The International Steam Pages
The Rio Grande Narrow Gauge
James Waite wrote this following his September 2011 visit. There are some photographs at the end - fewer than usual as these lines are fairly well known to enthusiasts and there is a good photographic record elsewhere on the web. See also:
James revisited in May 2014 and saw two of the non-standard smaller locomotives at work on the C&T. Click here for the pictures.
The Rio Grande narrow gauge is probably too well known amongst enthusiasts to need any extensive description here but some words about its history and some practical advice for visitors may be welcome.
Construction of the 3ft gauge system south from Denver began in 1871, the objective being to reach the Rio Grande and to continue onwards to Mexico City. This plan was soon thwarted by competition from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe RR which was pushing up into Colorado from the south and the line instead turned its attention westwards towards the San Juan Mountains around what is now the city of Durango. This had been Indian country, enshrined as such in a treaty between their chief and the US government, but as precious metals began to be discovered in the mountains the Indians were “persuaded” that they would like to give up the fertile valleys which had long been their traditional home and move away to the semi-desert region around Farmington to the south of Durango. In 1878 the original line south had reached Alamosa. Construction of the San Juan Extension over the Cumbres Pass to Chama and Durango, some 451 miles from Denver, began in 1880 and was completed 18 months later.
The route was largely straight and flat over the first stretch through the arid country southwards as far as Antonito. Here the route turned sharply to the west and after a little more of the flat country soon pursued a lonely, winding course through the Toltec Gorge, reaching its summit at Cumbres at an altitude of 10,022ft. It dropped steeply through the valley of the Wolf Creek River towards Chama and then through easier country for the remainder of the route to Durango.
Almost as soon as the line had reached Durango work started again to extend the line northwards to Silverton which was becoming established as the centre of the mining district. The first 11 miles, as far as Hermosa, are relatively straight and flat as the line along the broad valley of the Rio de las Animas Perdidas (River of Lost Souls), nowadays known more simply as the Animas River. Hermosa is, incidentally, the line’s civil engineering base. Fans of the East Broad Top in Pennsylvania will recognise the hoppers which live here! After Hermosa the route begins to turn away from the river and to climb in earnest, the next six miles to Rockwood being at 1 in 40. Half a mile or so further on it emerges from a rock cutting at Horseshoe Curve to rejoin the river, now some 240 feet below it. This is perhaps the most dramatic location on the entire route west of Alamosa. The next two miles as far as Canyon Cascade are known as the High Line and the river tumbles through falls and rapids way below. Beyond Canyon Cascade the line rejoins the river bank and continues to run alongside it through wild and spectacular scenery the rest of the way to Silverton, 45 miles from Durango.
Other narrow gauge lines were built through the hilly country to the south west of Denver but the Rio Grande company’s focus soon shifted towards the west. In 1890 it was converting its line here to standard gauge. Soon it possessed a standard gauge main line several hundred miles long connecting Denver with Salt Lake City and Ogden on the Union Pacific and was earning good money as a bridge railroad, handling complete trainloads travelling between the eastern railroads and those serving the west coast. Notwithstanding this profitable traffic the railway ran into money problems and emerged from the ensuing financial reconstruction as the Denver & Rio Grande Western, a name which it retained for the rest of its independent existence.
The original line south was converted to standard gauge as far as Alamosa which henceforth became the transhipment point for the narrow gauge for the remainder of its lifetime. Some time later the stretch as far as Antonito became mixed gauge but little, if any, transhipment took place there. No further conversions to standard gauge took place along the San Juan Extension although Durango saw standard gauge trains for the first time in 1905 when the company built an isolated standard gauge line between there and Farmington. It was converted to 3ft gauge in the 1920’s.
The Rio Grande company never got any further than Silverton. Three short roads, each independently operated, built northwards from the town through the principal valleys to serve some of the outlying mines. These involved fearsome gradients and the oldest of them, the Silverton RR, invested in a Shay loco which came brand new from its builders. It lasted less than a year on the line which closed in 1922 after the mines along the route closed. The Silverton, Gladstone & Northerly RR closed for practical purposes around the same time although it remained formally in existence until the late 1930’s for accountancy reasons associated with the third line, the Silverton Northern RR. This was the most successful of the three since the mines which it served remained active the longest. It closed suddenly when its remaining three locos were requisitioned by the US military in August 1942 for service on the White Pass line in Alaska in connection with the US war effort there. The last of them was scrapped at Skagway in 1952.
Rather longer lived was the Rio Grande Southern which connected Durango by an indirect route with Ridgway, on one of the Rio Grande’s branches way to the north of Silverton, by what must have been a stupendously scenic route. Construction began from both ends in 1890 and the line opened throughout in 1892, one of its first locos being the Shay which the Silverton RR passed on to them. It led a precarious existence, passing into receivership only one year later and remaining insolvent for the rest of its life. In later years it relied to a large extent on its US Mail contract to keep going. This ended in 1950 and the line closed the following year. It was the home of the fabled Galloping Geese, homespun and somewhat improbable-looking railcars built from 1931 which operated all its passenger services after 1933. Five Geese have been preserved including three at the Colorado Railroad Museum at Golden in the western outskirts of Denver. The Silverton Northern, incidentally, had its own mini-goose which is now preserved in the town. I’d hoped to get to visit it but was thwarted by what turned out to be inaccurate ticketing for my train ride there.
