Almost All aboard – Colorado takes a big step towards front range rail
Three Southern Colorado historic passenger train stations – in Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs – have not been used for their intended purpose in decades, and it could take at least another decade or longer, if at all, before another passenger boards a train at any of them.
Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who is also chairman of the state’s Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, says his commission has received the $8.7 million in funding it had requested last December from the state General Assembly as part of Senate Bill 1, a transportation bill, on May 9 – the last day of the 2018 legislative session. Pace says the funding will be used by his commission to start the first phase of a five-phase plan to bring south-north passenger rail service between Trinidad and Fort Collins in the next 10 to 12 years.
Pace says although he hopes that the existing historic train depots along the route (in Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs) are used for the project, the other members of the passenger rail commission, and a study to be done in regard to station locations – among other things – as part of the first phase, might suggest otherwise. The first phase should be completed about 2½ years from now.
Pace explains that the existing three train stations, two of which were built well over a century ago, were located in downtown areas and were designed to accommodate pedestrians. He says the train stops for the Front Range Passenger Rail have to account for the fact the many of the potential passengers will get to the station by car. He adds things like track alignment and rights of way are among the variables that will determine whether the historic passenger train depots are used.
In addition to determining train station locations, the first phase of the Front Range Passenger Rail project includes defining mobility needs, preferred alignment and routes, service operating characteristics, including time of service, speeds, and rail spacing. Phase I also will include public and stakeholder hearings.
A governing authority will be formed during the second phase to be implemented by November 2020. That phase is expected to cost $500,000. Phase III includes full environmental clearance from the federal government, which is expected to cost between $150 million to $300 million. Construction will start as part of the fourth stage with a cost to be determined. Phase V includes ribbon cutting and a grand opening to commence ridership.
The city of Walsenburg owns the town’s former passenger train depot located in the city’s downtown between Main and Russell streets. Walsenburg City Clerk Wanda Britt says, in its heyday, 11 passenger trains passed through the depot daily. Sometime after passenger train service stopped, the depot had been home to the now defunct Huerfano County Chamber of Commerce. Then, Britt says, the building was refurbished by the city, keeping the depot’s old façade, and the city now rents it out to Huerfano County government as office space and a tourist center.
Walsenburg town historian Carolyn Newman says the depot was built in 1926 by two competing passenger railroad companies serving Walsenburg at the time – the Denver and Rio Grande Western, and the Colorado and Southern. Although she can’t say when passenger service ended, Newman says when she relocated to Walsenburg from England in 1957, she did so aboard a passenger train. A Nov. 4, 2010 report on the World Journal website, which serves Huerfano, Las Animas and Colfax counties, says the last passenger train left Union Depot in 1966. Newman adds that Walsenburg has two sets of tracks running through the town, which were mostly used to transport coal mined in Las Animas and Huerfano counties. The tracks go east and west through town but one later curves to go north and south, she says.
Walsenburg Mayor James Eccher says the city has been in the talking stages with the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission through its participation in the South Central Council of Governments (SCCOG) out of Trinidad, but nothing more. Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico serves on the Passenger Rail Commission and represents SCCOG. Incidentally, Trinidad has a functioning modern passenger train depot served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.
Eccher says Walsenburg’s Union Depot can easily be repurposed back to a passenger train stop, saying the building would have enough space – even its old ticket booth is intact. The mayor says one obstacle that might be an issue is that the parallel tracks that run through the city are owned by two different railroads – Union Pacific and BNSF. Although the mayor says he would welcome a passenger train stop in Walsenburg, he is skeptical because another passenger train route through the city going west and east from La Junta proposed by Amtrak has not materialized.
Built in 1889, the Pueblo Union Depot at 132 W. B St. is now owned by the Koncilja family, who seems proud of the 130-year-old facility.
