The Denver and Rio Grande Western has a long tradition of running "extras" - passenger specials - which was inherited from predecessor Denver Northwestern and Pacific RR. As early as the beginning of the century there where specials - picknick trains, trains to the "Top Of The World" (Corona), excursion specials for schools, buisnesses and clubs. For a time there was nothing to transport on the Moffat Road, when a connection with the mainline to Salt Lake City had not yet been established (see History of the Moffat Road) and the special trains were a welcome scource of income.
Skiing on the other hand was a known past time but tourism was mainly from Denver to the Front Range. This changed when in 1911 two Norwegians, who lived in Denver, Carl Howelsen and Angell Schmidt took a train to Corona and then skied over 44 miles downhill to the town of Hot Sulphur Springs. Much has been written about this adventure, how fallen logs caused a big obstacle and how the two had to use the railroad grade in parts on their descent. Fact is, that a few years later many skiers followed their example. In 1911 it was Howelsen who convinced businessman John Peyer to build a ski jump and to hold a "ski carnival" at Hot Sulphur Springs.
The event was a complete success and from then onwards was repeated every year in February. In 1915 Steamboat Springs followed suit and also held annual "Winter carnevals". It was Howelsen again who built a ski jump for it, but the event was henceforth managed by the Denver Rocky Mountain Ski Club. The next year Ragnar Omtvedt made a new world record in ski jumping at the Steamboat Springs event.
At the same time improvements were made to the road connection from Denver, via what now is I 70 and then Hwy 40 over Berthoud Pass. The road over the pass had been surveyed in 1861 by E.L. Berthoud and J. Bridges and a first road was constructed in 1874. The road soon became a toll road. In 1911 improvements were made to enable the passage by automobiles and in 1918 the road was fully furnished. It was not before 1931 that the road was opened also during the winter months which led to skiing at the pass by 1933. The same year members of the Arlberg Club began building log cabins for skiing on weekends near West Portal. They also constructed the first downhill ski run, the Mary Jane Trail at what is now known as Winter Park.
Skiers kept coming from Denver, mainly over Berthoud Pass by bus and automobile which proved tortorous. There had been special trains on the Moffat Route but usually only to the "Winter Carnivals". In 1936 the first ski rope was added to the Winter Park downhill run. The same year the Denver Rocky Mountain News sponsored what was to become the first "official" Ski Train - this one to the Winter Carnival at Hot Sulphur Springs. The train was a huge success and so the Denver Rocky Mountain News sponored another train in 1937. The train had some minor luxuries on board.
In 1940 the name Winter Park was incorporated and more downhill slopes were added. Winter Park was managed from Denver. At the same time more Ski Trains to Steamboat Springs were sponored by Safeway Stores and the Denver Post. All of them were very successful.
The U.S. entry to World War 2 in 1942 marked a temporary end to Ski Train activities until 1946. Several ski slopes were added in Winter Park then but money was running out. There was a lack of trains and equipment - not enough being available to cover the demand It proved more and more difficult to manage the town from far away Denver. Finally in 1950 a holding company was incorporated to operate the ski community.
In 1947 the Denver and Rio Grande Western took over the Denver and Salt Lake and immediately began to remodel the Ski Train idea. Their version would stop at a new station called West Portal Station which soon was renamed Winter Park. December 1947 saw the first official Denver and Rio Grande Ski Train.
Equipment was scarce, so passengers where urged to also use the Prospector and the Yampa Valley which added a stop at Winter Park. During ski season, coaches were leased from the Santa Fe, Burlington and even Union Pacific. In 1960 the Rio Grande purchased a bunch of all steel cars from the Northern Pacific. These had electric lighting and had been built in 1915 by Pullman. An Alco PB was converted as a steam generator car. The eight Pullman cars were numbered 1011 through 1018. During summer months, the cars were used for other special trains. Unfortunately a minor accident in 1964 with a picnic special initiated some lawsuits by injured passengers. This prompted managment to question the future of trains such as the ski train. A major concern was that passengers would disembark from the trains and walk over the mainline to get to the ski slopes. The trains were always sold out however and thus were continued.
In 1964 the Yampa Valley and the Prospector had cars added to them to relieve the crowded ski train.
The Ski Train reached its peak in 1966 when cars were added until the train was 22 coaches long. This proved a little too much for both the Denver Union Station (platforms were to short) and the aging steam generator car so the train was shortened. In 1967 another problem emerged - vandalism. There were increasing problems with passengers endangering safety and harrassing others. As a consequence, the snack bar was dropped (to discourage people from walking back and fourth through the train) and three deputy sherrifs accompanied the train from now on. Passnger space was sold 75 percent to the Eskimo Ski Club - hoping that the club would see to it, that their members behave.
In 1974 it was decided to drop the Ski Train but after widespread protest the train was upheld. When the Rio Grande joined Amtrak in 1983 the now surplus F-Units from the Rio Grande Zephyr were transferred to the Ski Train.
At the same time the new managment (Anschutz) decided not only to keep the train but to improve it. When VIA RAIL from Canada approached the Rio Grande to purchase two dome cars which had been in the California Zephyr consist it was discovered that Via had a fleet of lightweight commuter cars on offer, so called Tempo Cars. These cars were purchased by the Rio Grande and converted for use on the Ski Train. The old heavyweights were sold to the Nappa Valley Wine Train which rebuilt them beyond recognition into luxury dining cars.
In 1987 the Tempo Cars were refurnished and put into service in 1988 with huge success. They are:
The train now includes a Snack Bar, newspaper stand and breakfast is served. The train operates from mid December til early April. A round trip fare was between 30 and 45 $. Reservations are essential and can be made at Tel.:296-4754. The train departs Denver at 07.15 a.m. and arrives at Winter Park at 09.15 a.m. Return trip is from Winter Park at 4.15 P.M. and arrival at Denver at 06.15 P.M. Discount ski lift tickets can be purchased aboard the train.
For the Rio Grande fan the train, which operated with two GP50s until last year is a welcome exception, as it is the only chance to see equipment in Rio Grande colors on a regular basis today. Unfortunately the Geeps where repainted to SP colours and last year a set of UP-units appeared on the scene. The 1997/8 season saw yet another change. Since Amtrak has F40s to spare, two of them were used on the Ski Train, omitting the power car. However the passenger cars are still in "one stripe" Rio Grande livery and will remain so as they are privately owned.
Last Update: Mar 1st 2008
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