The Legacy of Eleanor Bliss & The Nozcaboose
In 1972, a woman by the name of Eleanor Bliss changed Steamboat forever. She knew arts and culture could transform people, bring a community together and broaden horizons. Through her hard work, she made sure the townspeople had a place to perform theater, show their art, and come together to spark new ideas and collaborations. The story of how Eleanor expanded the identity of Steamboat began before she had ever stepped foot on Steamboat soil.
In the early 1900’s the townspeople of Steamboat Springs were looking for ways to help the economy grow. Being a town in remote Colorado did not help expansion. What they needed was a railroad that could bring people back and forth from Denver. When David Moffat was weighing what route to take the Moffat Railroad as he expanded west, the township of Steamboat Springs lobbied to have it come through here. One of the more convincing voices to Moffat was his good friend, Sam Perry, who had mining interests throughout Colorado and specifically in Oak Creek, just south of Steamboat Springs. Sam Perry knew his mines would not succeed without a train to transport coal. The townspeople raised enough money to seal the deal and have the railroad stop in Steamboat. In 1909 the train Depot was completed and the first passenger train arrived. With train service came an economic boom.
By 1916, Sam Perry had another reason for wanting a railroad in town. His daughter, Charlotte Perry, along with her friend, Portia Mansfield, opened their arts, theater, dance and wilderness camp in Strawberry Park. At that time, the camp was called Rocky Mountain Dance Camp (now Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp). Today Perry-Mansfield Camp is the oldest continually operating performing arts camp in the country. When the train arrived with dancers, actors and artists from across the country, they unloaded their trunks at the Depot where they were picked up by a horse drawn wagon that carried them over dirt roads to camp.
In 1924, a new camper, Eleanor Bliss, arrived on that train. Her Aunt was a successful dancer and choreographer who wanted Eleanor to follow in her footsteps. But when Eleanor got to camp it wasn’t dance she fell in love with, it was horses. She came back to camp the following year for the equestrian program and developed a fast friendship with Charlotte Perry’s older sister, Marjorie Perry, who headed the equestrian program. Each summer, Eleanor came out to ride with Marjorie in the backcountry. When the summer ended, she returned to New York where she took care of her parents and worked as the first female secretary of the Explorer’s Club, an exclusive club for the greatest explorers and financiers of the 20th Century, before becoming the Executive Director and the first woman to be accepted for membership.
When her parents passed, Eleanor moved to steamboat full time. A few years later, in 1968, the Denver & Rio Grande ended passenger service to Steamboat as cars had largely replaced train travel.. The railroad deeded the building to the City. However, with no funds to maintain it, the building fell into disrepair.
Meanwhile, Carol Finoff, who had a vision to ensure arts and culture flourished in her community, started the Yampa Valley Artist Guild and smartly recruited Eleanor Bliss to help her. Noting there was a perfectly good building sitting empty, Eleanor realized the potential in the old train Depot building. The two women formed a group to ‘Save the Depot’ and turn it into a community arts center. On the Board of Directors of the Steamboat Springs Council of the Arts & Humanities were Eleanor’s old friends, Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield as well as Helen Smith George Tolles, Reen Gottran, John Barnett, Edie Dismuke, Terry Plimpton, Thelma Lodwick, and Arianthe Caracasis. Everyone pitched in to remove the rats, mice and other critters and make way for arts and culture. They replaced bricks, fixed the roof and plumbing, installed heating and moved the sewer lines that were emptying into the river.
With Eleanor leading the charge, they were able to lease the building from the City of Steamboat Springs for $1.00 a year for thirty years. The Depot was transformed from a train station to a community gathering space for performing arts, visual arts and creativity. Soon the Depot was thriving with classes, lectures, dance, theater and more.
In 1972, the Arts Council opened their doors to the community. To commemorate the role the railroad played in the development of town, Eleanor envisioned a caboose that would serve as an artist studio. In 1990, local realtor and developer, Jim Cook, secured a caboose donation through the Anschutz Foundation, for a Denver & Rio Grande caboose that once rode the rails behind the Depot.
For thirty years the caboose sat empty. Teenagers smashed out the windows, graffitied the insides and partied. When Executive Director, Kim Keith was hired, she set her eyes on making Eleanor Bliss’ dream come true by turning the caboose into an artist studio. The estimated cost to turn the caboose around was $150,000. To raise the money, Main Street Steamboat chose the caboose project for Vote Your Mainstreet! Campaign. Despite the strong support from the community, the project did not win. So still the caboose sat empty and neglected until an anonymous angel in the community decided something should be done. Through a generous donation, and the determination of Development Director, Dagny McKinley, the caboose has slowly been transformed on a shoestring budget of just $30,000.
Brookly artist, Espartaco Albornoz Abreu painted the exterior. His graffiti style work was chosen for the correlation between graffiti and railroad cars. Featured in the art is the Nozco character. Nozco does not have a gender, instead it symbolizes the innocence, childhood and creativity that lives inside all of us. Thus the name of the caboose the Nozcaboose. Once the outside was done, the community stepped up with a few more donations. On a shoestring budget, heat and electric have been run to the caboose. Rumor Design donated their time and materials to transform the inside. “The graffiti was so bad, you couldn’t look up without seeing an obscenity or naked figure. I’ve seen a lot and some of the things in there made me blush,” said McKinley, Development Director of Steamboat Creates. “It took two coats of primer and two coats of paint to cover it all up and I still find a word or something hidden here or there.”
Finally, the caboose is ready to shine again. The original conductor chairs are being refurbished and will be reupholstered to bring back in. A photography book telling the history of the caboose is being created to keep in the caboose so we can keep the history alive. For example, several windows in the caboose were welded shut. This happened after the railroad claimed public domain over too many ranches and ranchers started shooting at the trains when they went by. We want people to know this caboose once ran on the tracks behind the Depot. It’s rare to have a caboose from the line it once ran on.
Summer 2020, the Nozcaboose welcomes its first artist. The artist-in-residency program will run each summer. The program is free for the artist an in exchange, he or she will spend time sharing his or her talent with the community either through talks, presentations or through teaching a class.
Eleanor Bliss took a condemned Depot and turned it into a center for the arts that has been serving the community for almost fifty years (2022 will be 50 years). In her honor, we have turned the caboose into an artist-in-residence studio to give struggling artists a place to create that is free. All of those kids who originally grafittied the inside, they are all artists. They are all creative and hopefully they see the caboose as a resource for them as well, if they choose at some point to pursue art as more than a hobby. We can’t wait to open the doors and see what creativity comes out.