By Mike Rosso
Originally constructed in 1901 to house the engine for Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, then in the midst of expanding its rail network statewide, the non-profit Custer County rail group, All Aboard Westcliffe (AAW), purchased the dilapidated ruins of the single stall engine house in 1992 from Tony DeDomenico.
Abandoned by the railroad in 1938, the building was used for hay storage by rancher and businessman Herman Hanssen and was not maintained. Formed in 1989, AAW set about to acquire and restore all railroad-related equipment and structures having to do with railroading in and around Westcliffe.
Members quickly began to shore up the old engine house to prevent further deterioration using whatever they could find including cables and telephone poles. An initiative by the state of Colorado in 1989 to help develop tourist traffic in small towns allowed members of AAW to attend special workshops for grant writing and offered logistical support for historic restoration. In 1990 the group received a $10,000 grant from AT&T to purchase the property. Considered to be a “ruin” by the Colorado Historical Society (CHS), that group still approved a grant for a portion of the amount applied for, to the tune of $49,000. With the help from a contractor from La Veta, volunteers with AAW began the arduous task of numbering each existing piece of the remaining structure, identifying them on a sketch and stacking them nearby.
Although the D&RG did not use a foundation in the original building, the group decided to retrofit the structure with a foundation. AAW member George Colgate, a licensed engineer, suggested laying 8-by-12 timbers horizontally on the floor to replace the rotted material which had been removed. Colgate continued to supervise restoration during the first grant phase. All usable timber from the original structure was reinstalled and a sawmill in the San Luis Valley provided timber for the floor and for some new rafters. Work halted when funds ran out until an additional grant was given by the CHS. Work continued under the supervision of AAW member Dave Tonsing, including, batten board siding, windows, doors, wiring, a cupola smokestack and other finishing touches. The engine house was finally completed in 2006 when Mel and Doris Porth, who were getting ready to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, decided to fund the cost of a concrete floor in order to hold their reception there.
Today, the museum houses railroad artifacts acquired over the years by AAW, including a timeline of Custer County history and its relationship to the railroads, and a working section car or speeder used by the section crew to maintain the rails, bridges and roadbed of this Westcliffe spur.
In 2014 AAW purchased the historic railroad depot at 102 Main Street in downtown Westcliffe, built in 1901, and are in the process of restoring it as well. The group meets in the Heritage Center at 110 Rosita Avenue, right next to the museum on the third Thursday of each month at 6:00 p.m. and can be contacted by visiting www.allaboardwestcliffe.org.
The Railroad Museum is open every Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., from Memorial Day to Labor Day.