The birth of the Transcontinental Railroad comes full circle with True West’s first Railfest celebration and 18 other sidetrack excursions for railfans.
- Written by Bob Boze Bell
- Published July 10, 2012
Almost a year-and-a-half ago I headed into the True West World Headquarters on my day off, a Sunday. It was a pretty, spring day, and since I planned on only being there for a short time, I left the back door open.
(Hey, Cave Creek is a small town.) As I was tweaking an article on the server, I heard someone bellowing from the back door, “Anybody here?”
I walked around the corner to meet a stocky guy with a big smile and a bigger attitude. It was Jon Schuetz, a man who informed me this was my lucky day.
Jon introduced me to his wife, Marsha, and they then proceeded to buy 200 magazines for her two stores in Durango, Colorado. He also insisted I visit Durango and see the town he loves.
Last August, my crew and I did just that. As soon as we hit town, Jon introduced us to Al Harper, the owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. That’s when the sparks really began to fly. A treasure to his community and a genuinely kind man, Al has kept alive this fabulous 1881 railroad, one of only two narrow gauge empires built by Gen. William Jackson Palmer that still remain in operation (the other is the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which runs between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado; just last winter, Al announced he will also manage this 1880 railroad).
After giving us a tour of the railroad, Jon and Al drove us down to the Ute Reservation where Lynn Brittner, the director of the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum, had scheduled a traditional native dance in my honor. We were blown away by this brand new museum that shares the history of the tribe through battles waged and land taken, and through the Utes’ reclaimed identities as great hunters and horsemen.
Fast forward to this summer, and we are launching our first “True West Railfest” to be held in Durango from August 16-20. Our festival combines spectacular scenery with a historic train, a storied Indian tribe known for amazing feats of horsemanship and the oldest, most respected American West history magazine in the United States.
On Saturday evening, August 18, Dr. Paul Andrew Hutton, the distinguished professor at the University of New Mexico and a History Channel regular, will join me at the historic Strater Hotel for an intimate talk on the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even more, we’ll be discussing Wyatt Earp in Hollywood, the untold story. The only uncertainty is whether I will get a word in edgewise.
Oh, and Jon Schuetz was correct. It was my lucky day.
—Bob Boze Bell
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
General William Jackson Palmer got inspired to build his Denver & Rio Grande Railway as a narrow gauge railroad after seeing one in action during his 1870 honeymoon in the British Isles, just a few months after the Denver Pacific had connected with the recently completed transcontinental Union Pacific in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Today, most of the former Denver & Rio Grande lines are owned and operated by the Union Pacific, with several branch lines operated as heritage railways. Offering a grand adventure in Victorian splendor, this 1881 heritage railroad’s steam train will also host True West Magazine’s first Railfest this August 16-20.
Durango, CO • 888-872-4607 • DurangoTrain.com
Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad
Traversing a Plains Indian hunting ground, the Smoky Hill Trail provided a quick route for Pikes Peak gold rush emigrants during 1858-61. Around the end of the Civil War, the Butterfield Overland Despatch shipped goods and mail along the trail. During 1885-88, the Rock Island rail system built nearly all of its Kansas tracks. The railroad’s still-standing 1887 depot is across the way from where today’s locomotive departs, journeying through colorful grass prairies and over a steel bridge crossing the Smoky Hill River that explorer Zebulon Pike made note of during his 1806 expedition to visit the Pawnee Nation.
Abilene, KS• 888-426-6687 • ASVRR.org
Grand Canyon Railway
The man who pioneered the Grand Canyon Railway was Rough Rider Buckey O’Neill; he unfortunately never had the chance to take a ride before his death during the Spanish-American War of 1898. He’d be proud to know that more than 200,000 people take this vintage steam train to the Grand Canyon every year, peering out the windows of what his commander Teddy Roosevelt said “every American should see.”
