A couple of times a month during the summers, and whenever the Broncos are at home during the Fall, Tom Peyton hops aboard the Platte Valley Trolley and drives it from REI to Mile High Stadium and back. During the half-hour round trip, he makes stops at Confluence Park, the Downtown Aquarium, the Children’s Museum, and Mile High Stadium, all the while offering a running commentary on Denver’s storied past, the ecology and wildlife of the Platte, and of course, the history of the trolley itself.
“We have 20 volunteer operators, both male and female,” Peyton said. “The youngest is 25. The oldest is around 77. Some are history buffs. Some are railroad buffs. Some just like to run a piece of railroad equipment. The uniqueness is the big draw. For me, it’s helping to keep Denver’s tramway history alive.”
Once upon a time, Denver was a trolley town. In fact, the trolley influenced how and in which direction the city grew. Neighborhood commercial centers like Old South Gaylord and Old South Pearl, for example, owe their existence to the fact that they were once major trolley hubs. University Park didn’t even begin to blossom until trolley service was established connecting DU with downtown; which, by the way, was how the University got its erstwhile nickname, “Tramway Tech.”
Back in your grand dad’s day, a sight-seeing excursion on an open-sided “Breezer” out to Sloans Lake, Golden, or Elitch’s Amusement Park was a great way to cool off in the days before air-conditioning.
All of that, however, went bye-bye in 1950 when the last of the city’s trolleys was replaced by the municipal bus system we’ve come to know as RTD. It took nearly forty years before a group of concerned citizens got together to form the Denver Tramway Heritage Society, a 501c3 dedicated to preserving the city’s trolley car history and, coincidentally, to bringing trolley service back to Denver, albeit in abbreviated form.
“Burlington Northern owned the track outside of REI,” Peyton said. “We managed to buy it cheap. We also leased a trolley car from Comaco Trolley Co. out of Ida Grove, Iowa. It was built in the 1920s in Melbourne, Australia. It was unique because it had its own onboard power generator.” It wasn’t long before the society had it up and running. Today it’s one of Denver’s premier tourist attractions.
Peyton got involved in a roundabout way. “I was a member of the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club,” he said. “The club had an old wooden inter-urban trolley stored at the Federal Center that they wanted to restore. A group of us went out to look at it. Mechanically it was OK, but wood-wise it was pretty sad. Darrell Arndt, who was head of restoration, kind of hornswaggled us into restoring it.”
It was Arndt who suggested that it'd be fun to learn how to operate the Rail Heritage Society's new trolley. Peyton jumped on the idea. “We had to learn safety, bell and whistle signals, how to collect tickets, how to drive it, how to get people off and on. But really, it’s not all that hard to operate.”
Although he insists that “nothing dramatic has ever happened” in the twenty years he’s been at the controls, Peyton has played host to the likes of Governor John Hickenlooper, ex-Governor Romer, and former Mayor Federico Pena. During the three days of the Pope’s visit for World Youth Day in 1993, he and his cohorts hauled an estimated 10,000 kids to Mile High Stadium and back.
"It’s been fun,” Peyton says, “and it’s given me something to do in my retirement. Plus I get to be involved with a little bit of history. I've gotten an appreciation of the Denver transit scene, and how people are moved. Before, I never really thought much about it.”
For more info:
Denver Rail Heritage Society
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