My Train Recollections: Mike Harrison – Best Train Trip Ever – Part 2

“OK – Am focused on our trip again so will take up the saga having just arrived in Colorado Springs, Sunday afternoon, May 29, in a slight drizzle. We first stopped at the National Rodeo Hall of Fame Museum, easily recognizable by the big statue of Casey Tibbs on a bucking bronco out front. I remembered Tibbs, Jim Shoulders, and Larry Mahan from my youth, but haven’t kept up. Very interesting in that the Hall of Fame also inducts the great bulls and horses as well. One bull was cited as having participated in 1500 attempted rides. Only one time was he ridden for the full 8-seconds. 1499 wins, 1 loss – imagine a baseball pitcher or a boxer with that record! I think his name was Tornado. Almost no female members. Apparently the women’s lib movements are somewhat less insistent that girls learn to ride a 1700 lb bull than drive a tank. We went on into town and checked into the Econo-Lodge Downtown. Not recommended, although it was cheap and convenient. AAA gave it 2.5 stars. My grade would be one moon, but like I said it was cheap which (in the pre-bedbug era) pretty much meets all my imperative criteria. We had dinner in the old Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) RR station which is now an Italian restaurant decorated to look like a railroad station. It was full of antique RR stuff, and a big BNSF freight would go by about every 15 minutes. A terrific restaurant, ideal location, highly recommended, and as a bonus the service and food weren’t bad.

My brother Robert picked us up early enough Monday morning. We drove down thru Canon City and up the mesa to the Royal Gorge Bridge. The views from the suspension bridge are exceptional, not adequately described by me so I won’t try except to say that during creation our Father glorified Himself there about a billion times moreso than in Louisiana or South Texas. From the bridge deck its over 1000 ft to the Arkansas River below, where the D&RG “Scenic Line of the World” ran. I took a lot of pictures, my favorite, the “No fishing from Bridge” sign, but the postcards are better. We all walked across the bridge (~ 1/2 mile) and back, but they allow vehicles on it also. The bridge has a wooden deck and it shakes when a car or bus goes by. There is an aerial gondola crossing the Gorge in addition to the bridge, and the steepest inclined railway in the world that will take you to the Hanging Bridge at the bottom of the Gorge and back. 

After experiencing the grandeur of the Gorge from its rims, we drove back into Canon City to the restored Santa Fe RR station and boarded the Canon City and Royal Gorge excursion train to see the Gorge up close, Arkansas river level. Bob had reservations for us for lunch on the train in the exquisitely-appointed 1st class dining car. The train is pulled by a pair of old C&NW F7’s liveried up to look like the original D&RG diesels. Food was the best we had on the whole trip, 5 stars. And the same scenery we saw from the top of the plateau on the bridge we now saw from the diner (or open observation cars) and it was even better than the food. We went all the way through the canyon (They call it the Royal Gorge because of all the food we consumed during the trip), then stopped for a photo op 1090 ft under the suspension bridge and right on top of the world-famous “hanging bridge.” Santa Fe/D&RG had to suspend their RR tracks along the river for a few hundred yards where there was no room or way to cut a right-of-way into the side of the cliffs, so they invented the hanging bridge. Its an engineering marvel, about 100 years old, and best seen to be appreciated, so you will either have to go, or look at my souvenir book or photos, a weak, unendorsed choice. I watched the videotape I bought as a souvenir just this weekend, and can claim that the Royal Gorge trip rivals the White Pass and Yukon excursion from Skagway AK to the top of the Pass for pure, unadulterated scenic beauty. And if you throw in the great food, Royal Gorge is the winner. 

Leaving Canon City, we drove by the old CO Territorial Prison. It is now a museum, a tourist attraction, and …State prison. Reminded me of Brushy at Petros TN the way it was cut back into the mountain. We headed back north to Cripple Creek, one of a bunch of mining towns in the area that are still taking a lot of gold and silver out of the ground. At Cripple Creek we went through the Cripple Creek and Victor RR station/museum and got on the Cripple Creek and Victor narrow gauge excursion train. It doesn’t go all the way to Victor anymore, just 4-5 miles out of town, past 2 -3 dozen gold mines, some shut down, some working, some big, some small. Our engineer/fireman/conductor/brakeman/tour guide said that the biggest gold mine in the area now is located in downtown Cripple Creek on Main Street, the new casino/hotel. The ones that dig it out of the ground only make a couple million each year. The casino does that every few days. P.T. Barnum was right.