Williams, AZ • 800-843-8724 • TheTrain.com
Dubbed as the longest, continuously-operating steam train railroad in the Pacific Northwest, these preserved locomotives roll along the foothills of Mount Rainier, which was designated a national park at the tail-end of the Klondike gold rush in 1899. The century-old route whisks riders through a landscape once inhabited by Indian hunters and gatherers before being transformed into a bustling timber and logging community. Prior to the first laying of tracks, early exploration of the region included American and British fur traders and Oregon Trail emigrants hoping to settle on a piece of this rugged land.
Elbe, WA • 888-783-2611 • MRSR.com
Nevada Northern Railway
Established in 1905, these steam and diesel trains carry the legacy of being part of the last bonanza railroad. Over four million passengers ride the route between Ely and Cobre that once connected with the Southern Pacific Railroad during Nevada’s copper mining boom. The mining town of Ely was a stagecoach station during the days of the Pony Express and Central Overland Route before the completion of America’s first Transcontinental Railroad. Although some tracks have since disappeared, the heritage railroad preserved a section known as the Ore Line, which takes passengers on an excursion into the Great Basin’s mining history.
Ely, NV • 866-407-8326 • NNRY.com
Virginia & Truckee Railroad
As the reigning queen of the short lines—and the wealthiest at one point—this 1870 rail line hauled ore mined from the Comstock Lode to cities with processing mills in western Nevada. The railroad expanded through the years, and the section from Carson City to Virginia City gained the reputation as the crookedest in the world as it wound and curved its way across the open West. Today, the steam and diesel trains depart Virginia City, once the richest city in the world, to embark on a route passing many Comstock mines, including Yellow Jacket, Crown Point and the Ward Bullion.
Virginia City, NV • 775-847-0380 • VirginiaTruckee.com
Austin Steam Train
Take a ride through the Texas Hill Country, land formerly ruled by Comanches. This division of the Southern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1871, with the first train arriving on Christmas Day. The pink granite that was used in the construction of many government buildings in Austin, including the capitol, was transported via the rail line. Although the steam locomotive is sidelined for an overhaul, today’s passengers can still enjoy the 66-mile round-trip excursion aboard the diesel Hill Country Flyer.
Cedar Park, TX • 512-477-8468 • AustinSteamTrain.org
Georgetown Loop Railroad
In the wake of the Colorado gold rush, this rail line of the Colorado Central Railroad was constructed to haul silver ore from the mines at Silver Plume and Georgetown, and never quite reached its Leadville destination due to the area’s steep grade. Considered an engineering marvel for its time, this stretch of narrow gauge railroad was completed in 1884. Its corkscrew route traveled twice the distance, complete with 30-degree horseshoe curves and four rail bridges crossing Clear Creek. Today, the train roars across a replica of one of those bridges, the Devil’s Gate High Bridge, which was rebuilt in 1984 to celebrate the railroad’s 100th anniversary.
Georgetown, CO • 888-456-6777 • GeorgetownLoopRR.com
Texas State Railroad
Deemed the official railroad of Texas, this 1881 system of tracks was built by Rusk Penitentiary inmates and offers steam or diesel train trips. (Some reformers complained the railroad was “stained with the blood of some helpless convict man or boy lashed cruelly by a savage prison guard or sergeant.”) Part of Al Harper’s family of heritage trains, this rail excursion follows winding streams that bear the names of a few leaders of Spanish expeditions that took place between the 1600s-1700s, prior to the 1830s Texas Revolution that preceded a population growth in the region.
Rusk, TX • 888-987-2461 • TexasStateRR.com
1880 Train Black Hills Central Railroad
Aboard an 1880 steam locomotive, tourists travel throughout South Dakota’s scenic Black Hills, the site of the 1874 gold discovery that sparked a fever among miners. To assist in hauling cargo, the line was extended throughout the hills during the mining boom, and riders will get to see a few of the mines during their journey, including the Holy Terror and Good Luck Tungsten Mines.
Hill City, SD • 605-574-2222 • 1880Train.com
Charlie Russell Chew-Choo
Ride through 56 miles of the Judith Basin, home to the famed pioneer cowboy artist Charles M. Russell, aboard this 1950s-era dinner train pulled by a diesel locomotive. The spur tracks are strewn across hills and ranchlands that once inspired Russell. It was this big sky and open land that the artist captured in many of his 2,000-plus pieces of art that preserved the image of the Old West.
