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Riding the vintage rails out West

A rail revival is sweeping the West, with a dozen historic railroads making excursions in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming.

"People of all ages love trains, especially the kind of vintage trains they've seen in the movies and on television," says Al Richmond, a historian who has written two books about trains.

An all-day excursion on a vintage train can be fun, educational and traverse spectacular scenery. Also, trains aren't confining like cars and planes: There's room for adults to stretch and kids to play in the aisles.

One prime example is the Grand Canyon Railway, which debuted in 1901.

In its heyday, that rail line carried Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, plus naturalist John Muir, Clark Gable and the shah of Iran. The train covered 65 miles between its Williams, Ariz., depot and Grand Canyon National Park. But the line seemed doomed when the last work train traveled the route in 1974.

Fifteen years later, however, an Arizona entrepreneur invested a reported $20-million, which enabled year-round service to be resumed in 1989.

Among today's railway highlights are a 3{-hour stopover at the Grand Canyon's South Rim, entertainment at the 1908 Williams depot and on the train and a mock train robbery on horseback.

Peggy Pavlich, a consultant for Grand Canyon Railway, says, "About 150,000 steam locomotives were built in the United States. Of that total, only 200 remain operable today . . . Our five steam locomotives (were built between) 1906 and 1910."

Equally hard-working are the coal-fired steam locomotives that operate on southwestern Colorado's Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, which has been in continuous use since 1882.

That 90-mile, 8{-hour round trip begins in Durango,elevation 6,520 feet. The train enters the spectacular San Juan National Forest and twists along the Animas River Gorge before reaching the mining town of Silverton at 9,318 feet.

Offering an even older and higher elevation narrow-gauge ride is the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, built to serve remote mining towns along the New Mexico-Colorado border.

Completed in 1880, the 64-mile line winds through tunnels and over towering trestles, climbs steep Toltec Gorge and crosses Cumbres Pass _ at 10,015 feet elevation. The railroad, about halfway between Albuquerque and Denver, crosses the New Mexico-Colorado border 11 times.

The railroad is used frequently by movie companies because of its antique equipment and dramatic scenery. A third Colorado narrow-gauge railroad hauls 100,000 passengers each year across 100-foot-high Devil's Gate Bridge.

Georgetown Loop Railroad, 45 miles west of Denver, is a reconstruction of an 1877 line that served Georgetown, once the "Silver Queen of the Rockies." Oil-fired steam engines make a 70-minute round trip from Georgetown to Silver Plume.

Nevada's Virginia and Truckee Railroad operates as a tourist train on a six-mile round-trip run from Virginia City to Gold Hill.

In Oregon's Mount Hood Railroad, passengers ride in restored 1910 coaches that are pulled by diesel engines through lush forests, steep canyons and huge fruit orchards. The 44-mile, 4{-hour round trip includes a one-hour stopover.

The train is a link between two of the Oregon Trail's natural wonders _ the Columbia River Gorge and the foothills of snow-capped Mount Hood, the state's highest peak at 11,239 feet.

The Verde River Canyon Excursion Train threads through a red rock wonderland of towering cliffs and high desert country. Riders travel the awesome 40-mile round trip in a Pullman-style coach or first-class cars. All have access to open-air gondolas.

Walter Roessing is a freelance writer living in Walnut Creek, Calif.

If you go

To learn more about and these and other excursion trains, contact the following:

+ Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, P.O. Box 789, Chama, NM 87520; phone (505) 756-2151.

+ Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, 479 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301; phone (970) 247-2733.

+ Georgetown Loop Railroad, P.O. Box 217, Georgetown, CO 80444; phone (303) 569-2403.

+ Grand Canyon Railway, 518 E Bill Williams Ave., Williams, AZ 86046; phone (520) 773-1976.

+ Mount Hood Railroad, 110 Railroad Ave., Hood River, OR 97031; phone (541) 386-3556.

+ Verde River Canyon Excursion, P.O. Box 103, Clarkdale, AZ 86324; phone (520) 639-0010.

+ Virginia and Truckee Railroad, P.O. Box 467, Virginia City, NV 89440; phone (702) 847-0380.