Riding the Rails Back In Time…

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Train crossing the high bridge at Devil’s Gate, near Georgetown, CO.

A few weekends ago my wife and I took a trip on the Georgetown Railroad Loop.  I’ve always liked steam locomotives and being able to ride on through the Rocky mountains on a narrow gage rail line that has historic ties to the silver mining heritage of Colorado is quite the adventure. The narrow gage rail road allows a train easier passage along mountain ridges and up steeper grades as well as around sharp switch back turns.

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Narrow gauge is generally 3′ x 6” in width compared to regular rail which is 4′ x 8.5”

The original rail line ran all the way from Denver to Silver Plume, originally to support the booming silver mines, and later for the tourist industry after the collapse of the price of silver.  Today it runs between Georgetown and Silver Plume after being restored in the 1980s.  Although it’s not truly a loop, more of a corkscrew shape, the ride is relatively short, about an hour round trip. It include going over the high bridge which gives a great view of the Clear Creek down below.  The original bridge used to sway five to six feet when the train went over, but the current version is stable.  If you didn’t look over the side you probably wouldn’t even notice.  As typical for the Rocky mountains this time of year we experienced rain, snow and sunshine all within a few miles.    But we took the option of doing a tour of the Lebanon Mine, a historical mine that once operated outside of Georgetown.  While we headed to the mine the operators of the train provided us with a brief history of the railway and the mining community.

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The tour of the mine was great, not only walking through the tunnels which proved to be so low that even someone 5 feet tall had to duck at times but the guide did a terrific job at giving a detailed history of the mine and what the miners dealt with on a daily basis.  Toward the end of the tour he gave a demonstration of how they dug in to the rock with one miner holding a large metal rod/spike and his partner would hit the end of it with a sledgehammer.  The miner holding the rod would have his head less then six inches from the end of the spike as it was hit.  The man with the sledgehammer would strike the end 60-80 times a minute! As you can imagine the noise was literally deafening, especially when you had a hundred some men in the mine at a time working.  On top of all that racket they completed the work with only candle light, and the manner in which the miner who held the rod would signal for his partner to stop swinging would be to place his hand over the end of the spike that was being hit.  The reason being is that the hamer swinger would aim at the glint of candle light on the end of the rod.  Needless to say such a system would result in injuries.  Miners worked in pairs for life, and if one man was injured or too sick to work his partner would not work either.  The pair had to trust one another completely in order to do such dangerous work.  Another fact I learned was that in the lower sections of the mine, which are now closed because of flooding, they often worked in a crouched position and were in knee deep water.  Add to that the near freezing temperature even in early June and it’s not suprising that most miners didn’t live past 40 years.  Surprisingly there were never any deaths in the mine, other then one resulting from a quarrel between two men.

After the tour we were able to try our hand at panning for gold during a special event at the mine site.  I’ve watched plenty of ”gold rush” shows on Discovery and the like, but seeing and doing it first hand was great.  Although I doubt I’d have the patience to stand in a creek and do it for hours on end.

What made the trip so much fun is that it brought history to life.  The sounds of the steam locomotive, and the smell of the cinder as it chuggs up steep passes makes history tangible.  Its not hard to imagine what it would’ve been like to travel that way prior to dominance of the automobile.

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