The Man Who Loves the West: Al Harper is True West’s 2024 True Westerner of the Year
“I fell in love with trains when my dad gave my brothers and me a Lionel train set when I was eight,” says Allen C. Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Durango, Colorado.
The American Heritage Railways operator from Southern Illinois has been in the tourism and railway business since 1992, beginning with an investment in the Florida Fun Train. Harper soon saw his financial stake in the Florida railway was not going to succeed, so he bought the Durango & Silverton in 1998 “to save his initial investment,” he says. “The Fun Train disappeared, and there I was owning a historic railroad in Colorado.”
Now, 32 years later, Harper and his wife, Carol, entertain two million guests a year at their tourism enterprises. They currently own the D&SNGRR and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City, North Carolina. In the past, he has been involved in managing and advising the Texas State Railroad, the Skunk Train in Fort Bragg/Willits, California, and the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad in Chama, New Mexico/Antonito, Colorado. Harper has also been a leader in licensing deals with his railroads, creating entertaining specialty trains in partnership with Warner Brothers, Universal Studios, Peanuts International and the Jim Henderson Company.
Harper’s specialty trains are one of his trademarks for broadening his audience across all generations. “The trick to running a successful railroad is to maintain the historical importance of a line, while using modern innovation, like train stories from children’s books, to attract a new audience of families with young children.”
Two years after the Harpers acquired the Durango & Silverton, Bob Boze Bell put together an investment group to buy True West magazine. Ever since, True West magazine has been a great promoter of the historic railroad and its mission of sustaining the heritage of the Old West. Bell, who grew up along the Santa Fe Railroad’s transcontinental line in Kingman, Arizona, is grateful to Al’s dedication to the West. “You won’t find a bigger supporter of the history we love than Al Harper. We are looking forward to working with Al at his new venue at Old Tucson, to help him create a first class museum there,” says Bell. “So, look for big things in the future from Al and us.”
So, how did Harper fall in love with the West? He credits his parents’ love of travel—with an annual history theme—and his admiration for his Western heroes of film and television. “I have always loved history,” says Harper. “That started with my parents who ‘themed’ our vacations.”
But running the Durango & Silverton has not been without its challenges. “I adopted the philosophy that the best way to preserve history is to make its presentation so extraordinary that people will pay a fair price for a great experience.”
Harper’s passion for his railroads is infectious, and anyone who has had the pleasure of riding on the D&SNGRR, is immediately planning to go back on the line when the Colorado businessman describes his favorite section of the railway. “You haven’t lived until you’ve ridden on the ‘High Line’ aboard the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad,” he says. “It not only shows you what man’s ingenuity can produce, but also lets you witness firsthand the glory of all that God has made.”
When Harper is asked what the future foretells for the railway business, his answer is straight out of Walt Disney’s playbook. “To appeal to the masses of all ages, I have become an entertainer,” says Harper. “Our company preserves history, educates and entertains to draw the crowds. We need no tax dollars and no charity.”
And what keeps the tireless Western promoter inspired to take on a new venture like Old Tucson?
“I have a very supportive wife who let me gamble everything to buy the railroads. It was my parents who taught me to love history. It was my first train ride on the D&SNGRR through the Rocky Mountains, pulled by a 100-year-old steam engine that made me decide this is what I want to do the rest of my life.”
At True West magazine, we are hon-ored to name Al Harper the 2024 True Westerner of the Year for his three decades of dedication to the promotion and preservation of the West, his service to educating generations of guests at his historic railroads and his determination to keep the Old West alive and entertaining for all ages, now and for years to come.