‘That was really something’: Remembering the Winter Park Ski Train
April 23, 2009
When skiers rode the last Ski Train of the season from Denver to Winter Park, they probably had no idea it would be their last trip on the Rocky Mountain icon.
The Ski Train sold this week to the Algoma Central Railway Inc. and will be moving to Canada. The company already operates a ski train in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
When Annie Bulkley, who rode the train as a child, heard the news, she said, “It really is sad. I don’t think there was another experience like it.
“It made Winter Park so unique. As adults, we look back and say, ‘that was really something’.”
The Ski Train ran from Denver to Winter Park in 1930s, bringing children up to the mountain for ski lessons. An ad from those days for the “Snow Train” offered round trip tickets for $1.75.
The service stopped with the beginning of World War II.
Annie’s father, Frank, returned from the war and learned the Ski Train was no longer running. He had been the one-time owner of the Winter Park Ski School and ran the Frank Bulkley Ski Group for children. He and friend, Gordy Wren, wanted to start up the children’s ski group again ” this time renamed the Eskimo Ski Club ” and bring back the Ski Train.
He wrote an eight-page letter to Harold Eno of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad explaining how to outfit and run a ski train.
Frank offered to underwrite the train if it didn’t make money. Eno took him up on his offer.
It was 1946. To get the Eskimo Club, a ski school for Denver children, started again, Frank recruited children from the original days of the Ski Train and found new children who wanted to learn how to ski.
“He got it going again,” Annie said. “My dad rode the Ski Train every weekend for 26 years, except for one to get married.”
Childhood on the train
Annie grew up riding the Ski Train.
She remembers the green velveteen seats and the smell of orange peels and wet leather on the ride home.
One resort employee told her that the resort couldn’t have made payroll for a few of those years without the Eskimo Club.
The highlight of the train ride for Annie was the trip to and from the snack bar.
“As a little kid, you’d buy your train ticket and lift ticket and walk to the snack bar in the train,” she said. “It was the fun thing to do. Someone once said we walked the whole way to Winter Park.”
Teaching Denver to ski
The Ski Train brought 1,200 to 1,500 children each Saturday to Winter Park, Annie said. “The Eskimo Club taught lots of Denver how to ski.”
Tom Branch rode the train as the Director of the Eskimo Ski Club every Saturday for 23 years, beginning in 1959.
“The conductors put us in charge of the train. We had 18 coaches full of kids,” he said.
“If was really Frank who kept that train going. Every year, they would try to cancel it and he would go argue with them. It was an uphill swim and it was wonderful.”
In 1966, a round trip ticket on the Ski Train cost $3.10. A full day lift ticket for members of the Eskimo Ski Club was $4.
The era that Annie and Tom Branch remember ended in the ’80s when billionaire Phil Anschutz bought the train.
“He upclassed it,” Annie said. The price went up and reservations were required to take the train.
It was cheaper and easier for the Eskimo Club to take buses to Winter Park instead.
End of an era
Since the ’80s, the Ski Train has been a novelty for tourists and a way to beat the traffic on I-70 for weekend skiers.
According to Winter Park Resort spokesperson Jenn DeBerge, the train brought between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors to the area each year.
“We’re sad the ski train is no longer operating up here,” she said. “It feels like the death of a friend. I’ll miss the train whistle and I’ll miss watching everyone arrive and leave from my office window.”