Tiny Town & Railroad
By Stephen Knapp
“We’ve just got to find a way to survive until then. Tiny Town is an amazing piece of Colorado’s history.”
The wee streets of Tiny Town are quiet.
A playful breeze, the whisper of green leaves, the friendly chuckle of tumbling water speak large in the stillness. To the casual ear, it sounds like another perfect summer among the pines. To Tiny Town & Railroad’s apprehensive guardian, Elvira Nedoma, it sounds like countless joyous mornings lost, beautiful family memories never made, the sad and anxious silence of the vigil.
“I miss the children more than I can tell you,” says Nedoma, for nearly 20 years the miniature municipality’s tireless “Mayor,” caretaker, accountant, public works administrator and most ardent advocate. “The children are the real magic of this place.”
In untroubled times, Tiny Town is alive with little feet and gleeful laughter from the first buds of May to the last blossoms of September. In the Age of Social Distancing, it’s a one-sixth-scale ghost town perched on the edge of the abyss.
“If we can’t open until next summer, we’ll be closed for 20 months in a row,” Nedoma says. “Nobody can survive for 20 months.”
That goes double for a seasonal amusement park that has consciously and consistently matched its nominal admission prices to its annual operating expenses, and that invites guests to bring their own basket of lunch and picnic on its patio for free, uncommonly family-friendly policies that help to ensure that Colorado’s most uniquely charming family destination remains always affordable to every Colorado family. And yet, with so many breadwinners now unemployed and countless households on desperately short rations, Tiny Town is in very real danger of being forced to permanently roll up its itty-bitty boardwalks exactly when they’re needed most.
“I understand the risks of the coronavirus, and I wouldn’t even consider opening until I’m absolutely sure that our children, our parents and our volunteers will be safe here,” says Nedoma. “We’ve just got to find a way to survive until then. Tiny Town is an amazing piece of Colorado’s history.”
She would know. To mark the amenity’s 100th anniversary, five years ago Nedoma wrote a book about it. “If These Tracks Could Talk” is neatly organized, replete with pictures, great fun to read and absolutely loaded with Tiny Town lore. Within its pages, one learns that the site’s miniature foundations were laid in 1915 by a Denver freight magnate named George Turner, who undertook the project to please his 9-year-old daughter. Christened “Turnerville,” by 1924, the plush parcel on the banks of South Turkey Creek was a full-fledged vacation draw of a stature equal to Pike’s Peak and boasting—alongside its marvelous “midget” metropolis—a full-scale hotel, a grocery store, a pool room, a church, and a grand and gorgeous faux-pueblo structure staffed in season by Navajos recruited from their Arizona reservation.
One also learns that Tiny Town has seen calamity before. Floods drowned the valley in 1929 and again in 1932. The greater part of Turnerville burned down in 1935, but it persisted in diminished state until 1948 when government surveyors struck it a fatal blow by rerouting U.S. 285 a quarter-mile to the west. The site was abandoned to Nature until 1965 when new owners breathed new life into the moldering ruins, and abandoned again in 1969 when Turkey Creek rose up and swept away fully half of its attractions.
Two more unsuccessful attempts were made to revive Tiny Town, but it wasn’t until 1987, when the Northern Colorado Chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management assumed its stewardship, that Turner’s half-pint hamlet rested again upon a firm financial footing. A Realtor in previous life, Nedoma spent many a happy off-hour volunteering there, and by an unbeatable blend of ability, enthusiasm and pure affection eventually earned a shot at the best gig in town.
“I was the first woman in 85 years to become an engineer on the Tiny Town Railroad,” she smiles. “It’s still the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Today, Nedoma is loving curator to more than 100 small structures and five Lilliputian locomotives, gracious host to about 80,000 visitors a year, and the woman charged with saving a beloved survivor of devastating fire and catastrophic flood from final destruction by economic drought. If Nedoma has become expert at doing much with little, without a revenue stream, Tiny Town is fast slipping under water.
“The bills don’t stop,” she shrugs.
There’s the lease on the land, of course, and insurance to be paid, and the constant demands of groundskeeping. By far, Nedoma’s biggest expense is maintaining her famous railroad’s track and rolling stock in apple pie order, and the never-ending task of keeping Tiny Town’s abbreviated architecture tended and trim comes in a close second.
“Kids are hard on things,” Nedoma laughs, “and the weather takes a big toll, too. We normally spend April repairing the buildings and getting everything ready for summer, but this year we couldn’t do that. There’s a lot of work to do.”
Most people would say it’s worth the effort. Generations of Coloradans have spent sunny summer days exploring Tiny Town’s handcrafted history, art and whimsy, and Nedoma doesn’t intend to let one of the West’s most cherished family traditions expire on her watch. She’ll need help, though.
“The people up here have been wonderful to us,” she says, “but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The light at the end of Tiny Town & Railroad’s coronavirus tunnel is $150,000, just enough to see it safely through what’s shaping up to be its driest season in 32 years. Folks looking to help can visit tinytownrailroad.com and follow the link to its GoFundMe page. Every little bit helps, and each dollar invested will return big dividends in family fun for all the sunny summers to come.
“Tiny Town survived the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918,” says Nedoma. “I want to make sure it survives this one.”