‘Dr. Colorado’ explores romance of rails

History comes alive in Highlands Ranch

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Thomas “Dr. Colorado” Noel is riding the rails into Highlands Ranch.

The well-known local historian, who has authored numerous books on a variety of topics in the Centennial State, will make an appearance April 15 at the Highlands Ranch Historical Society’s monthly get-together. He will speak on the subject of railroads — what they’ve meant to the growth of the state, and their current place.

“Coloradans spent the 19th century building railroads, a huge spiderweb of steel that went through nearly every town, from mining towns to little agricultural towns,” he said. “We spent much of the 20th century ripping it out, and now we are rebuilding it as RTD continues its Denver-area expansion.

“So, from a historical standpoint, we are really going in a circle back to the efficient system we once had, while at the same time rebuilding something we lost.”

Noel hopes to recapture the excitement of the rails for those in attendance, while simultaneously turning the younger generation on to the romantic way in which their grandparents and great-grandparents most likely toured Colorado.

“There used to be over 100 different railroads in Colorado, and now most of them are gone,” he said. “There are about 10 surviving railroads in the state, most of which are in semi-operations only.”

Noel, aided by a slideshow of historical photographs, will speak on all of those still in operation, from the Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the Royal Gorge Railroad in Canon City to the Durango & Silverton, which still attracts about 200,000 people a year, and is the only active Colorado line never abandoned, running on a daily basis since 1882.

The University of Colorado-Denver professor has been leading train tours for the Smithsonian and History Colorado for 30 years, and will be heading up tours this summer through the San Luis Valley on the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad from Alamosa to La Veta as well as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Noel describes the latter as a “64-mile jaunt that wiggles and snakes back and forth over the Colorado and New Mexico 11 times between Antonito and Chama, N.M., and is America’s highest narrow-gauge, coal-fired, steam-engine railroad.”

No railroad presentation would be complete without talk of the historic hotels that dot or dotted Colorado’s most famous lines, and Noel will touch on quite a few of them such as the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, the Strater Hotel in Durango, Victor’s Victor Hotel, and the Brown Palace and Oxford in Denver.

Noel will speak from 7-8:30 p.m. April 15 at the auditorium in Southridge Recreation Center, 4800 McArthur Ranch Road in Highlands Ranch. The event is free for members, and there is a suggested $1 donation for non-members. Light refreshments will be served beginning at 6:30.