Time traveling on the Georgetown Railway
Off The Hill
With the fall season upon us, one great way to see the final changing of the leaves is by steam-powered locomotive on the Georgetown Loop Railway.
It is a beautiful loop that offers a unique view of the Clear Creek landscape and a glimpse into the history of Colorado. The train pulls covered and open-air cars through stretches of winding track, skirting the steep canyon walls and edging along the brightly colored hillside.
The round-trip excursion leaves from either Georgetown’s Devil’s Gate station or the upper Silver Plume station and takes an hour and 15 minutes. You can also take an optional tour of the Lebanon Mine to explore the network of tunnels that stretch more than 1,000 feet into the hillside. Riding the historic train is a connection to the past, and, with Interstate 70 literally in view, it is amazing to consider how High Country travel has evolved, along with the development of the High Country itself.
The original railway
It was in 1877 that the line to Idaho Springs and Georgetown was completed. Seven years later, in 1884, the Georgetown Loop Railway was completed, connecting the mining town of Silver Plume two miles away and about 1,000 vertical feet higher. The rail line corkscrewed up the steep canyon on 4.6 miles of track, winding and twisting along the hillside over a total of four bridges, including the Devil’s Gate High Bridge. The rail line was an engineering marvel of its time and one of the first attractions in the Rocky Mountains.
It was an era when travel excursions brought visitors to the mountain via train to see the beauty of the area and the grandeur of the surrounding peaks. In 1885, the towns in what is now Clear Creek County were bustling with hotels, saloons and some 50 mines producing ore. At the height of its popularity, trains ran from Denver to Georgetown seven times daily.
The area mines would close by the end of the decade, due in part to a drop in the price of silver. With the advent of the automobile, the popularity of the train excursion waned, and, by the early 1900s, the Georgetown train ran only twice daily during the summer months. The line was used to haul freight and passengers until 1938. In the 1940s, when the war effort necessitated men for the battlefield and a workforce to manufacture supplies, the railway was closed in 1941.
Rebirth of the Georgetown Loop
In 1959, on the 100th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Georgetown, plans were made to acquire the land to reconstruct the Georgetown Loop and Lebanon Mine. In 1969, a century after it originally opened, work on reopening the Lebanon Mine began. The nearby tunnel was cleared, and four buildings were eventually excavated then restored outside the entrance using historical photographs. In 1973, work on reconstructing the rail line began, and, by 1977, a small section from Silver Plume running to Georgetown was reopened. Work on the final segment, the Devil’s Gate High Bridge, was completed in 1984 in time for the 100th anniversary of its original construction. The loop in its entirety was once again open to tourists.
From the start of our tour in the beautifully restored ticket office at the Silver Plume depot, we were transported through time to experience an exciting period of development for our state and the nation as a whole.
It is incredible to consider how the mountains have transitioned from remote mines to an adventure destination and the role that the railroad has played over time.
Walking through the restored buildings and entering the restored Lebanon Mine was an amazing, in-depth look at the life of a historic miner. As we approach the high bridge and loop into the Devil’s Gate Station, the train whistle blows twice, and, soon, we are almost 100 feet over the ground. This vantage point offers views in all directions.
After a short stop, the locomotive leaves the station and climbs up the tracks through the multi-colored fall foliage. It winds through the forest and up to Silver Plume like it has many times before in so many different eras.
When driving on I-70, I’m always reminded of the wonder and awe I felt when I witnessed the mountains for the first time. I’m sure the feeling for visitors in the era of the original railroad was even more awe inspiring.
In those days, the High Country must have seemed a harsh and beautiful place.
Some made riches by utilizing the natural resources or working for those who had. Some came here for the health benefits of clean mountain air. Some came to immerse themselves in nature. Some came to make a living away from the city with other outdoor enthusiasts. Some were running away. Some, for the first time, felt like they were off and running. Some came with family. Some made a family. People came from all over the world with all kinds of different stories. Some stayed (on purpose or not), and some left (on purpose or not), but, in one way or another, they all shared a love for, awe of and desire to be in the mountains.
In that way, not much has changed.
Z Griff is first and foremost a snowboarder. A longtime local, he is an adventure writer for the everyman. He can be seen as the winter host of On The Hill at www.summitdaily.com or vimeo.com/user/zgriff and reached at ZGriff_1@hotmail.com.
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