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Fall colors from the train

Kathy BedellVail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily/ Gary Phillips
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LEADVILLE What do you get when you combine an attorney, an accountant and $10 in cold hard cash? Bail? A tax write-off? How about a tourist railroad.

In 1987, when the Burlington Northern Railroad abandoned service on its freight line to the Climax Molybdenum Mine in Lake County, Ken Olsen, the accountant, and Stephanie Olsen, the attorney, converted the line of old rail cars which were headed for the scrap heap, into an excursion route to attract tourist dollars. The Leadville couple proposed purchasing the inactive line and found Burlington Northern willing to sell 13 miles of track, a roundhouse and some older rolling stock two massive 1,750-horse power GP-9 locomotives, a hopper car, four boxcars, five cabooses and eight flat cars for the token sum of $10. While the Olsens recognized a bargain when they saw one, they also saw the tremendous financial risk involved. Moving forward with a vat of elbow grease and a group of dedicated employees, the Olsens brought their dream to life. By the spring of 1988, the potential scrap metal was converted into a tourist train and began carrying passengers for the first time in 51 years. Today, the Olsens children Kirstin, director of sales and marketing, and brother Derek, track foreman and head engineer, carry on the family tradition. And while other railroads might be losing their steam, the railroad is moving full steam ahead (well, diesel actually). September marks the third and most popular leg of the trains season: fall colors. The trip begins at the historic depot, circa 1884, located at 7th Street & Hazel in Leadville. Passengers travel on the original narrow gauge rail bed that was constructed in 1883 and which first carried the silver and lead and then molybdenum. The line still crosses avalanche chutes and winds its way along cliffs and sheer rock walls on one side with awesome views on the other. This two-hour scenic train ride travels through miles of colorful aspen groves and pine trees up to the base of Fremont Pass. The journey takes passengers through some of Colorados richest mining districts and most awe-inspiring scenery, including views of the two highest peaks in the state, Mt. Elbert (14,440 feet) and Mt. Massive (14,428 feet). The out-and-back 23-mile journey also gives passengers a birds eye view of the headwaters of the Arkansas River. While parts of the trip are narrated, the guidebook High Line To Leadville, A mile by mile guide of the trip, takes on the role of tour guide, sharing the history, geology, and colorful characters of Leadville. The top of the line ends at a breathtaking 11,120 feet in altitude, below the Climax Mine, which was closed in 1987 (possibly re-opening in 2009). The trip follows the same rail back into town, with the wheel flanges still squealing on the tight hairpin turns, just like they did on the original High Line Railroad a century ago. The loop into Birds Eyes Gulch allows passengers to see the front and back of the train at the same time and makes a good photo for even the must inept shutterbug.The return trip includes a stop at the old water tower, a throwback to Leadvilles steam-powered engine days. Passengers are allowed to get off of the train for photo opportunities and brief tours of the engine and caboose. Many a family Christmas card picture has been snapped at this picturesque location.


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