Colorado Railroad Museum celebrating its 60th year in 2019
for The Fence Post
Started from the passion of two rail fans, the Colorado Railroad Museum is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2019, a testament to its staying power and its ability to help people experience the living, breathing history of Colorado railroads.
“There were a lot of railroads, especially narrow gauge railroads, that were going out of business in the late 1950s and they wanted to preserve Colorado railroad history,” said museum Executive Director Donald Tallman about founders Bob Richardson and Cornelius Hauck. “There are people from all over the world who love Colorado railroad history because it is so different and so unique. We say that we bring Colorado railroad history to life.”
The 15-acre property of the Golden, Colo., museum contains over 100 rail cars, as well as a large number of artifacts and temporary exhibits that change every few months. It even includes a roundhouse where maintenance and restoration takes place. With an operating budget of nearly $3 million, the location plays host to 100,000 visitors per year. “We get tourists from all over the world who come out here and make a pilgrimage to the museum,” Tallman said about the interest in Colorado’s heavy use of narrow gauge railroads, especially in its mountains. “If you are a railroad enthusiast, you want to come here to really understand that historical context. And then we have so many wonderful historic tourist railroads (still operating) in Colorado; everything from the Cumbres and Toltec, the Georgetown Loop, the Durango and Silverton. This museum is a great stopping point and then people tend to go and see those railroads.”
Although they run special events that draw thousands of people, like the Polar Express around the Christmas holiday season or unveiling a full size Thomas the Tank Engine, a consistent draw throughout the entire calendar continues to be their historic steam locomotives.
“The steam locomotives are a very big draw,” Tallman said. “When you hear my staff and when you hear old railroaders talk about a steam locomotive, it is a living breathing organism and they each have their own personality. Our #346 steam locomotive from 1881, it runs differently from our #491, which was built in the 1920s. The #491 is a very large steam locomotive and it runs differently and handles differently and they always call it ‘she.’ All (the steam locomotives) have their own personality and their own quirks. You have to feed it, you have to water it. When it moves it exhales. It is really a breathing machine, so people really want to see and touch and smell the steam and smoke. It is a very unique immersive experience.”
As the museum focuses its visitors towards a tactile experience of the past, Tallman believes those experiences will continue into the future. The executive director started his tenure in 2006 and has watched the museum’s operating budget and number of visitors double in his time at the helm. While he will be retiring from the job later in 2019, he will do so in a good frame of mind about the direction of the facility.
“I see a great future,” said Tallman about the museum. “I see a resurgence in (our culture’s) interest in authentic, physical, and analog kind of opportunities. What we have that is different than virtual reality is we have stuff you can sit in and participate in. There is nothing like going into an 1880s railcar and feeling the velvet seats and in the wintertime, feeling the heat from the potbelly stoves. That is magical.”
But just like any facility that deals with artifacts from history, there are hurdles to overcome.
“We do have challenges,” Tallman acknowledged. “You have to constantly maintain the rolling stock, as the elements play a really nasty role. Those 1880s passenger coaches require a lot of attention. Our goal is to have covered storage so we can keep them and preserve them for future generations, while still taking them out and running them. But I think there is a great future here, because as long as (people) continue to want to understand the past, we will continue to support the future.”
Others involved with the museum are also passionate about what it offers and why the public should pay a visit.
“You get to look at the history of Colorado and see what it looked like,” said Al Blount, the museum’s president of the board of trustees. Blount has volunteered at the facility since 2001, and was found in April 2019 helping visitors experience a ride behind the museum’s historic steam locomotive engine No. 346. “All of our railroad stock that we have on the property ran through or operated in Colorado (and) most of our rolling stock here was built in the 1880s or 1890s or early 1900s, so you are looking at history. You are able to touch it and ride in it. We are preserving Colorado railroad history.”
“This is an opportunity, especially for those who come from an agrarian background,” added Tallman about why people should visit. “Here is a chance to see railcars that helped build that lifestyle that they hold so dear, that made it possible. I would also say that this is just a great place to step back in time and really experience the wonder of the 19th century.”
You can find more information about the Colorado Railroad Museum on their website: coloradorailroadmuseum.org or telephone them at (303) 279-4591 or (800) 365-6263. ❖
— Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer located east of Parker, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com or you can find him on Facebook at Official Lincoln Rogers Writing & Photography Page.