The Rio Grande company seemed to lose interest in its narrow gauge lines as the twentieth century progressed. The San Juan, a luxury narrow gauge train, was introduced between Alamosa and Durango in 1937 but was withdrawn in 1951 after which only freight services operated east of Durango. These, too, might soon have disappeared were it not for the discovery of oil around Farmington, the place to which the Indians had been shunted off in the 1870’s. The oil revenues eclipsed those from the mining activities around Silverton. By this time the Indians had discovered lawyers and got their fair share of the money on offer so maybe they had the last laugh from their forced relocation after all! The railway saw a final few years of heavy use carrying pipes and construction materials to Farmington but closed completely between Antonito and Durango in 1968 after this traffic had come to an end.
At Silverton things were quite different. A mixed train had continued to run into the early 1950’s to serve the dwindling mining traffic. Passenger loadings increased dramatically as tourism got off the ground; in 1961 the branch lost its all-year-round mixed train and the service became a seasonal passenger-only operation. The Rio Grande made a half-hearted attempt to cash in on this unexpected surge in business. A glass-roofed vista car, the “Silver Vista”, arrived and the coaches were painted in the bright yellow colour they had begun to use for their mainline diesels. It hardly suited what had by then become historic vehicles but, rather like the UK’s first preserved lines, no doubt they thought that the public would want a break from the tired state into which the old colour scheme had got during the years that the lines were being run down. Pseudo diamond-shaped chimneys and equally pseudo oil lamps appeared on the locos around the same time. These continued to disfigure them for the remainder of the time the company owned the railway. However the Rio Grande were really only interested in their mainline freight business and, despite the obvious success they were having with their tourist traffic they made attempts to gain permission to abandon the line. Fortunately this was refused.
Eventually it was sold as a going concern in 1981 to Charles Bradshaw Junior, a Florida citrus fruit grower – who soon earned the gratitude of many US enthusiasts by removing the fake chimneys and oil lamps! The line was rebranded as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RR, the lettering for which soon appeared on the tender sides in a Wild West style in place of the old Rio Grande flying herald to the regret of many lovers of the old line. More pertinently Mr. Bradshaw upgraded the line in order to accommodate the K36 2-8-2’s which today work most trains. Previously the section beyond Rockwood had been restricted to the lighter K28’s. Originally there had been ten of these but seven were requisitioned by the US army for their Alaska war effort and were scrapped when the war ended. The remaining three allowed little scope to expand the services as Mr. Bradshaw deemed essential and so the line’s upgrading became central to his plans.
The current owners, Allen Harper, a Florida real estate developer, and his wife Carol, took over in 1998. They’ve worked hard on improving the line’s infrastructure which is probably now in better physical shape than it’s ever been. They’re also taken active steps to conserve the line’s rich heritage – Durango and Silverton stations in particular have been beautifully restored as has the iconic Needleton water tank midway along the line even though it’s no longer used, water now being taken from a modern tank nearby. They’ve also built a replica of the Silver Vista car, the original having been destroyed in a fire back in the 1950’s.
There’s also now a really well-run museum in a part of the roundhouse at Durango, the star exhibits when I was there being Rio Grande Southern 2-8-0 no. 42 and K28 no. 476 along with many small exhibits. No. 42 owes its survival to Bob Richardson, a dedicated enthusiast who moved to the district back in the 1950’s and bought the loco to prevent it being scrapped even though he had no long-term plan to keep it himself. It changed hands more than once since then before finding a good home at Durango. Bob was also responsible for rescuing other Rio Grande locos and was one of the leading lights in setting up the Golden museum which is now home to several of the smaller locos, coaches and wagons which once graced the tracks around Durango and Chama.
It’s fair to say that during the Bradshaw era the line acquired a reputation for hostility towards enthusiasts with places like the loco shed being definitely off-limits. I can’t say I encountered any of this – indeed everyone I met was unfailingly kind and helpful. The Harpers now operate shop and yard tours and so the shed can be visited once more albeit only at times when the working locos are away up the line. There’s also a Fall Spectacular weekend with all-day photo specials and a night shoot at the shed which must provide just about the only opportunity during the year to see it with its residents in steam.
I spent a couple of days at the line during the 2011 Fall event when several of the oldest coaches had been repainted in the old Pullman green colour they had carried before the yellow appeared during the early tourist years. The Harpers now paint their premium class coaches in the old Tuscan red which the Rio Grande used until the advent of the Pullman green and two of these were included in the photo train. It was hauled by K28 no. 478, carrying its old Rio Grande lettering for the occasion, the idea being to recreate the appearance of a train from the 1920’s when both the red and green colours were in use. It looked absolutely magnificent.
