, including testing various whistles for the residents to select their preferences of the required sounds to warn locals of the train’s forward, backward, and stopping activities. Many locals offered suggestions for potential growth for the project.
Many in the Little Kingdom Room remember the way people came to Central City to relive the experience of riding the train, mining, and hardships of those who settled Gilpin County. In the 1970’s visitors conquered the challenge of steep slopes to contemplate novelties of the ice cream, rock shop, and antique shops. Many still tell tales of who worked in the various restaurants and saloons, living out the ghostly life in the 1980’s of Gilpin County’s government seat. Yet, the tourist train and the city’s charm kept people coming up this mountain, even before the current draw of casinos.
From 1987 through 1990 nearly 55,000 riders boarded the steam engine’s cars to ride the narrow gauge rails between Central City and Black Hawk. Our locally revived steam train, Black Hawk and Central City Tourist Railroad, was part of a travel package for tourists to experience all the narrow gauge trains in Colorado.
The original bridge near the City Hall in Black Hawk was an icon for memories, with the whistles and smoke and well-traveled historians smiling and waving. Seeing the train on that bridge or riding the curves to climb 540 feet in elevation in 4 miles of track, helped many to understand what it took to having mining communities in these mountains, after the Civil War. That steep elevation rise could be traveled with a donkey in a mile, but took over 4 miles of track to make the trip with the elevation changes by train.
The station for the tourist train of the 1980’s in Central City was the former Weekly Register-Call building at 220 Spring Street. The original 1881 Central City train station was buried under mine tailings, and covered with rocks to avoid health concerns at the end of the Big-T parking lot near Central’s City Hall.
Back in 1872, the original old Black Hawk RR station was a stone building that stopped the train from going farther upstream. The Colorado and Southern Railroad had regular trains transporting goods between Denver through Golden and up Clear Creek to that junction (now HWY 119 and US 6 just below the Z-Stop gas station).
From that junction, trains could take the south fork to Idaho Springs, Georgetown, and Silver Plum, or the north fork to Black Hawk and a spur to Floyd Hill. It took six more years to go beyond the stone Black Hawk depot. Improvements graded the railroad bed to progress two more miles up the north fork of Clear Creek to switch back briefly running parallel to the tracks by Clear Creek, 400’ higher in elevation reaching Central City and hoped for Nevadaville.
1881 travel guide books for the Black Hawk/ Central City train ride assured travelers this section was not to be missed.
Late 1980 guests were thrilled by the experience to ride the coal-powered steam train in passenger cars donated by the Rio Grande RR, now that gas engines are the most frequent modes of transportation.
According to Mr. Hammond, the Colorado and Southern (C&G) narrow-gauge lines were formed in 1898 from multiple reformations of railroads. These lines connected Colorado Central and the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroads. The narrow gauge tracks benefited travel in mountain terrain. The four distinct lines united as the Colorado and Southern Railroad included:
- The Platte Canyon line from Denver to Como, Colorado
- The Gunnison line from Como to Gunnison, via Alpine Tunnel
- Highline between Como and Leadville
- The Clear Creek line from Denver to Silver Plum, and our branch between Forks Creek and Central City
Major branch lines of the C&G narrow-gauge included: The Gunnison and Baldwin, the Keystone from Dickey, the Black Hawk branch, the Morrison Branch from Denver to Morrison, and the Alma branch from Alma to Como.
The Colorado and Southern, Wikipedia said, did not get new engines, but inherited and used 56 engines in 1900 from the parent railroads. Mr. Hammond says by 1940 the number of engines was down to 15, with five remaining today: #191 is at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. #9 is in Breckenridge. #60 is in Idaho Springs. #74 is in Boulder, and #71 is in Central City.
Engine #71 ran over the entire C&G system, being one of the heaviest engines. It made many trips from Denver to Como, Breckenridge, and Leadville. When segments of those lines were abandoned between 1935-38, #71 ran from Denver to Golden and up Clear Creek to Black Hawk and Idaho Springs.
#71 made its last trip in September of 1940. It was retired in April of 1941 and moved to Black Hawk. Later it was trucked to Central City and put on display at 220 Spring Street.
Current Colorado narrow gauge trains operating include:
–The Georgetown Loop Railroad, part of the old C&S system which served 142,000 passengers in 2018.
–Durango and Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, with 213,000 passengers in 2018.
–Cubres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, Antonito, Colorado with 52,800 passengers in 2018.
Mr. Hammond recognizes many demographic changes in Central City since the former tourist train stopped running. Thirty years ago, it was an addition to the attractions of the historic city’s buildings, cemeteries, and shops with the Opera House, Gilpin Historical Society Visitor’s Center and Museums, and the Hidee Mine.
In 2020, the Central City Railroad and Mining Museum experience hopes to be the anchor of attractions, offering a hands-on thrill. The inclusion of the Art Museum, summer festivals, weekly historical re-enactments and casino choices also draws others to the area.
Emphasizing the hands-on aspect of the mining railroad is the fresh approach for the Central City Railroad and Mining Museum experience. The CCRMM is a drawing source for visitation, because of its broad appeal for visual and hands-on experiences.
Studies analyzing tourism show that more people are looking for live, active history, versus stationary attractions. The CCRMM would draw more people to the towns of Central City and Black Hawk, and increases the time that visitors who are already in town spend experiencing the rest of the attractions that exist in the area.
What do you think about reviving historic train traffic in Gilpin County? Let Central City and Black Hawk know how you feel as they consider these destination attractions to our historic mountain community.