On the Ski Train

Pictures Rediscovered After Decades

Ever have one of those times that you completely forget you have something?

Back at the end of the last century (it hurts a little to say that!) I had sort-of a special relationship with the Ansco Ski Train management. Basically, I had stood up a fan website about the train; they discovered it; they asked to borrow some of my graphics. In exchange they offered to comp me tickets on the train– for the whole family– anytime we wanted. Sweet deal, eh? Well, since we lived about 400 miles from Denver and rode the train maybe once per year, it wasn’t a whole lot of financial exposure for Ansco, but we still took advantage of the arrangement several times.

One of these times was on January 29, 2000. After surviving Y2k, we made the journey to Denver to ride the train. Now, one of the perks of this arrangement was that I was allowed to shoot photos and video from open vestibule doors, provided I was escorted by someone from the train’s volunteer staff. This turned out to be no burden at all; I was actually treated a little bit like a celebrity (“You have a website?”) Remember, this was still pretty early in the whole Internet game. If they only knew just how insignificant I really was! Anyway, the morning of the 29th the four of us boarded the train at Union Station and settled in for the two-hour ride.

In my case, “settling in” means never sitting for more than a minute before bouncing up again to take more photos!

On this day, based on the quality of the negatives, I must have been shooting ASA400 film, as the clarity is just not there. It’s a compromise between quality and being able to actually shoot a moving subject on a moving platform with the least motion-blur possible.

Incidentally: after I got this roll of film back, I must have scanned about three of the prints and promptly forgotten about the package. When I dug this out of storage last week, I found at least a dozen shots I had absolutely no memory of ever seeing! So here you go. We get to enjoy them together as if for the first time, which is basically true.

First image: we’re already in the heart of the tunnel district. Here I’m looking back as the private cars exit tunnel 16. I’m standing in the vestibule of car 11, SHAVANO PEAK.
A few minutes later we’re between Tunnel 18 and the east switch of Crescent siding. The cut behind the train leads into Tunnel 18.

Based on my location for most of these photos we must have been seated on car 11, SHAVANO PEAK, which is the last “public” car on the train (the three club cars behind were premium, and the private cars behind them were invitation-only.

Now the front of the train is well past the east switch of Crescent, and we get a good look at the three borrowed Amtrak F40PH locomotives. My car is roughly at the switch here.
Just a moment later we’re looking northwest over the shoulder of the power, as it were. Still on the main of Crescent siding.
A little further west at Crescent, past the grade crossing, we get a look at Gross dam. The continental divide ahead is mostly obscured with clouds.
Leaving Crescent behind, now the train is entering Tunnel 19. The eastern portal seems to be bare rock…
Here’s the other end of Tunnel 19. This end has a concrete portal. Also note the deeper orange color of the private cars. The previous summer they had been repainted, and also relettered back to Rio Grande heralds. During most of the 1990s the trio wore “Southern Pacific” lettering.
Here’s one of the intermediate block signals between Crescent and Cliff (removed since this photo). It’s not the one by tunnel 22 so I’m not positive where it was…
About a quarter mile west of Tunnel 30 is a short, rocky defile. We’re only about a mile east of Rollinsville at this point.
Looking back now; the dome car is in about the same place my car had been in the previous photo. Incidentally this is one of my few photos that shows the left side of the dome car, with its very different window arrangement as compared to the other side. Too bad the resolution wasn’t better! Here I was actually shooting through the tinted glass rather than an open door.

I didn’t shoot any more photos on the westbound trip, not sure why but probably because the alignment is less curvy overall and the staff always got fussy about prepping for the Moffat Tunnel transit and subsequent unloading process at Winter Park.

None of us were downhill skiers, but on this trip we booked a day of cross-country skiing down at Devil’s Thumb Ranch beyond Fraser. It’s a beautiful spot and I wish my knees were still up for that kind of activity!

After the day’s activities we re-boarded the train and headed into the nearby lounge-cafe car WINTER PARK. I shot a couple of images through the windows at the scenery as the train nudged into motion. (Jim Bain and the other management usually hung out in the opposite end of this car.)

Here we’re looking towards the west portal of the Moffat Tunnel. Up ahead you can see the pair of D&RGW boxcars which had been spotted on the spur here for many years, serving as storage for the section crews. Note the interior of the cafe car. Beyond the etched-glass partition, people are lined up to get their coffee and hot chocolate.
Looking back at the boxcars now. You can see the tip of observation car KANSAS as it follows us around the curve into the tunnel. Also of interest is the blue truck to the right. It is (was) a maintenance-of-way truck of D&RGW heritage with a special scissor-lift platform, and stationed here for service within the Moffat Tunnel. When necessary, crew could be lifted up on the platform to inspect or maintain the roof of the tunnel. I wish I’d waited another second before clicking the shutter so it would show more of the truck.

Now for an anecdote. We were sitting in the cafe car right where I took that interior shot, all having our cocoa and such. Our kids were 11 and 8 at the time. The younger one was just taking a sip of cocoa with its whipped cream topping, when the older one poked her or something and made her laugh. The topping was blasted off the cup and across the table… and all over my face! I was furious, until I noticed some people at an adjacent booth laughing. Only then did I see the humor of the situation and began laughing myself… (No, I don’t have a photo!)

Here the eastbound train is rolling through Pinecliffe; the locomotives are just reaching the grade crossing of highway 72. You can see that the light is getting pretty dim.
Turning back after we passed the section shed, we see the tail end of the train. That structure was a common D&RGW design; you could find examples of it all over the system, including at West Portal and even on the narrow gauge at places like Hermosa.
Less than a mile below the previous photos, the train is rolling through ultra-short Tunnel 29. For perspective, the 78-foot bore is shorter than any car on the train. My vantage for the photo is near the site of the now-demolished Tunnel 28, blown up in 1952 if I recall correctly due to geologic instability.
One last view in the rapidly-fading light: the train is rolling into Tunnel 22, one of the shorter bores.
One last picture for the day– a snapshot of the vestibule of cafe car WINTER PARK.

The reason for this final shot was to capture the new lettering reconfiguration. The backstory is like this. When these Canadian cars were first acquired around 1987, Ansco named each car after various Colorado geologic features. Coaches were in the MOUNT or PEAK series, club cars in the SPRINGS series, and the two cafes were in the PARK series. The cars all received the Rio Grande herald above the windows– at the time, Rio Grande was still the railroad owning the route. Mergers in 1988 and 1996, however, effectively expunged the Rio Grande as an entity (the Ski Train itself was owned by a separate corporate entity, Ansco). Given the changed conditions, Ansco management decided that a re-imaging, or re-branding was in order. The car names were buffed off the nameplates in mid-1999 and replaced with “The Ski Train” legend in a Birch font. The cars ran that way for the summer runs. However, evidently there was sufficient complaint raised, probably by the railfan community, about the missing car names that the company decided to put the names back on the cars, only less prominently. As you can see in the photo, the names were put back on under the vestibule heralds, in the same art-deco lettering but much smaller. I wanted to get a good up-close view of the change, but unfortunately I didn’t set up my camera manually for the shot and the automatic shutter exposure was too long. As a result we have the slightly-blurry image shown above. Well, that’s what happens when you get in a hurry…

Remember, this was long before digital cameras were the norm. Everything then was shot on film. Some of our Ski Train trips were extensively videoed; most had some number of stills taken. Somehow this trip, with its large number of frames shot, lay buried in my archives for over two decades, under-appreciated all that time. Now I get to relive some of those memories, and share them. The contemporary Winter Park Express runs the same route and we’re glad to have it, but I really miss the Ski Train. It was a fantastic ride and a unique experience.

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