After Cripple Creek we drove around the base of Pike’s Peak and back to CO Springs, where our Dad had a peanut butter cracker fit. We stopped at 3-4 different places looking for square, peanut butter-filled cheese-crackers. We discovered Dad can be a tad persnickety when it comes to peanut butter-filled cheese-crackers. They shall not be round (place # 1). They shall not be peanut-butter filled cookie-crackers (place # 2). They shall not be cheese-filled cheese crackers (place # 3). Needless to say, when we found a place that passed muster (place # 4, a 7-11), we bought every square, peanut butter-filled cheese-cracker they had. We finished the trip 14 days later with 2 packs left.

Weather all day had been good but it was now raining pretty steadily, so we called it a night. Pike’s Peak or bust, Garden of the gods, coins, Brown Palace, and back on the Zephyr in the next installment.”

Rock on Trains © 2023, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

My Train Recollections: Mike Harrison – Best Train Trip Ever – Part 1

“Sunday afternoon, June 12, 2005, at 5 pm my father, Joe Harrison, retired FBI Identification Division Supervisor of La Plata, MD, and his oldest son Michael, pulled into Union Station Washington, DC on Amtrak’s Capital Limited having just completed THE BEST TRAIN TRIP EVER!!! Of course for a true rail fan, the best trip is always the longest, and this one, the scenic route from Manassas, VA to DC’s Union Station, was 17 days, 7,000 miles, including some brief stops for layovers and sightseeing (and more train-riding) in Chicago, Denver/Colorado Springs, Sacramento, Seattle, and Glacier Park, MT. My 84-year-old Dad loved it, and I didn’t wear him out any worse than I did my 58-year-old self. 

The best train trip ever started 2 pm Friday afternoon, 27 May 2005 when we boarded Amtrak’s west bound Cardinal at Manassas, VA instead of Washington’s Union Station, to avoid the worst of the deplorable DC traffic. My brother Kevin and his wife Sherrie took us to the restored and fully operational Manassas depot about an hour early so we could look around and get some depot souvenirs. The Cardinal arrived on time. Our car was brand new, the nicest one of the whole trip. The little sleeping compartment, a two-person roomette, had its own well-disguised toilet and windows for both the lower berth and for the short-straw-drawing-loser who had to climb into the upper berth at night (which occurred near Huntington, WV). Because I was slightly more limber than Dad, I always drew the short straw, which turned out to be a good thing. Around Portsmouth, OH our Car Attendant came through to make up the berths (think narrow bunk beds). I climbed up and explored the small upper berth storage spaces intended for books, undies etc., and joyously discovered a nasty cereal-encrusted bowl and spoon, that looked like they’d been there for years. I asked the Steward if I could clean them up and keep them, but he said nothing; just took them. I was excessively peeved at his clear violation of the ‘finders-keepers’ law but minutes later he was back with the cereal bowl now spotless, the matching coffee cup and saucer, and a full set of Amtrak monogrammed silverware, all now reposing on the dedicated Amtrak shelf in my RR collection room and office. Thank GOD for the short straw and our patient, understanding Car Attendant, whose very jeopardized tip was not only restored, but augmented.

