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Edition #69, January 1, 2008

King of the Hill

Photographer: Bob Ciminel

                                              Photo by Bob Ciminel

King of the Hill

The Leadville and Colorado Southern is a tourist line operating between Leadville, Colorado and the world-famous Climax Molybdenum Mine, which straddles Fremont Pass eight miles northeast and 700 feet above Leadville.  In September 2006 I accepted an offer to ride in the cab of L&CS 1714, an ex-Burlington Northern GP-9, on the “up train.”  Being an avid railfan, accepting the offer was a no-brainer.

As I opened the door on the fireman’s side of the cab I expected to find a grizzly, cantankerous, tobacco-chewing former Burlington Northern engineer leftover from the 1980 abandonment, wearing a threadbare pair of bib overalls.  Instead I was greeted by a neatly dressed, well-groomed young man in his mid-Twenties, clean-shaven and with nary a drop of tobacco juice oozing from his lips.  I guess in a way I was disappointed.  But that’s the problem with stereotyping people; they rarely meet our expectations.

Being 61 years old and with enough experience operating trains in hilly terrain to get in trouble, I was curious to see how this “kid” would handle his charge on the mountain.  With the engine on the downhill end, it was simply a matter of pushing the train while listening for the conductor/trainman in the caboose as he called off the mileposts.  Surprisingly, the L&CS uses half-mile mileposts instead of the normal one-mile markers on most railroads.  Perhaps the need to make 16 radio calls instead of eight keeps the crew on their toes.

I asked the engineer how he came to be in such an envious position, knowing at least five friends who would kill to be running that locomotive.  It turns out he was a ski bum who lived in Colorado only to ski.  The L&CS provided him a source of income – and easy work – to support himself through the summer.  With the railroad shutdown for the winter, he would then ski seven days a week and work a part-time job in the evenings.

We had a great conversation on the way up to Climax.  I think the only time he touched the throttle or brake valve was when we stopped at the end of the line.  As we began the return trip back down the mountain I thought, “This is where he really starts earning his pay.”  I was basing that on my experience with the old 26L brake system where I had to keep setting and releasing the brakes to stay close to but not exceed our railroad’s 10 mph speed limit going downhill. (And, no, we don’t mess with the feed valve.)

I looked over at the engineer and said, “I guess this is where it starts getting tricky, huh?” 

He said, “What do you mean?” 

“You know, messing with the brakes to hold your speed,” I replied.

He just laughed and notched out the dynamic brake handle as the train settled into a steady 10-mph rumble down the hill.  I looked at him and said, “You really don’t know how good you have it, do you?”  He didn’t get my point, but as I watched the heat shimmering above the dynamic brake resistance grids behind us, I knew they were making him the King of the Hill.

Bob Ciminel

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