If you add up the total number of feet it climbs over the course of a year, it truly would be the ‘little engine that could.’ ‘It’ is the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and every day---weather permitting---it climbs to the top of Pikes Peak. Since 1891, people from around the world have been punching their tickets to ride to the top of America’s most famous mountain. Until now.
For the time being, the trip to the top of this jewel of the Front Range is on ice. “Infrastructure had reached the end of its life,” said Gary Pierson, President and CEO of Oklahoma Publishing Company which owns the railway and Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. No specific date for it to resume its mountain trek has been set beyond “sometime in 2021.”
For 125 years, passengers have boarded the train in Manitou Springs at an elevation of 6,500 feet. When they’ve reached the summit, they’ve stepped out to a world that sits 14,115 feet above sea level. In between, they have feasted on a buffet of picturesque canyons, centuries-old aspen, surreal-sized boulders and breath-taking mountain vistas. But for now, all of it is on hold.
“Everything wears out,” said Pierson. Over the years, the train’s structural integrity has been rock-solid. From time to time, changes and modifications have been made, including switching from the original steam to diesel. But last year, said Pierson, ownership took a close look at the historic train and made a decision. “Replace everything. Literally,” he said. “All the rail, nuts and bolts, anchors. Everything.” When travel resumes, costs will exceed “$100 million, plus or minus.” Work will begin in the spring.
The train was the dream of Chicago mattress magnate, Zalmon G.Simmons. He visited the mountain and trekked to the top in the 1880’s. But his journey was not nearly in the comfort of a train with cushioned seats. Not by a longshot! Simmons made the trek aboard one of the many mules that used to transport people up the mountain. Still, awed by the area’s natural beauty and thinking ‘there must be a better way,’ Simmons conceived and financed construction of the railway. Construction was completed in October 1890 and eight months later, on June 30, 1891, the train took on its first fares, a Denver church choir.
Over the years---steam through diesel---the glistening, apple-red Swiss-manufactured railcars have transported millions of people to the top of Zebulon Pike’s eponymous mountain. The mountain is visited by more than 500,000 visitors annually. More than “300,000,” riders, said Pierson, book passage on the iconic train. Incidentally, each day when the train ran, passengers aboard the railway did something Pike, an army officer, never did, himself. Though he tried, Pike never reached the summit.
Pike was a young army officer who was given the task of exploring the western and southern regions of the Louisiana Purchase by President Thomas Jefferson. With a squad of 20 soldiers and 50 Osage hostages, he meandered the lands, mapping and chronicling the vast Western territories. His journey from St. Louis began on November 15, 1806. His trek through these unknown lands gave him the first views of Colorado’s Arkansas River and The Great Sand Dunes, a spot he said was tantamount to the deserts of Africa. Pike got his first view of the mountain that now bears his name. He called it “Grand Peak.”
In a state where tourism is a major economic engine, the PPCR is constantly challenged to break into Colorado’s top ten tourist destinations. But rankings have very little to do with what tourists take away from a single climb up the state’s most famous peak. At the apex of the nearly 7,500-foot climb, tourists aboard the eight-mile-per-hour leviathan feast their eyes on the Great Plains to the east, the Continental Divide that bisects the state to the north and south and, when it’s all over, take away with them a memory whose shelf-life is forever.