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Wednesday, 04 December 2013

Riding the Rails on the Old D&RG

By Janet Thompson

At the stately and historic Union Station, built by the WPA before the Depression, a gift shop near the entrance beckoned. I headed there first to buy Mother a lacy handkerchief. These weren't usable, but silky rayon, bright red, yellow or green useless items. I thought they were beautiful and they only cost about a dime.

I loved skipping down the long hall to the train platforms where a conductor for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad would meet and settle me into a window seat.

Then in a long, slow climb we chugged away into the mountains and the famous and smoky Moffat Tunnel. In the Glenwood Canyon, if the glass opened, I could have reached out and touched the jagged rock walls.

At Christmas, Easter and summers, freed from boarding school, I got to travel to wherever my family was. Back in the mid-30s, it was safe for a kid to travel alone and I looked forward to my folks and little brother Jere meeting me at the end.

I will reminisce about three of my summer trips:

In Delta, my folks were lucky to rent a two-story house, memorable for its beautiful oak floors and a long matching staircase. They'd invited the telephone crew to a party and after many beers, everyone started dancing wildly.

Mary Jane and I, previously sent to bed on the second floor, looked down from the top railing and decided to have some excitement. Coffee cans filled with water and poured down the slick varnished stairs onto the shiny dance floor, stopped the fun-loving adults. Our mothers took time out to give us each a good licking for that merry prank.

In Leadville, I met kids who taught me to put pennies on the nearby railroad tracks. Somewhere in my old stuff are the real copper souvenirs.

That summer the Lake County Courthouse burned to the ground. Despite orders never to go further than the next block, we kids saw huge clouds of smoke curling in the sky so we hot-footed over to the main street.

We arrived just in time to see the huge bronze statue of a miner slowly start oozing away, down from the top of the historic building as the fire grew hotter. The more it slid down, it drew a bigger crowd. When I told the folks about it, I escaped punishment since Mother was sorry she had missed the excitement.

That Leadville summer’s events made for great bragging rights when I got back to boarding school in the fall. No schoolmates showed off train-squashed pennies or had watched as a famous monument on a fire-engulfed building slowly melted away into a steaming hot puddle.

My fifth-grade summer in Glenwood Springs was memorable because for the first time I was falling in love. The object of my affection was a kid named Keith. Oddly, I can't remember what made him so appealing.

Nevertheless, I rode my bike by his house every day just hoping to see him. Never catching him at the right time I would, as a second choice, ride down and back a couple miles on the narrow two-lane road to the hanging waterfall in the Glenwood Canyon.

The canyon now has an elevated multi-lane highway (Interstate 70) which goes cross-country. Now, no bikers dare obstruct the 80-mile-hour traffic.

I felt wonderful, important and like a big girl, traveling alone on the train, with the conductor looking after me as if I was his own kid. I always wore my Sunday hat and gloves and was on my best behavior except for one time returning from southern Colorado.

Mildred, a day student, got on the train at Pueblo. The two of us raced gleefully up and down the aisles from the front car to the caboose whooping it up big-time.

Doing it brought shame to my otherwise good reputation with my special friend, the conductor. Luckily, he never told on us but his disappointment sure showed on his face when he nabbed us.

The other day, I was on Wyncoop Street across from the still-standing, beautiful D&RG Western Railroad’s old station. In keeping with lower downtown Denver’s urban renaissance, the internet describes its huge redevelopment work. The main passenger waiting room will remain and be restored; to look like it was as I remember, in its 1930’s heyday.

What wonderful memories this old railroad lover has from her childhood glory days riding the rails.

Was I a lucky kid? You bet!

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Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


As a Denver and Colorado native, I enjoyed this very much. I had never taken the train to Glenwood Springs until a couple of years ago, when our kids gave us a gift of the train ride and two nights at the Hotel Colorado (which included access to the Hot Springs Pool) As you no doubt know, bikes can't impeded the high speed traffic on the road through Glenwood Canyon these days as they have their own paved bike path.

Such different times and you were indeed very lucky.

Thank you for writing a story I loved reading! My husband grew up in Monte Vista, CO. and loved his time there.

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