“We believe the Pueblo Union Depot is the crown gem of the Union Avenue Historic District,” Joseph Koncilja says. “Our ownership of this historic property is more that of stewardship than ownership. Almost every family in the city of Pueblo has a connection with the Pueblo Union Depot either with their immigrant families arriving there at the turn of the century or through fond memories of leaving for military service during the World War I and World War II, and even Vietnam.”
Koncilja also relates the depot’s unique history. The depot came about, he says, as a result of a compromise between five feuding railroads involved in “contentious competition.” At one point a decade before the depot was built, Koncilja continues, during the Royal Gorge Railroad War, Old West legend Bat Masterson, to settle things down, took over a roundhouse near the depot site using a cannon that he took from the Pueblo armory. Masterson and other gunfighters, among them Doc Holliday, were hired in 1879 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, which was competing against the Denver and Rio Grande. The dispute ended, without a shot fired, on June 10, 1879, when a federal court ruled in favor of Denver and Rio Grande.
Getting back to after the Union Depot was built: “Over 40 trains a day passed through the depot in its heyday,” Koncilja says. “We estimate conservatively that over 50 million people passed through the depot until the end of passenger service in 1974.”
Koncilja says the depot is now used “primarily as a mixed-use development consisting of event catering, office space and luxury apartments on the third floor.” He calls it an anchor for the Union Avenue District and says it is also close to the Southeastern Colorado Heritage Center and Museum, which has one of the largest collections of historic artifacts in the city.
Koncilja seems optimistic about repurposing the old depot as a passenger train station. And Commissioner Pace says he has spoken with the Konciljas informally about possibly using the depot as part of the Front Range Passenger Rail project.
“We hope that the Depot will be able to participate in the return of passenger service in conjunction with Amtrak’s expansion from La Junta to Pueblo,” Koncilja says, “And later be incorporated into the Front Range rail corridor from Fort Collins to Trinidad. Other than track upgrades and some necessary switches, the depot is capable of servicing passenger cars at present.”
A passenger train made its last stop at the Colorado Springs’ Old Depot on April 30, 1971, says Spencer Kellogg, a volunteer with the Colorado Train Museum in Denver. The station was owned by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
The Ochs family is credited with saving the Old Train Depot at 10 S. Sierra Madre St. (behind the Antlers Hilton Hotel and right under the bridge at Colorado Ave.) from demolition in the 1970s, according to a Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article published on Oct. 19, 2011. The Gazette story was about the closing of Giuseppe’s Old Depot Restaurant after 38 years as a tenant at the depot. The article states that the site of the depot has been home to a train depot since the Colorado Springs founder William Jackson Palmer laid the tracks in 1872, with the current structure opening in 1887. The article further states that the city of Colorado Springs had wanted to buy the depot to use as a transit station, but that never came to be.
The El Paso County assessor’s office currently lists the depot’s owner as ODP LLC, which is a company formed by the Ochs family.
Stauffer and Sons Construction was another former tenant at the Old Depot Square, which consists of the historic depot and a south building that was added sometime after the last passenger train stopped there and the building was turned into a shopping center.
Ron Stauffer posted a promotional article on the Stauffer & Sons’ website on April 4, 2014, which says that the current depot has plenty of free parking, which is unheard of in downtown Colorado Springs.
“The building we share has quite a history,” Stauffer’s story states, “it … brought many visitors to Colorado Springs from places like Utah and New Mexico (including President Harry Truman, who stopped here in 1948 for a whistle-stop tour during his election campaign!).”
Pulp was unsuccessful in attempts to reach the Ochs family by phone and email in regard to what the Old Depot Square is being used for now and what accommodations, if any, need to be made to the depot to welcome passenger trains again.
Bringing life to existing passenger train depots should be a welcome sight for Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs, with each city desperately seeking ways to revitalize their downtowns. That is why the stewards of these historic train stations might have their fingers crossed in the hope that the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission will find a way to bring back these structures to their glory days as passenger train terminals.
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