by Richard W. Luckin
March 14th & 15th, 2015
Think of snow and one automatically pictures Colorado’s fluffy powder and ski resorts second to none. Winter Park Resort stands out from the rest because of its closeness to Denver. What made Denver and Winter Park close for years was transportation by the Rio Grande Ski Train.
At first, Rio Grande operated special trains to ski locations within Colorado, before they began regularly scheduled service to Winter Park.
Frank Bulkley, an ardent skier, saw the railroad as an excellent way to transport members of his new Eskimo Ski Club. So, in 1939, he contacted the Denver and Salt Lake Railway about transportation of his youthful skiers to Winter Park. A year later (1940) the railroad operated the first Ski Train to Winter Park.
In 1941 the United States entered World War II and this caused a temporary halt to the Ski Train. Two years after the war’s end, the Denver and Rio Grande Western acquired the Denver and Salt Lake Railway (1947). The railroad immediately began to re-create the Ski Train.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Ski Train was youth-oriented and domi- nated by the Eskimo Ski Club, whose participants’ ages ranged from 7 to 17. Those two-dollar round trip fares certainly enticed passengers to ride the train and yes, snacks and hot drinks were available too!
The old train cars were showing their age and they became costly to repair. In 1960 the Rio Grande purchased eight all-steel cars (1915 era) from the Northern Pacific Railroad. As one passenger related, “when I first started riding these cars, it was a museum on wheels – they were fun to ride, nice heavy- weight cars.”
To add a little spice to the ride, a Moffat tunnel pool was often run on the trip. A quarter would buy you a chance to guess how long the train would take to travel through the 6.2 mile tunnel. The winner would collect all the money.
By the mid 1980s, the railroad had come under new management and the leadership of Philip Anschutz. It was soon determined the old 1915 Northern Pacific coaches were getting too costly to maintain. So, in 1988 Ansco Investment, which had purchased the Ski Train franchise from the railroad, put newer equipment into service. Ansco bought Hawker Siddeley Tempo Train cars which were built in 1968 and had been used by the Canadian National Railway. Several classes of service were offered on the newly upgraded train. The older Northern Pacific cars were sold to the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Over the next twenty-one years, the newer Tempo cars would ply the rails, traversing up the Front Range and through nearly 30 tunnels. They were pulled by three Ski Train lettered ex-Amtrak EMD F40PH locomotives.
Sadly, 2008-2009 was to be the train’s last season. On March 29th, 2009 the Ski Train made its last run. The locomotives and cars were sold to the Algoma Central Railway in Ontario, Canada.
For more than 60 years, the Rio Grande Ski Train was truly “A Denver Tradition for Generations.”
The Rio Grande Ski Train, 2007, near Tolland, CO
–photos by Gnurps