History of local railroads lives on at train depot
Glenwood Railroad Museum
Located in the Amtrak station, 413 7th St.
Hours: Fri-Mon, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Role of America’s Railroads and National Parks
The relationship between America’s railroads and national parks is the topic of the monthly program at the Glenwood Railroad Museum. Pat Thrasher, museum docent and board member, will present this illustrated program that explores the role played by America’s railroads in the early development and promotion of our National Parks, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 6.
The idea of national parks, public lands set aside to preserve their special scenic, historic or scientific values, is a uniquely American idea that has spread around the world. Where did the support for this idea come from? While a growing conservation movement fought a public battle to protect areas like Yosemite and Yellowstone, the nation’s western railroads lent much needed support to the idea.
Entrance to the museum for this program will be from the track side of the train depot. Take the stairway located to the west of the depot and walk along the depot to the museum entrance.
A certain romanticism exists around trains that still brings a sparkle to a child’s eye and sparks the memory of older folks who reminisce about an era gone by.
Especially during the holidays, trains, since the time when they were the primary means of long-distance transportation, have been a part of the season’s magic.
Maybe it’s the sound of the whistle from an approaching train, and the excitement that a loved one is arriving home for Christmas after a long absence.
Or, perhaps it’s the model train and village scene under the Christmas tree that became popular almost as soon as the steam locomotive came into being in the late 19th Century.
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“Before World War II everybody rode trains to get just about anywhere,” remembers Oscar McCollum, local author, historian, veteran and co-founder of the Glenwood Railroad Museum.
During the war, trains took soldiers away — and, for the lucky ones, brought them home, he noted.
“I liked trains from the very beginning,” he spoke of his own childhood fascination with trains and his admiration of an older cousin who worked as a dispatcher at a train station in Kansas.
His 25 years working for the government in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s and ’60s involved many a train commute from Baltimore and travels all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
He remembers buying a train engineer’s hat in the small town of Strasburg, Pennsylvania, on one of those trips.
“That old hat suddenly surfaced a few years ago, and I still use it to this day when I’m down at the museum,” McCollum said.
A shared interest in railroad history united McCollum and another longtime local train buff, Jan Girardot, in establishing the Western Colorado Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society in the late 1990s.
Working with a group of dedicated supporters and donors, the organization’s major project became the railroad museum.
A several-year effort led to the opening of the museum in 2003 in the east end of the historic Glenwood Railroad Depot on Seventh Street. The depot serves as the Amtrak station for Glenwood Springs on the California Zephyr route.
“We still had a pretty strong model railroad club here at the time, so it was a natural extension of that,” said Girardot, who used to organize a model train show at the Hotel Colorado each year.
“Like many kids from that era, I was into model trains,” Girardot said. “My dad got me started. He built a folding train table for me to use in our small upper flat in Milwaukee.”
Girardot said it took some convincing for the Union Pacific Railroad to agree to lease what had been the ladies waiting room when the station was built in 1904.
A presentation to a group of company executives who were passing through town was all it took to convince the UP to allow the fledgling group to take over not only the unused waiting room but the workshop space on the far end of the building.
“Pretty much what you see there today is what we had in mind,” Girardot said. “We’ve relied on a lot of donations from friends of the museum and volunteers over the years to make it happen.”
These days, McCollum, 94, and Girardot, 80, have stepped away from the daily operation of the museum, partly due to health reasons.
That duty has been handed over to another longtime museum supporter and railroad history buff, Pat Thrasher and his wife Ann, as well as Dick Helmke, longtime secretary/treasurer for the museum.
A retired U.S. Forest Service worker, Thrasher became interested in railroads and their history while stationed in Alaska.
“After I retired from the Forest Service, the museum seemed like a reasonable outlet for me to share my interest with others,” he said.
The museum, with its iconic G-scale Lionel train set and smaller scale model as its centerpiece, is committed to preserving the local railroad history, including the race between the Denver & Rio Grande Western and Colorado Midland railroads to get to Aspen first.
“When the railroad arrived here in 1887, Glenwood Springs was not the destination, Aspen was,” Thrasher explained.
The Midland had the edge at first because it had already built its railroad to standard gauge, while the D&RGW still operated on a narrow gauge.
But the ramp-up was quick, fueled by the desire to get in on Aspen’s silver boom, and ultimately it was the D&RGW that won the race.
Railroads ruled the Roaring Fork, Crystal and Frying Pan valleys in the early part of the 20th Century.
“They played an important role in the economy of the area,” Thrasher said.
Glenwood Canyon was considered impassable in the late 1880s, he noted, but “railroading being railroading in those days, if there was a buck to be made, they would build a railroad anywhere.”
In addition to the main showroom with all its historical artifacts, the back workshop features some of the working pieces of railroad memorabilia as well as an even larger-scale steam engine that was donated to the museum soon after its owner passed away right after he had built it.
Model trains and Christmas just seem to go together, Thrasher noted.
“If you go back far enough, trains were just such an integral part of society,” he said. “And, almost as soon as trains came along you had toy trains.”
Placing a toy train set and village beneath the Christmas tree was a tradition of European descent, Thrasher said.
A toy train was a significant investment for a family in those days, and Christmas being the time when those kinds of investments were made, it seemed the perfect marriage.
In addition to the D&RGW’s main line from Denver and the Colorado Midland that came over Hagerman Pass from Leadville to Basalt, smaller railroads served the coals mines in Coal Basin near Redstone as well as the marble quarry in Marble.
McCollum, who grew up in Kansas City, first came to Colorado as a college student in the 1940s on a field trip to study geology and geography.
“We stayed up in Crystal City, and after that I fell in love with the mountains and decided that when I retired I was going to live in Marble,” McCollum said.
He and his late wife, Lois Ann, did just that in 1976. Oscar ultimately served for a time as mayor of Marble and penned a two-volume history of the town, called “The History of Marble – A Town Built on Dreams.”
His book features an extensive history of how the railroads made their way up the Crystal Valley even before regular roads did.
Later, the McCollums moved to Glenwood Springs where they were also active in the community for many years.
McCollum credits Girardot for taking the lead in getting the railroad museum up and running.
“It was in pretty bad shape, so we got some volunteers together and spent a couple of years making repairs and painting it to get it ready,” McCollum said.
After working in the newspaper business in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Girardot began a career in organ sales and service.
He also played organ in theaters, including as the last paid organist at the Denver Theatre after moving with his wife, Pat, to Colorado.
It was in Denver that Girardot rekindled his interest in model railroading as a member of a club that operated in the basement of Denver Union Station for many years.
He continued that passion after relocating to Glenwood Springs, while also running the Lowery Organ sales and service business. Over the years, Pat has played cello with the Symphony of the Valley, and the couple helped found the local Unitarian congregation.
Girardot still puts together the local railroad historical society newsletter, and is eager to get back to volunteering at the museum after recovering from recent neck surgery
Likewise for McCollum, who also recently had surgery on his back after taking a fall.
“I just love talking to people about trains and it’s a pleasure sharing that knowledge with others,” McCollum said. “And you gain a lot of other history knowledge in knowing about how railroads played into so many things.”
Thrasher said his goal is to maintain the integrity of the museum and to continue teaching about the area’s railroad history.
An educational program series sponsored by the chapter continues to bring bits of railroad history to Glenwood Springs the first Wednesday of each month. The January program will focus on the connection between railroads and America’s national parks.
“We also want to try to offer some field trips in the summer to some of the historic railroad sites in the area,” Thrasher said.
“All around us, if you know what you’re looking for, you will see evidence of our railroad history,” he said.
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