20 questions for retiring Colorado Railroad Museum Executive Director Don Tallman

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, January 2, 2019

I first met Don Tallman in November 2006 at the annual meeting of what we now know as the Heritage Rail Alliance, the industry trade group for tourist railroads and museums. As is my normal stance at these meetings, I try to meet as many new people as possible, and Don’s was a face that I didn’t recognize when I boarded a bus for a field trip. I sat down next to him, and a conversation quickly began. As it turned out, Don knew little about railroads or railroad history, but he had the right drive and enthusiasm for his new position as executive director of the Colorado Railroad Museum. I was excited to see someone of his caliber running the museum for a state that deserves a vibrant, healthy cultural treasure. We hit it right off and became fast friends. Since then, he’s taken a good museum and made it great. Later this year, Don will retire. But before he does, he was gracious to answer 20 questions I posed to him about his role, about the museum, and about U.S. railway preservation in general. Here’s what he told me.

1.    What about this museum will you miss the most?

The people – over the past 12 years I have developed some great relationships, with my peers at other railroad museums and tourist railroads, with my staff, board, volunteers and donors, and with the community.

 2.    How have you changed the museum?

Prior to joining the museum, like many railroad museums, the Colorado Railroad Museum had been run by railfans for primarily the railfan community. I was the first non-railfan executive director, and so I’ve been less equipment-centric. We are blessed with a very focused collection of railcars that either ran in Colorado or through Colorado. I think it’s important to tell the stories of the people who rode and worked on the railroads and the impact the railroads had on the culture and economy of Colorado. We use the equipment as multigenerational touchpoints for conversation and interpretation of the railroad experience. Over the years, as we’ve grown, I have been able to hire an amazing curatorial staff who make sure we follow museum best practices for handling, storing and cataloging archives and objects and who follow Department of Interior standards for railcar restoration work. Exhibits, educational programs and events are all important elements that provide our visitors a reason to come back again and again. In addition to appealing to the railfans, we’ve expanded our reach and have been recognized as one of the top tourism attractions in the Denver Metro area for the past 10 years.

3.    How has the museum changed you?

I think I’ve become a better leader. It has made me better at delegating and trusting my staff and volunteers to get the job done right and on time. You can’t be a micromanager – I’ve learned to hire good people, set the course, identify the end game, and then get out of the way. Check in from time to time to make sure they stay on track and provide any support or resources they need, but empower them and trust they’ll make good decisions. If things get wonky, you can always make changes to get back on course. I’ve learned the importance of being adaptive and to embrace change. We have made so many changes over the last 12 years, the museum is almost unrecognizable from when I started!

4.    What’s the best part of the job?

I love the variety – I am involved in so many different aspects of the museum and get to wear such a variety of hats. Where else can you get an update on the progress of a railcar restoration, discuss track issues, have lunch with a major donor, be interviewed on television about an upcoming event, review a proposal from a contractor to install new flooring for the depot building, approve marketing collateral, discuss exhibit ideas, analyze the museum financials, and watch a demonstration of our new online library catalog – all in one day!?!

5.    Biggest challenge?

There are a few. Our great 100+ railcar collection requires constant attention. Most of our railcars sit outside unprotected, and the elements and temperature fluctuation wreaks havoc on exterior finishes. The challenge is raising funds to do the constant maintenance and restoration work that our collection entails, especially the operating equipment — the locomotives and varnish passenger equipment.

6.    If you had to point to one thing that you’re most proud of, what would that be?

Developing a sustainable business model for the museum. Our budget is approaching $3 million, so it’s important to have multiple revenue streams for program funding. Events, memberships, educational programs, individual and corporate support, and grants for specific projects are all important sources of income. Polar Express is a high margin event that has become a critical source of cash flow in the first quarter when attendance is slower. Events like Polar Express and Day Out with Thomas also introduce new audiences and provide a source of return visitation and membership development.

7.    If you had to point to one thing you wish you could do over, what would that be?

I would have taken a more systematic and carefully planned approach to our equipment restoration process. We had a number of “pet projects” that took longer and cost more to complete because we didn’t take the time on the front end to adequately plan. Organically developed restoration processes don’t work. You need a road map, otherwise it’s easy to let the project go down the wrong path. It’ll take longer to complete and cost more.

8.    What lesson have you learned from your time that every railway preservation group would benefit from knowing?

Generally speaking, restoring a piece of equipment always costs a lot more than your initial estimates … a lot more, so go in with eyes open, have a detailed plan, have a big chunk of funding in place before you start, and be prepared to do some aggressive fundraising to complete the project!

9.    What surprised you about this job?

How reliant we are on dedicated and talented volunteers. We have over 300 volunteers directed by staff who log nearly 30,000 hours each year. That amounts to the equivalent of another 15 full time staff with a value of $720,000! They help with events, catalog our artifacts and archives, provide administrative assistance, maintain the track, and work on the maintenance and restoration of our rolling stock collection. That’s just scratching the surface of what all our volunteers do. We are blessed to have so many people who are passionate about our mission and who donate their time, their skills, and in many cases, their financial resources.

