Historic train through Leadville brings people, childhood dreams together
Denise Reardon enjoys talking to people.
“I like to ask them where they’re from and get to know them personally,” she said.
Occasionally, her asthma acts up when she gets chatty — especially, since she tends to meet people 11,000 feet above sea level.
“I might lose my breath little,” she said, “but it doesn’t stop me.”
As a conductor on Leadville’s Colorado & Southern Railroad line, Reardon visits with tourists for nearly two and a half hours per stretch. Holding a portable microphone, she entertains them with stories of the town’s colorful history.
Originally from North Carolina, Denise grew up in Connecticut. She lived in Frisco, Colo., and worked in Breckenridge before moving to Leadville in 2002.
“I started working for the train that same year, after my friend Liz Herron (a former railroad employee) asked if I wanted to do something cool,” she said.
Denise started out as a brakeman, and also worked in the box car gift shop.
After a couple of years, she went to the train depot, but decided that she really missed and loved being on the train. She wanted to be back on it.
“The conductor position was a really good fit,” she said.
As conductor, originally Reardon was supposed to follow a script. However, she carefully adjusted it mile-by-mile so that passengers would know exactly what they were viewing as the train rolled up the mountain. She condensed her words down to small, laminated cards. Occasionally, she pulls the cards from a pocket and glances at them for accuracy. She’s a natural at professional talking, too, when not on duty as conductor, she works as a dispatcher.
“I really like this job,” Reardon said. “There’s something special about it.”
Jaime Duke, the current brakeman, feels the same way.
“I love this job. It’s wonderful,” he said. “I think that being the brakeman is the best spot on the train.”
Standing on a platform, he keeps radio contact with the engineer.
When first hired, Jaime thought he would simply be given a position on the maintenance crew, which is responsible for keeping rocks and other debris off the track. In the early days when trains were used year-around to transport ore, supplies and passengers, such men used handcars to propel themselves along the rails as they checked for rotted ties and loose spikes and bolts.
But Jamie admits, his favorite part of being on the train is blowing the horn.
Several times along the 1,000 foot climb through the San Isabel National Forest – with a spectacular view of the Arkansas River Valley below – he pulls on the whistle cord so the passengers can hear the echoing blasts.
Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert, the largest in Colorado, are part of the spectacular views of this narrow gauge train ride. Aspen groves, colorful wildflowers, rock formations and the occasional deer, marmot or chipmunk can be viewed along the way. At the peak, the 1955 diesel engine stops at a view of the Climax mine and Freemont Pass.
“Going back down is a bit trickier when it comes to handling the throttle and brake,” said engineer Pat Critelli. “You have to have a soft touch.”
Critelli has lived in Leadville most of his life. During winter when the track is closed, he is a driver for White Mountain Tours.
The Colorado & Southern Railroad company owner’s son-in-law trained Pat for his certification. Now, he is living his dream. Gesturing to his seat in the engine room, he said, “It’s a job that every kid has wanted to do — be a fireman, an astronaut or a train engineer, right?”
What’s the most fun about being an engineer? For Pat, “it’s feeling the power and seeing the joy on people’s faces.”
The striped overalls are kind of cool, too.
Due to the heavy snowfall in Leadville, the train is only in service from May 28 through Oct. 9. During 2016, special wildflower-viewing rides will be held on July 16 and 30, and fall color rides are scheduled for Sept. 10, 11, 17, 18, 24 and 25.
But there’s always something happening in this historic, friendly circa 1880’s town — once home to Doc Holliday, Molly Brown, Ben Guggenheim and Horace, Augusta and Baby Doe Tabor. All you have to do is walk several blocks from the station.
April 22 and 23 the town will be hosting Leadville History Month. Judge Neil Reynolds will present a talk on the town’s boom era and actors will do living biographies of Buffalo Bill and Marshal Martin Duggar. The Golden Burro Restaurant will have a faro table set up, complete with instructors demonstrating how gamblers once cheated miners out of their gold.
But watch out for the black-dressed Temperance ladies who will be protesting any alcohol consumption. Leadville residents enjoy dressing up and playing the part — although none will be batting liquor bottles off shelves like the infamous Carrie Nation.
From ski-joring to mountain biking to September’s hilarious St. Patrick’s Day Practice Parade, Leadville has a wealth of fun events throughout the year for families to enjoy, like a trip on the Colorado & Southern Railroad. ❖
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