Started in 1869 from Golden, CO, the Colorado Central would be one of the first narrow gauge railroads in
Colorado to head straight up into the mountains. Built originally to serve the mining areas around Blackhawk and
Central City, it was eventually extended west towards the Divide in an ambitious Union Pacific-driven project to
reach Leadville. However, beaten back by the Rio Grande's earlier arrival, the line's construction would stop in
1884 just past Silver Plume, CO, as the Georgetown, Breckenridge, & Leadville. However, in its short extension
toward the Divide, a fascinating marvel of engineering would be constructed to overcome the 600 ft climb in two
miles between Georgetown and Silver Plume - the Georgetown Loop.
The Georgetown Loop twists 4.5 miles of track into 2 linear miles. The line up from Georgetown follows Clear
Creek, then loops back on itself, crossing both the lower line and the creek on a steel trestle nearly 100 feet
high. While other railroads have used loops to gain altitude in short amounts of space, the Georgetown has the
unique footnote of being the only one to do it completely in open air - all of the rest placed at least part of the
loop inside a mountain via tunneling. A scenic wonder since its construction in 1884, it was often capitalized
upon as a tourist attraction by its owners. However, as with most Colorado narrow gauge, the automobile eventually
won out, and in 1939, the bridge and the remaining track were cut up for scrap.
However, this is an unusual little railroad, and thanks to some dedicated individuals, it would be reborn. In
the late 1950s, the Colorado Historical Society started working to acquire the Loop area for preservation, both for
its railroad and its mining heritage. By the early 1970s, the line was actually being reconstructed by both
the CHS and a parter operating company, the Georgetown Loop Railroad. In 1984, 100 years after the original bridge
was completed, a new, all-steel structure stood in its place with complete trackage between Devils Gate and Silver
Plume, truly a monument to people and organizations dedicated to preserving this railroad wonder. Regular service
now plied the entire line (it had been travelling sections since the mid-1970s), attracting progressively more
sightseers every year. By the 2004 season, 30 years after its humble beginnings, it was one of the premier
tourist lines in the country, if not the world, carrying an estimated 130,000 passengers on a variety of heritage
narrow gauge equipment behind a roster of somewhat rare, fully restored steam power.
Unfortunately, that's when things started to go wrong. The Colorado Historical Society laid out new "non-negotiable" contract terms which would have made operating in 2005 almost certainly unprofitable for
the contracting operator, forcing the Georgetown Loop Railroad to decline the contract. After that, the CHS began
the search through the Colorado state RFP process. Several organizations expressed interested, but only one bid -
Railstar of New Your. Through all of this, I might add, the current operator has publicly stated they're willing
to reopen negotiations at any time. However, at the end of September, the contract with Railstar was signed,
setting in concrete the end of the Georgetown Loop Railroad, Inc., and its in three decade run of successes.
The problem is that the Georgetown Loop Railroad owns all of the equipment and has all of the experienced
people necessary to make this operation work. The equipment will all go to museums for preservation, but who knows
where the talent will go. The people are as much a part of the GLR's success as the machines are, if not more so.
Since Railstar does not currently have any narrow gauge equipment, and there's a very good chance that no working
steam will be found in time (meaning diesel power, if any train at all), this may be the last year of long trains
behind steam on the Loop for quite some time. Even if by some miracle they manage to obtain the equipment, it'll
be an uphill battle with the logistics of building a first class operation like the existing operator has achieved.
That will translate directly to decreased patronage, decreased tourist revenues for the surrounding towns, and
decreased railroad revenues to be funnelled back into maintenance and preservation. It's truly sad and frustrating
what's happened here.
With the final season of operations by the Georgetown Loop Railroad, Inc., coming to a close on 3-Oct-2004, I
decided to go up and photograph the last day. As luck would have it, all of their steam power (except Shay 8,
which is sitting in front of the Georgetown depot) was out on the line, hauling not only a full compliment of
packed regular trains, but a packed extra train running opposite the scheduled run. It might be a sad time for
narrow gauge fans as a whole, but you couldn't have asked for a better day out than the final Sunday. Sure, it
rained in the afternoon, but I didn't see a single person out that really minded too much. So, here's a look at
the last day of operations for those that weren't able to make it to Georgetown and Silver Plume to see it in
person. By all means, if you live in Colorado or are a frequent visitor, remember that the CHS is partially a
government body. Keep this on the minds of Colorado's elected officials and remind them of what's happened here.
Remind them what's been lost. It's not likely things can ever be set back to the way they were in 2004, but maybe
we can help curb the damage and set the CHS back on track as the exceptional organization that rebuilt the loop in
the first place.
Note: I'm going to do a lot more editorializing here than I normally do. Normally trip
reports stick to history and my experiences, but here I feel compelled to discuss the current mess the Loop is in,
including the departure of the current operator. Much of this will paint the current Colorado Historical Society
in a rather negative manner. I'll both present facts that have shown up in local newspapers and the railfan press,
as well as put my opinion on them. If anyone sees factual errors and can substantiate their claims, corrections
will gladly be made and credited. However, my commentary on the situation is, while vitriolic in spots, supported
by the facts I've seen, and it likely will not be swayed unless you can present some serious,
independently-verifiable facts to the contrary. Remember, in the end, it's my opinion. Everybody should make their
own judgement based on all the facts of the situation they can find.