10. What advice would you give to anyone starting a railroad museum from scratch?

Prepare a detailed business plan – know what you’re getting into before you commit. Understand the financial ramifications of starting a railroad museum. Restoring railroad equipment takes a bunch of resources – time, money, specialized skill sets. Define your mission and the stories you want to share. Make sure you define what the visitor experience will be and figure out what will bring someone back. Develop a site masterplan that can accommodate visitor and collection growth. So many railroad museums develop organically rather than strategically.

11. What’s your favorite place at Colorado Railroad Museum?

It’s my office. I’ve been told I have one of the coolest offices in Denver! When our staff outgrew our space – I remodeled the groundskeeper’s tuff-shed, furnished it with artifacts from our collection and turned it into a 19th Century railroad executive’s office. All the furniture and accessories are from the late 1800s, including my roll top desk and wood file cabinet. It had a nice hardwood floor, so I added a large oriental rug. The only modern elements are my phone and laptop.

12. Favorite rolling stock?

I love our business car no. 96. It was the president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s corporate car in the 1880s, all done in mahogany and quarter sawn English oak. It’s elegant, yet not over the top Victorian like you might see in a privately owned car from that period. It has a parlor, two staterooms, dining room, crew quarters and galley. I can only imagine the deals that happened in that dining room. We still use it for fund raising dinners – our caterers love preparing an elegant dinner from scratch in the small but functional galley.

13. Favorite small artifact?

It has to be the 19th century velocipede! It was a maintenance of way vehicle that looks like a bicycle with an outrigger. You pumped it with your hands and feet like a rowing machine. There’s no brake, so you had to really control your descent or pull hard to get up a steep grade! When we pulled it out of storage for display, I took it for a spin around our 1/3 mile loop of track. It was a great workout.

14. What was the most interesting thing that happened?

Eight years ago, Union Pacific donated a 1980s-vintage Denver & Rio Grande Western Tunnel Motor locomotive. Our track doesn’t connect to the main line, so we stored it a couple miles down the road at MillerCoors on one of their spur tracks until we could raise enough money to move it onto our property. Early in 2018 I gathered representatives from MillerCoors, the City of Golden, Hulcher Services, RRT Contractors, S/D Enterprises, and BNSF to figure out how to get it moved. Almost all of the parties involved donated their resources. Hulcher had to bring sidebooms and crew for three days from North Platte, Neb., for the move, but their fee was well below market. In August, through this amazing collaboration the nearly 400,000-pound locomotive was moved without a hitch, and took only 6 hours. The City of Golden closed off the the road leading to the museum, MillerCoors moved the locomotive from the spur track to the BNSF. BNSF sandwiched the tunnel motor between two locomotives and crawled it a mile or so to a crossing on the road to the museum. RRT Contractors and S/D Enterprises had constructed several sections of panel track for the move. Hulcher Services used four sidebooms to lift the locomotive and move it onto panel track and across a culvert. Once they were across the culvert, they walked the tunnel motor down the middle of the street and onto the museum property, where they placed it next to the last remaining Rio Grande standard gauge steam locomotive. The move was covered by every TV station in Denver, and was live streamed over the internet to over 120,000 viewers. It was an amazing testament to the power of collaboration.

15. If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

We just got an amazing grant to help us develop an Interpretive Master Plan that will guide how, what, and when purposeful interpretation will take place throughout the visitor’s experience so they understand when and why the historic railroad equipment and artifacts in the museum’s collection were significant to Colorado history and why they are worthy of continued preservation. It will influence and guide how we interpret our collections, and help us insure that we tell our stories with impact and within the context of the plan. I wish we would have had the capacity when I started to take on this kind of project.

16. Sum up the experience in two to three words:

An awesome ride!

17. What are three things your successor should know about this job?

  • You wear many, many different hats.
  • Try to keep yourself at 30,000 feet and not in the weeds.
  • Ask regularly, “how can we improve the guest experience and be better stewards to our collections?”

18. What would you like to see this museum doing in the future that it is not doing today?

It is our responsibility to be good stewards to our over 100 piece rolling stock collection. That means realistically assessing what railcars should remain in the collection and making those difficult deaccessioning decisions. To some that’s sacrilegious, but you can’t save everything. There are finite resources available to stabilize, maintain, and restore the collection. Ours is an outdoor museum, and a number of the railcars in our collection were in rough condition when they arrived decades ago and they have deteriorated since that time. We need to continue to ask, at what point is a restoration a replication? We’re beginning to cocoon a few railcars that we don’t want to lose to rot and weathering. We need to begin constructing covers, at the very least, to protect our varnish collection. When I started there was a lot of pushback when I advocated for covering the collection. Photographers love taking pictures of the equipment in our beautiful natural setting. There comes a point where preservation needs to take precedent.

 19. Is there one daily tradition or ritual that you’ll miss?

I like to work out very early in the morning and arrive at work before dawn. After I fix myself breakfast and coffee, I love walking around the grounds right at sunrise when it’s quiet and the railcars shimmer and glow in the first light. It’s a magical time of day for me.

 20. Will RGS 20 ever be finished?

Yes! It has been a long and expensive process. Strasburg is working hard to complete all of the major components – boiler, running gear, etc. They’ll ship it to us in late spring of 2019 and then Jeff Taylor, our Curator of Rolling Stock and Equipment, and his crew will paint the boiler, install some piping and accessories. We hope to have it operational for summer of 2020. Yea!



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