Lewistown, MT • 866-912-3980 •
Heber Valley Railroad
In 1858, a few months after President Buchanan’s blunder to utilize the Army to quell a supposed Mormon rebellion in Utah, Brigham Young’s settlers completed a road through Provo Canyon. When the Transcontinental Railroad went through Weber Canyon in Ogden, that did not deter this region’s rail dreams. By 1899, the Rio Grande Railway had completed its branch line from Provo Canyon through Heber Valley, a route which you can travel today, in true pioneer style, aboard a steam train.
Heber City, UT • 800-888-8499 • HeberValleyRR.org
White Pass & Yukon
The Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty all have one thing in common with this narrow gauge “railway built of gold” constructed by tens of thousands of men using 450 tons of explosives in 1898. They are considered landmarks of international historic civil engineering. Living up to the title, this 110-mile railroad was completed in only 26 months during the Klondike gold rush. Set in the harsh climate and mountainous region of Alaska, the train provided the necessary transportation services for the booming mining industry; today, it’s Alaska’s most popular shore excursion.
Skagway, AK • 800-343-7373 • WPYR.com
Golden Spike NHS
In Utah Territory, on May 10, 1869, the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad was completed when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads met at Promontory Summit. At this historic site, visitors can watch a re-enactment of the ceremonial last spike being driven into the ground during the summer season, as well as see steam demonstrations of the Central Pacific Jupiter and Union Pacific No. 119 locomotives.
Brigham City, UT • 435-471-2209 • NPS.gov
What began as a vision to save British Columbia’s sovereignty and stream of revenue during an 1887 silver mining boom became a reality in 1910 when a survey built this railway. With construction completed in 1915, the trains began hauling ore from Kootenay, fruit and forestry products from Okanagan, and passengers between the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. Currently, passengers travel the heritage railway via a diesel locomotive while the steam is under repair.
Summerland, BC, Canada 877-494-8424 • KettleValleyRail.org
Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad
Two steam locomotives operate daily during the summer months on narrow gauge tracks originally carved into the mountain by the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company in 1874. Remnants of this company’s logging history can be seen in the large stumps from old-growth timber that line the tracks, although, thankfully, the forest itself is beautifully thick with timber. Located near Yosemite’s south entrance, the railroad sends travelers deep into regional beauty, discovered by folks like naturalist John Muir, that inspired the 1890 creation of the national park.
Fish Camp, CA • 559-683-7273 • YMSPRR.com
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
Another Al Harper heritage railroad, this one offers a scenic trip through a time when the train first transported mountaineers from the hills. As the Murphy Branch line extended its way through the mountains by the hands of convicts, the rails brought salesmen to towns, introducing goods the locals never had access to before, and eventually shipped copper ore from the mines. The pioneer spirit that’s celebrated full force in Durango is also present on this rail adventure.
Bryson City, NC • 800-872-4681 • GSMR.com
Grapevine Vintage Railroad
After Gen. Sam Houston signed a treaty with Texas frontier Indian leaders in 1843, residents of Grapevine enjoyed agricultural prosperity that was aided by the trade the Cotton Belt Railroad brought their way in 1888. Pulled by an 1896 steam locomotive (currently under repair) and a diesel, this preserved vintage railroad offers excursions to the Fort Worth Stockyards on part of the former track owned by the Cotton Belt.
Grapevine, TX • 817-410-3557 • GVRR.com
Alder Gulch Short Line Railroad
Construction of this narrow gauge railroad was underway in 1964, nearly a century after the first major gold strike occurred in this historic region of Virginia City and Nevada City in 1863. To pay tribute to Charles Bovey, the man credited with the “second discovery” of the city, the railroad named its diesel tourist train the C.A. Bovey. During this train trip, you’ll get to witness Bovey’s numerous preservation efforts, not only the region’s historic buildings but Virginia City itself, which, because of his efforts, landed on the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1961.
Virginia City, MT • 406-843-5247 • VirginiaCityMT.com