Colorado has one of the most colorful railroad histories in the world. Following the discovery of gold and silver in the Rockies, railroad lines were pushed up nearly every canyon and high pass, making them the lifeline of every mining camp and community in the state.
It was the railroads that changed Denver from a wild frontier town to a large, urban city -- the most elegant and sophisticated metropolis between Chicago and Los Angeles. The colorful history of railroading through the Rockies has inspired railroad buffs for many years, making Denver one of the major destinations in the world for rail fans. But even railroad novices will enjoy some of the model railroads and railroad museums to be found in the area.
THE COLORADO RAILROAD MUSEUM
Established in 1958, this museum has the largest collection of historic records, mementos, artifacts, photos and stock of Colorado railroads. At one point, more than 2,000 miles of narrow-gauge track probed the mountains of Colorado, and the exciting era comes to life at the Colorado Railroad Museum.
The Museum is housed in a replica of an 1880-style masonry depot, filled with 50,000 rare old photographs and artifacts. Outside on 12 acres of sprawling grounds are more than 50 narrow- and standard-gauge locomotives, cars and other rolling stock. The museum has its own spur, allowing it to have "steam ups" throughout the year. In the basement of the museum is one of Colorado's largest HO model railroad exhibits, representing more than 20 years work in an area 45 feet by 20 feet, much of it recreating a cross-section of the state's most interesting railroads such as those at Cripple Creek, Telluride and Tennessee Pass. There are also many special events throughout the year, including Steam Ups With Thomas, visits from Santa and much more. It's a great, family-friendly attraction. Locomotives and cars come from such famous Colorado railroads as the Colorado Midland; the South Park, the Florence & Cripple Creek; the Denver Boulder & Western; and the Manitou & Pikes Peak.
The Rio Grande Southern 1931 Galloping Goose No. 2; a meticulously restored Rio Grande 1881 Baldwin 2-8-0 engine; a huge Burlington CB&Q 4-8-4 locomotive; and the "Navajo," a 1937 steel observation car once used on the Santa Fe Super Chief. The museum also has the Railroad Book Store with more than 1,000 titles as well as an assortment of railroad gifts, tapes, magazines and memorabilia.
The Denver Trolley is a replica of an open-air "Seeing Denver" streetcar operated by the Denver Tramway Company in the pre-World War I era. The trolley follows a scenic route along the South Platte River, beginning near the REI building at Confluence Park. It then goes by the Downtown Aquarium, Children's Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus, Empower Field at Mile High and other attractions.
THE GEORGETOWN LOOP RAILROAD
The Georgetown Loop Railroad is a reconstruction of one of Colorado's most famous railroads. The original railroad reached Georgetown in 1877 and builders intended to continue it to the rich mining town of Leadville. That line was never completed, but it was decided to push the railroad up the valley another two miles to the neighboring mining camp of Silver Plume. The problem was that Silver Plume was 600 feet higher in elevation. To gain that much altitude that fast, the railroad had to twist and turn four and a half miles, making two and a half complete circles and at one point crossing over itself on a 90-foot-high trestle -- the Devil's Gate Bridge. With the collapse of the mining industry and the coming of the automobile, the railroad was closed and in 1939 the bridge and rails were torn up for scrap metal. For 35 years the grade lay undisturbed, but then the Colorado Historical Society began to buy the land to reconstruct and operate the railroad. Steam returned to the valley in 1975, and in 1984 the Devil's Gate Bridge was reopened. Today, steam-powered locomotives make the climb up the valley through the end of September. The train may be boarded in Georgetown or Silver Plume and offers panoramic views, particularly when crossing the bridge. From the open air viewing cars it is possible to see big horn sheep and other wildlife, and the sound of the train whistle echoing down the valley is unforgettable.
