City Council agendas are at best boring, often disturbing and sometimes infuriating. They’re never fun to read — the best you can hope for is that Council and the administration have taken to heart the ancient admonition to physicians:
Above all, do no harm.
Item 8i on Monday’s work session agenda, innocently titled “Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad proposal,” caught my eye.
It’s a simple enough proposal. The C&T Railroad wants our locomotive — and they’ll haul it away for free, and lease it from us for 40 years, paying us the princely sum of $1 annually.
You didn’t know that we had a historic locomotive?
Denver and Rio Grande Western No. 168, which currently sits forlornly in Antlers Park just west of downtown and behind the Antlers Hilton, is a 4-6-0 10-wheeler, narrow-gauge, steam railway locomotive.
It was presented to the Colorado Springs city government by the D&RGW upon its retirement in 1938.
Was the company in the habit of handing out free locomotives to random cities along its route? Nope.
The company wished to honor its founder, the illustrious General William Palmer. Without Palmer and without the railroad, there would be no Colorado Springs. Palmer drove the D&RG rails south to the foot of Pikes Peak, linking his fledgling city to the greater world. He created our world, and we can see his works still.
He laid out streets, created and added to our public parks, planted thousands of trees and built a city on the barren plains east of Monument Creek. He was then and remains today a towering figure, the city’s first citizen.
“Old 168” was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1883. Its operating history is obscure. A photograph from 1909 shows it pulling a train carrying President William Howard Taft to the opening of the Gunnison Tunnel, and other photos show it in Alamosa in 1923 and Salida in 1929.
It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
So why would we throw away a piece of our history?
Railroad buffs think that it would be fitting to restore and re-use the locomotive, and let it chug happily along on the C&T tracks between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, N.M.
[pullquote]For many decades, the city has benignly ignored the historic buildings and artifacts for which it bears responsibilitity.[/pullquote]The locomotive was last restored in 1982, at a cost of $25,000. Putting it in running condition would, according to estimates by the C&T, cost hundreds of thousands.
Local historian Mel McFarland, who nominated the engine for the National Register in 1979, thinks that we ought to do the deal.
“It’ll be where it belongs,” he told Council. “In a railroad yard, pulling a historic passenger train.”
“We can’t afford to maintain it,” said Pioneers Museum director Matt Mayberry, noting that it’s not part of the museum’s collection.
That’s the crux of the matter. For many decades, the city has benignly ignored the historic buildings and artifacts for which it bears responsibility. Look at the City Auditorium, the Pioneers Museum or even at General Palmer’s equestrian statue — they’re all sadly in need of maintenance and repair.
Leaving the locomotive as is and letting it moulder slowly away isn’t an attractive option. If we can somehow raise $100,000 or so to repair the ravages of time, we’ll have to do it all over again in 2046.
Yet sending it down to the C&T would be to part with a vital piece of our history.
There’s a third way.
Let’s take one of those long-abandoned warehouses in southwest downtown, make it a train shed and set about to create our own narrow-gauge downtown railroad.
We’d restore old 168, get a couple of passenger cars and run the train periodically. We could start with just a few blocks of track and run the train on weekends, to the delight of visitors and residents.
How much would it all cost?
I’d guess at least a couple of million. Compared to the grandiose projects associated with City for Champions, that’s not much — but the benefit to the city would be very great indeed.
We’d make the past come alive by transforming a static display into a fire-spewing, smoke-belching, steam-whistling, 19th century railroad. It would be fun, it would be cool, and it would help rebrand Colorado Springs.
We can do it — so let’s not give away the “Big Locomotive That Can” for 40 bucks.