The ‘savior’ of Breckenridge: Breckenridge Heritage Alliance restores historic railroad snowplow |

The ‘savior’ of Breckenridge: Breckenridge Heritage Alliance restores historic railroad snowplow

The rotary snowplow that is displayed in Breckenridge is being restored.
Breckenridge Heritage Alliance/Courtesy photo

The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance is starting a restoration project that is years in the making.

The High Line Railroad Park’s historic rotary snowplow, which was an engine used to plow train tracks, is being repainted. Executive Director Larissa O’Neil said this isn’t your ordinary paint job, as most painters wouldn’t take on the task because the snowplow was originally painted with lead paint.

“Not only is it a unique structure to paint in the first place, but it requires a full lead abatement process. … Most painters, contractors I reached out to wouldn’t touch this with a 10-foot pole,” O’Neil said, noting that in order to complete the project, the painter is required to have a lead paint certification.

A few years ago, Ken Knapp, who has done extensive research on the historic railroad system in the area, started researching contractors for the project. And only recently did the Heritage Alliance find its guy: Doug Imhoff of Imhoff Fine Residential Painting.

“A couple of days ago … (O’Neil) texted me a picture of the plow with scaffolding around it, and she said to me, ‘It’s finally happening. Thank you so much.’ I started crying,” said Knapp, who has helped fund the project. “… I’ve been trying to get that plow refinished, fixed, taken care of from the very first day I walked into Breckenridge and started working on history in that town.”

The rotary snowplow that is being restored at the High Line Railroad Park is seen from inside a temporary structure meant to contain the project.
Doug Imhoff/Imhoff Fine Residential Painting

The rotary snowplow, which is on display at the High Line Railroad Park, is being painted on-site. A tent is being built around the engine to contain the lead paint that will be scraped off and to keep people out of the work area. O’Neil said there will also be signage to prevent people from getting too close and that the project will take about a month.

Imhoff said that while he has done paint jobs in residences that were originally painted with lead paint, he has never done anything like this. He said the scale of the project is one of the most unique aspects, as the tent built around the snowplow is “as big as a house.”

“The most interesting thing about the project from a contracting standpoint was the inclusion of the big structure that is containing the lead from the removal, the stripping, but it’s also containing the heat so we can do this thing in October,” Imhoff said.

Another challenge for Imhoff is the amount of lead in the paint.

“The fact that this is industrial paint put on way back … when this thing was built, the content of lead was far in excess of the material we normally remove from houses,” Imhoff said. “So we had to get the material tested, and then there’s some special disposal protocols. It’s not typical lead paint waste. It’s actually industrial waste.”

A historical photo shows a rotary snowplow in action.
Kaiser Family Collection/Breckenridge Heritage Alliance

As for its historical significance, O’Neil called rotary snowplows a lifeline for Summit County.

“Without them, the supply chain stopped,” O’Neil said. “They were sort of the winter heroes of this area.”

Knapp explained that a train did not arrive in Breckenridge until 1882. Prior to that, the only way to get supplies to town was by foot, packhorse or wagon, which didn’t travel well in the winter.

The railroad ran from Denver, over Boreas Pass, into Breckenridge, then to Frisco, through what is now Copper Mountain and over Fremont Pass before making its way to Leadville.

“That railroad was quite an adventure,” Knapp said. “… It was always known as the high line because it went over the two highest-traction railroad passes at the time, Boreas and Fremont Pass. … Prior to the plow coming in, the tracks had to be plowed with the plows attached to the front end of the locomotives, which was a very dangerous thing.”

In the early 1890s, the Denver Leadville Gunnison Railway Co. purchased a Leslie Plow.

The plow operated with a locomotive engine, a pilot, an engineer and one to two men responsible for stoking the fire that drove the plow. Knapp pointed out that the rotary plow that sits in Breckenridge never worked the high line route and actually worked in Alaska but that it is a Leslie-designed plow.

“I lovingly call the plow the savior of Breckenridge and Leadville simply because the locomotives were just not able to remove the snow,” Knapp said. “… In my estimation, had it not been for that plow’s existence, it’s quite likely that Breckenridge would not have seen the success that it did as a gold mining town.”

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