Tiny Town began in 1915 at the site of an old stage coach stop just outside of Denver when George Turner began erecting one-sixth sized buildings for his young daughter. In 1920, the town was open to the public and in just five years it became one of Colorado's top five attractions. By 1939, a miniature railway was added, but a flood, a fire and changing economic conditions forced the attraction to close. In 1988, volunteers began the resurrection of Tiny Town. Today, more than 100 colorful buildings are in place, all beautifully hand-crafted with wonderful details, many with full interiors. Some of the buildings are exact replicas of famous structures from Colorado's history, but all fit the character of a Colorado village at the turn of the century. The one-sixth size village is circled by the miniature tiny town railway, a mile-long run with open-air cars pulled by an authentic steam locomotive similar to the narrow-gauge locomotives that once worked the mountain lines of Colorado. The train crosses a trestle over a small stream, and curls through tall pine trees in its lovely mountain location, affording excellent views of the 100 buildings of the village.
FORNEY MUSEUM OF TRANSPORTATION
The Forney Museum of Transportation is a one-of-a-kind collection of more than 500 exhibits relating to historical transportation. It began with antique cars, but soon expanded to include vehicles of all kinds. Some of these are familiar, while others spark the imagination. Highlights include the Big Boy, the world's largest steam locomotive, and a selection of Forney Locomotives, as well as rail cars and private cars.
Constructed in the spring of 2000, Hudson Gardens' Garden Railroad features more than 700 feet of "G" gauge railroad brass track, trestles, bridges, waterfalls, and a variety of plantings matching the scale of the miniature trains. Higher and lower loops allow two trains to run simultaneously--a diesel engine and a steam engine. And a third rail even runs a trolley on a short line.Over 40 tons of rock were used to create this condensed Colorado landscape. A great diversity of plants, from dwarf conifer to rock garden miniatures "create" the garden. The water is recycled to the lower pond and up over the two waterfalls. The Railroad Garden is a popular attraction for Garden Railroad enthusiasts of all ages! The railroad runs May through the first weekend in October.
OTHER RAILROADS IN COLORADO
ROYAL GORGE ROUTE
Considered by many to be the most spectacular stretch of rail in America, the Royal Gorge Route offers the best experience of the Royal Gorge on a breathtaking, two- or three-hour scenic and historic train ride on the most famous portion of the former Denver & Rio Grande Western train line. The tracks cling to a narrow ledge while the canyon walls rise 2,000 feet straight above. A highlight is the world-famous "Hanging Bridge." The train features one of Colorado's finest gourmet lunch and dinner train experiences throughout the year, as well as many special events, including Mother's Day Brunch, Oktoberfest and Santa Express Train.
CRIPPLE CREEK & VICTOR NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD
Take a ride on the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, a four-mile round trip through one of the most historic gold fields in Colorado on authentic steam locomotives. Cripple Creek legalized casino gambling in October 1991, and now offers over 20 casinos with slot machines, poker and blackjack. The train runs daily from Memorial Day Weekend through October.
DURANGO & SILVERTON NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad - an American legend. The daily 90-mile round trip train excursion from Durango to Silverton allows you to travel through the San Juan mountains of Southwestern Colorado, going into areas accessible only by train. Coaches, open gondolas, parlor car, fired steam operated narrow-gauge locomotives. Five trains operate during the peak of season. Open from early May to late October.
CUMBRES & TOLTEC SCENIC RAILROAD
500 S. Terrace Ave, Chama, NM
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is America's longest (64 miles each way) and highest (10,015 feet) narrow- gauge steam railroad. Starting in Antonito, Colorado, the line angles southwest through rolling high country, then begins a steady climb through the forested slopes of the San Juan range, passing through groves of pine and at 10,015 feet in spectacular Toltec Gorge of the Los Pinos River. The line then begins a precipitous 4-percent grade drop into Chama, New Mexico.
COLORADO & SOUTHERN R.R. CO
326 E. 7th St., Leadville
Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the nation, is the departure point for the Leadville,Colorado and Southern Railroad. The train leaves from Leadville's century-old depot and travels over the old Colorado & Southern high line, following the headwaters of the Arkansas River up to a spectacular view of Fremont Pass. Then it's down to French Gulch water tower where the train stops to view Mt. Elbert, Colorado's highest peak.