Hear that whistle blowin'

A modern-day railroad baron stakes a claim in an ambivalent town

  • Diane Sylvain
  • All Aboard: Passengers and their goods wait along therailroad tracks in 1892 Jimtown, today known as Creede.

    Creede Historical Society

CREEDE, Colo. - The depot from which the last Denver and Rio Grande train left here nearly 30 years ago stands old and weathered, between tracks all but buried in earth and brush. The train carried silver ore from the mines above town until it made more economic sense for trucks to do the job.

The mines closed in 1985, and in the years since, this town of 390 in Southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains has relied on tourists enjoying art galleries and the Creede Repertory Theatre on the main street.

Now the train may be chugging back. Durango, Colo., businessman Don Shank wants to shuttle 600 tourists per day from South Fork, a town of 1,200, up through the Rio Grande River Valley to Creede for lunch. So this May, Shank bought Union Pacific's right to run a train on 21.5 miles of track.

The promise - some say threat - of a train has divided Creede. Mayor B.J. Myers and a local citizens' group say a train would disrupt the relationships local businesses have created with second-home owners and with visitors who have been welcomed for decades by the area's guest ranches. Some residents, however, fondly recall the days when a steam engine puffed up the valley. A train, they say, is part of Creede's history.

A shot of adrenaline

Shank was able to make his purchase, called a right-of-way, when the federal agency that regulates railroad property, the Surface Transportation Board, accepted his offer to buy Union Pacific's abandoned line.

"It's an interesting line," he says, "and it has an important history in Creede." The critics' arguments are "nonsense," he adds, since the railroad was here long before any of the people who oppose its return.

"These people are either spoiled or selfish," says Shank. "It's that "not in my backyard' mentality."

Shank has been to Creede repeatedly to participate in town meetings and to stake out his claim, and on Aug. 19, he began to dig up the old tracks. Much to the outrage of some locals, he also tried to fence off the downtown parking and childrens' playground which the city had put on the right-of-way after the railroad's departure. Shank contends that the right-of-way, a federal easement, takes precedence over the city-leased state property through which it runs. If Shank has his way, the parking lot and playground will have to make way for the train by May 2002.

Shank points out that in nearby South Fork, most locals support his proposal, and he cites Silverton as an example of the economic benefits a tourist train can bring. Like Creede, Silverton boomed and busted over the last century as the price of silver rose and fell, but now a tourist train from Durango serves as the town's economic lifeline.

Gerald Swanson, a third-generation Silverton resident, says he watched the train change from hauling ore to hauling people. After World War II, says Swanson, the train began to add more and more passenger cars. "It began to snowball," he says, until the four trains full of tourists per day became the town's primary source of income.

"The train is like a shot of adrenaline to this town," says Swanson. Lynn Hutson, Silverton train stationmaster, says the town depends on the train so much that its businesses open and close according to whether the train has come or gone. More than 200,000 people each spend two hours in town in the summer, she says. "By this time of year, everyone's exhausted."

Different kinds of tourism?

It is this kind of dependence that many residents of Creede fear. While Silverton grew into its tourist train slowly, Creede faces the sudden prospect of the arrival of 600 people each day.

Jessie Gilmer, who heads a local citizens' group fighting the train, emphasizes that these would be unfamiliar faces. "Since long before the mines closed, the same people have been coming to visit this beautiful country, some for four generations." Gilmer says her family had spent summer vacations in Creede since the 1950s; she moved here year-round in 1993.

These "long-tenure" tourists, says Gilmer, have engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with the arts in Creede. Some have been coming to the Creede Repertory Theatre for each of its 35 seasons, as well as buying thousands of dollars' worth of art from galleries. Meanwhile, restaurant, shop and hotel owners in town have established relationships with their customers.

"It's almost like an extended family," says Jenny Inge, a gallery owner.

But when the Fourth of July rolls around, the town experiences exponential increases in visitors for its "Days of "92" mining competition. Then the rapport evaporates, says Lindsay Fox, who owned a coffee shop on Main Street for several years.

"It's such a hectic day, with people just coming in for water and soda," she says, "that the people that buy coffee from you every day don't come."

Critics like Gilmer and Fox claim that, not only is the train a bad idea, it's also illegal. They say Union Pacific had no right even to sell Shank the right-of-way, because a 1969 state railroad regulation terminates right-of-way contracts not used for 12 consecutive months.

Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar agrees with the local critics. Since the rail line had not been used for some 27 years, Salazar wrote in a Sept. 19 letter to Shank and the town, "the railroad's right to use this land would have terminated a long time ago." Shank and his lawyer, however, say federal law supporting the railroad's claims takes precedence over the state's 1969 regulation.

The town's leaders say they'd be willing to work with Shank once he gives them a business plan. "Do we believe Mr. Shank has even looked into the economics of what the train would do to Creede?" asks Mayor Myers. She says she has: Ten years ago, the city looked into building a tourist train and concluded that it wouldn't work. The town was simply too small to accommodate all the people a train would bring. More recently, she says, the chamber of commerce conducted a survey of all town businesses; the owners voted five-to-one against the train.

Smashing pennies

Shank is not without some local support. "I don't think the people on the train would be any different than what we run into in Creede every day," says Chuck Fairchild, a native of Creede and former miner who now runs an underground mining museum. Fairchild finds it ironic that those who are fighting Shank's train were once tourists themselves.

"If you want to get back to when they invaded my privacy, it was 1952," he says. Diane Brown, who lives with her husband, Ricky, a former miner, alongside the train tracks, agrees. "It would just be beneficial," she says. "It'd be more money and would bring a little history back to Creede."

"If you ask any old person, they'd say "yeah, we want the train, it was here when we were here,' " says Fairchild. "I'd kind of like to see the kids back out there smashing pennies on the tracks. We used to do it when we were kids."

Tim Sullivan is an intern at High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • City of Creede, P.O. Box 457, Creede, CO 81130 (719/658-2276);
  • Denver & Rio Grande Railway Historical Foundation, 1474 Main Ave. No. 121, Durango, CO 81301 (970/259-9498).
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