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Gondola freight rail car gets new lease on life

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Old #4319 to play a part in the historical Como Project

by Patty Unruh

Generations of Gilpin County families have enjoyed picnicking and fishing at William C. Russell Park above Central City. Likely, many of them recall the deteriorating rail gondola that, until recently, rested there by the pond. If that old #4319 could talk, it could probably tell tales of the old glory days when it was part of the Colorado Central Railroad in the late 1800’s. It might even recall the fun it had carrying passengers in the 1980’s or posing for photos with groups of kids. If you go to the park for a picnic this week, though, you’ll see a vacant spot – the gondola has gone on to a new life in Park County.

The South Park Rail Society (SPRS) in tiny Como, not far from Fairplay, is leasing the gondola from Central City for the next ten years as part of its “Como Project,” an effort to restore the rail history of Como. Members of the non-profit project are rebuilding a section of the old Colorado & Southern Railway (C&S) and preserving and restoring old railway equipment from the C&S and the Denver South Park and Pacific. The group is restoring the 1881 Como Roundhouse and preserving the area’s operating steam locomotives in the South Park of Colorado.

The Colorado Central Railroad made its first scheduled run into Black Hawk in 1872, primarily to bring refined gold out of the mountains, according to www.gilpintram.com. A few years later, work began to extend the track to Central City, and the first train on the Colorado Central Railroad chugged into the city in 1878.

“The railroad was reorganized in 1899 to be called the Colorado & Southern,” explained Tim Bain, vice president of SPRS. “Train service to Central City ended in 1925 and to Black Hawk in the early 1940’s.”

Our local gondola freight car was built by the C&S in Denver in 1902 and is the only surviving narrow gauge gondola car from the C&S, Bain noted.

A crew from the SPRS arrived at Russell Park on June 5 to load the railcar on the back of a Kenworth 18-wheeler. The job required a lot of manpower. Three men came from the SPRS, two people from the trucking company, and one from Central City Public Works. They brought a backhoe to move rocks out of the way and also cleaned up the old rails and ties before transporting the railcar for the journey over Kenosha Pass to its new home.

The SPRS will restore the gondola at the original Colorado & Southern Railway Roundhouse in Como and display it there when the work is completed.

“It’s currently missing much of the coupler hardware and some brake rigging parts,” Bain advised. “We will be finding these parts to help make the railcar operational again. We are fairly well versed with parts out there and can bring in some from Oregon and Kansas. There is some deteriorated wood that will need to be replaced, too.”

The car was also modified in the late 1980’s, including having a doorway cut in the side of the car to allow the tour operator of that time to carry passengers. It actually did run for two years from the old site in Central City on the original grade down about one-quarter of a mile and back again. This was also about the last time for the operation of the old locomotive that is still in Central City, currently located on its pedestal next to the Grand Z Casino & Hotel.

Bain related that the modifications damaged much of the historical material in the railcar. However, the SPRS is committed to preserving as much of the historical fabric of the railcar as possible.

“Our goal is not to rebuild this railcar but to preserve as much of the railcar as possible, so it can continue to exist for decades to come. After all, it is the last C&S car of its type in existence.”

Bain reported that the SPRS has known about #4319 for decades, but only recently have they been in a position to develop a museum in Como. They now have a facility to put the railcar under cover and do the restoration work. SPRS approached Central City last fall about doing a ten-year lease for a nominal fee in exchange for doing the restoration. Bain estimated two years to complete the work.

SPRS will provide the Central City Council with the restoration plan and a full report on everything they plan to do and where the parts are coming from. The Council must approve the plan before SPRS begins work on the railcar. While the work is progressing, SPRS will give updates and will submit a completion report when the job is finished. The lease states that the Council has access to the railcar for inspection, if desired.

Rail History in Como

Como has a lot in common with the Central City-Black Hawk area and Gilpin County. Both areas are rich in history and are blessed with folks who desire to preserve that history and make it come alive.

The SPRS website, www.southparkrailway.com, details the railroad’s rise and decline in Como. In the 1860’s and 1870’s, railways were being built to take advantage of gold and silver discoveries in Colorado. The original Denver, South Park & Pacific Railway built the Como train station in 1879, and Como became the railway’s division headquarters. The town had a large stone roundhouse, a turntable, coal docks, a railway depot and a two-story hotel with a dining room. Como was home to many employees, trainmen, shop workers and their families and for 60 years was the center for trains entering and leaving town. Of course, the railroad brought people to Como who were looking to strike it rich with gold and silver.

However, the railroad’s heyday finally came to an end, and the last scheduled passenger train left Como in 1937. In 1938, the rails in Como were removed, and the old depot gradually deteriorated.

The Como Project

Como has only a handful of year-round residents. These folks were saddened by the disrepair of the old depot and wanted to restore its vibrant rail history. Hundreds of volunteers joined these residents on the Como Project from 2008 to 2015 to return the depot to its 1885-1910 appearance. It is now a fully functioning museum operated by the Denver South Park & Pacific Historical Society. The depot complex has three main structures — the train depot, railway hotel, and stone roundhouse, plus the original bunk houses and track car sheds.

Workers have also rebuilt the tracks and brought in a restored 1912 Baldwin steam locomotive. On August 19, 2017, it was the first scheduled train in 80 years to arrive at the Como Depot, greeted by a cheering crowd. This event marked the beginning of steam operations returning to the town. Please see www.southparkrailway.com for the 2018 operating schedule.

The Como Depot, which has been designated as a National Historic Register site, is now owned by Como resident David Tomkins. The Denver South Park &Pacific Historical Society now leases the depot and is developing a museum of South Park railway artifacts.

The work of restoring railroad artifacts continues. If you’d like to help support this project, contributions may be sent to South Park Rail Society, 2253 N. Downing St., Denver, CO 80205.​

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