After passing through Culpepper and Orange, VA, we took an almost never used old C&O/Southern bridge line to Gordonsville, then on to Charlottesville where CSX and NS have a grade-crossing at the station. Meaningless, except we both expected to take the Southern Ry double-tracked main line through Barboursville where my Mom grew up and go right past (within 100 ft) her childhood home. No lasting disappointment though – we knew every inch of that part of the line, since her dad, Jesse Strickland, ran Southern’s Weyburn coaling tower halfway between the homestead and Somerset, VA, and we had explored it all as kids. We were pleasantly surprised to take the C&O branch that no one had used in years. The track was in bad shape, and we had a 20-mph slow order for the nine miles to Gordonsville before rejoining the C&O (CSX) main from Richmond. After quick stops in Charlottesville and Crozet, we climbed to the Afton Mountain tunnel and crossed the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley where we stopped briefly at the restored Staunton, VA station/Pullman restaurant. We had a tolerable airline-style microwaved chicken cacciatore dinner in the diner while passing through the vast but hauntingly, depressingly empty Clifton Forge coal yards, and after we left White Sulphur Springs in WV, home of C&O’s $500/night Greenbriar Hotel, I was on brand new, never before explored (by me) track. 

All meals on the train for the whole trip were included in the price of our “first class” sleeper tickets and the prepared food turned out to be very good. We ate steak most nights since it was the most expensive thing on the menu, $22, and we figured we had to get our money’s worth. Omelets or RR French toast for breakfast, Reubens or burgers for lunch. (The hoi polloi in Coach have to pay extra for everything – but they get to see out of both sides of the train. In the roomette section of sleepers, unless your across-the-aisle car-mate leaves their curtain open, you only see out one side.) We took turns saying grace before each meal. There was much to be thankful for. GOD really outdid Himself in the mountains. 

We began using the bunks in earnest after midnight somewhere between Ashland, KY and Portsmouth, OH, and totally missed the beautifully restored Cincinnati Union Terminal (CUT), passing through around 2:30am. Saturday morning, 5/28 came well before Indianapolis but I was up, showered and shaved by 4 am. (I was always up early (3:30 – 4:30 am) to beat the sunrise and the crowd to the communal showers on the lower level.  Coffee was available in our car shortly thereafter, and breakfast in the diner from 6 am on. Coming into Chicago was glorious for a railfan. I have never seen so many RR yards, locomotives, cars, trains, crossings, facilities, in one spot ever, and it’s now only a small percent of what it was during the 1880’s-‘1940’s rail heyday. The old Union Station, one of 11 major class I RR stations in Chicago and the only one still standing, has been restored and is beautiful. We had a 2-hr layover until boarding the famous Genesis-drawn California Zephyr. The Zephyr’s bi-level Superliner cars were great, with higher elevated viewing, but not as well appointed as the Cardinal’s new single decked eastern corridor cars – no window for the upper-berth straw loser, no personal privy, and slightly less storage space, though we were traveling pretty light and didn’t need too much. We were outbound for Denver and Bob exactly on the advertised.

We stopped briefly at the restored CB&Q depot/museum in Galesburg, IL, crossed the Mississippi at Burlington, IA and made it well past the crew-change/smoke stop at Ottumwa, IA before dark. We deliberately picked this time of year to travel for maximum daylight for maximum sightseeing. From my quite limited perspective, Iowa is the neatest State in the Union. Every single house/yard we saw appeared to be not just clean and well-kept, but manicured. It’s just like River City in the Music Man. Wouldn’t mind having a house overlooking the little Burlington RR yard at all. And it seemed as though every RR station we passed had an old CB&Q 2-8-4 Berkshire superpower steam locomotive on display.

We crossed the wide Missouri at historic Council Bluffs, IA in the dark and had an extended crew-change stop at the once magnificent now abjectly deteriorating union station in Omaha, NE before midnight. Crossing NE/CO plains in the dark was spooky. I could tell we were flying but could only see a light outside every 5 – 10 minutes and probably went for 1 – 1.5 hours before seeing a car’s headlights. Lots and lots of not much on the Great Plains. The Zephyr got into Denver an hour early, but my brother, Robert, was already there waiting for us. He took us to our cousin Elizabeth’s new condo in Littleton, where we visited, had lunch and visited some more. Then we drove on south to Colorado Springs in a sporadic drizzle on I-25, paralleling the old D&RGW line. We toured the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, got some souvenirs, took photos and left a major credit card (later returned by a gracious clerk) before finding our motel, where I’ll pick up on the next installment.”

Rock on Trains © 2023, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.