Wandering the West
August 31, 2010
Bidding on and winning a Heber Valley getaway package at the KPCW auction last week got me thinking about western tourist railroads and how fun they are for an afternoon.
The Heber day includes a ride on the Heber Valley Railroad, powered either by a steam or a diesel locomotive, depending on the day and route you select for your trip. The Heber Railroad runs as far as Vivian Park in lower Provo Canyon, passing through the green Heber Valley, which is dominated on the west by Mount Timpanogos, then alongside Deer Creek Reservoir and down along the Provo River. It’s a great trip to take in the fall with the leaves turning. More on it later.
One of the can’t-miss rides a day’s drive away is the Durango and Silverton narrow-gauge line from Durango to Silverton. Its vintage engines and cars, pulling out of historic downtown Durango, really get you back to another century, when train travel was our equivalent of riding first class in front of the plane. I’ve written about it before so won’t repeat myself here.
The 1880 Train in the Black Hills of South Dakota is another classic. This two-and-a-half-hour run through the central Black Hills recalls the days when gold was freshly discovered in the heart of the Sioux Indians’ most sacred land. Frictions led to Custer’s Last Stand nearby in southeastern Montana. The train arrived after the Last Stand, but only by a few years.
A train like the 1880 Train that doesn’t take all day but covers spectacular scenery is the Georgetown Loop, an easy half-day trip out of Denver up I-70. The Colorado Historical Society revived this old line, which was built in 1884 to deliver passengers and freight a mere two miles from Georgetown to Silver Plume. The trick was that Silver Plume was 640 feet higher than Georgetown, so the track made a big 3.1-mile loop to keep the grade tolerable for the steam technology of the day. The scenery on the east side of Loveland Pass is fine to look at, and you can stop for a walking tour of the Lebanon silver mine along the way. The 1884 train depot in Georgetown is restored and surrounded by other historic buildings, like two 1860s mines and an 1871 mill.
There are steam-train aficionados around the world who restore and maintain short lines that are kept alive by selling tickets to tourists. I try to hop on them wherever I go. You just have to have the time and money because some can be quite pricey and some can take all day.
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That’s the investment you need to take in the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Skagway, Alaska. Many years ago I bounced around in Skagway, at the top of the Inside Passage in southeast Alaska, and got fascinated by the lore of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, the biggest and one of the last of its kind. People nationwide, even worldwide, heard of the riches coming out of Klondike Creek and rushed by boat to Skagway where they were left to hike over deadly White Pass to Lake Bennett. There they spent the winter building boats of often dubious quality to float down the Yukon River to Dawson and the gold fields. Today you can ride the 1901 railroad over much the same route. The line climbs 3,000 feet in just 20 miles, with nearly unheard of 3.9 percent grades and cliff-hanging 16-degree curves, some of them on steel bridges cantilevered over cliffs. The scenery of mountains, glaciers, cliffs, gorges and waterfalls is stunning.
The trip over White Pass was hell on earth in 1898. Three years later, those with money could avoid the misery and death the walk to the top often brought.
America has always had a fascination with trains. They were the jet airplanes of another century and they opened the West fast. Once the transcontinental railroad was connected in Promontory, Utah, branch lines quickly made their way to places like Park City, allowing immigrant labor to pour in to mine the ore and build the cities of the West, including this one.
There’s only one steam line in Utah, the Heber Railroad. This Friday and Saturday it has its first annual Heritage Festival with rides and entertainment. Add six dollars to a ticket and you can arrive at the Soldier Hollow Sheepdog Classic in style by train with a ticket to see a really fun, unusual event. Other seasonal trips are tied to other themes like the Heber Cowboy Poetry Gathering and the North Pole Express.
In an old steam train you can feel the raw horsepower, smell the burning coal, feel the sway of the cars, hear the shrill steam whistle, and hear the clickety clack of another time.
Insider tip: These popular trains sell out and often need reservations. Call ahead. The White Pine and Yukon requires a passport for entry into Canada.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.