It was a real joy to see this superbly restored historic train running through the spectacularly beautiful Colorado countryside. I’d often wanted to visit the railway in the past but had felt it would be difficult to photograph it effectively when the yellow tourist trains didn’t really fit in with the line’s heritage. Sadly it’s rumoured that the railway may be about to repaint the green coaches back into yellow. This seems to me to be a real shame especially when so much work has been done to protect and to enhance the railway’s heritage in recent years. Let’s hope that they stay in their beautiful green paint for a while longer.
Around Durango reminders of the old Rio Grande company are everywhere, from shopping malls to parks to bars. It’s more than 20 years now since it disappeared as a result of railroad mergers but there are clearly many people who remember it with great affection. If you have the chance call in at the Durango Brewing Co. on the corner of Main Avenue and 30th Street. It’s a couple of miles north of the centre but close to many of the affordable hotels. Their bar is full of Rio Grande memorabilia. The whole of one of the inside walls consists of the side of a Rio Grande box car which still carries its original paint. The beer’s good, too... Just around the corner the level crossing at 32nd Street is an excellent photo spot for the outgoing morning trains though these run a little too early for a bar visit!
This isn’t an easy line to chase by road. The road runs alongside the road for much of the run as far as Hermosa but this gives little taste of the highly scenic route further north. There are some good accessible spots from there as far as Rockwood though be aware of some of this stretch passes through private land whose owners have no time for enthusiasts, particularly around Shaloma Lake a mile or so before Rockwood. Horseshoe Curve is an easy walk from Rockwood station. I spent an afternoon here waiting for a late-running southbound train with a bald eagle for company circling high overhead for much of the time as well as a wealth of smaller wildlife to watch. Beyond here there’s no road access at all until the line approaches Silverton. If you’re a enthusiastic walker Sheet 140 of National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated one-inch map series (usually kept in stock by the ever helpful Map Shop at Upton-on-Severn, http://www.themapshop.co.uk) will show you how to reach some of the many good spots in the Animas gorge but otherwise you can only get there on one of the line’s occasional photo specials.
Back at Chama the 1968 closure posed a major threat to the economy of what was then, and to some extent still is, an impoverished district. The state authorities in Colorado and New Mexico were persuaded to buy the line. It reopened in 1971 as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic RR after a great deal of volunteer input to get it back into working order. One problem the preservationists faced was that the Rio Grande would not sell them any of the old coaches, preferring to keep them for use on the Silverton line. At first a number of old box cars were hastily adapted to serve as coaches but over the years enough replicas of the old clerestory coaches have been built to enable two complete trains to be run. They’re all painted in the old Tuscan red colour though, like the locos, are lettered for the C&T instead of the old Rio Grande.
There’s a delightfully relaxed atmosphere around the railway, especially in the extensive yards at Chama, always a major servicing point on the line back in the Rio Grande days. Visitors are positively encouraged to explore the yard – there’s a page on the line’s website devoted just to this. Many of the installations, especially the wooden coaling stage and the old water tank, just ooze period atmosphere and form an excellent backdrop when photographing the locos. If you have a car it’s worth driving a mile south from the station to visit the old cattle pens alongside the wye. The town’s few hotels and hostelries are mostly around here as well. The High Country Restaurant seems to have pretty much of a monopoly. It was packed out when I called and the menu looked on the pricey side so I didn’t stay and instead headed a little further out to the Chama Grill, a small, friendly and family-run place. It looked like a tired and unreformed Wimpy Bar but don’t let appearances deceive you. The burritos there must be authentic Mexican food at its best – highly recommended.
The railway has always been operated by a licensee on behalf of the commission which the two states set up to oversee it. In recent years the licensee has been a not-for-profit offshoot of the line’s enthusiast supporters group but they’re giving up at the end of this season. The Harpers have made a bid to take over next year and it seems likely that their bid will be accepted.
The railway is blessed with large numbers of freight vans and wagons, many of which have been restored over the years in the old Rio Grande paint scheme and occasional photo specials are run with them. I visited on two days when these were running, organised by the Pete Lerro charter business based in Pennsylvania. The longer of the two runs was from Chama to Osier with several cattle wagons in order to replicate the old stock trains which were the mainstay of the line’s freight services in the days before the Farmington construction traffic. Pete had arranged for some cowhands to bring some cattle to the pens at Osier and the idea was to load them on board and take them back to Chama. Unfortunately the cows had other ideas and refused to budge so eventually we returned without them. You can’t win them all! Nonetheless these were two more excellent days. The locos had been relettered with the Rio Grande’s flying herald and looked excellent. Pete is clearly a highly competent photographer and knew where the best photo stops would be for the times of day when the trains reached them. He also helped the Durango line set up their night shoot a couple of days later.
The line is easily followed by road from Chama as far as Cumbres Pass and on to Los Pinos. One word of warning – the owners of the large estate which stretches for some miles to the north- east of Chama are virulently anti-enthusiast and there’s little choice but to stay on the road. Unfortunately their land includes both sides of the spectacular Lobato viaduct and, as a result, it’s pretty well impossible to recreate some of the beautiful photos taken here in the past. East of Los Pinos the road runs a long distance away from the line. National Geographic doesn’t publish a map for this stretch. I doubt whether access is feasible even on foot for most of the distance through the remote Toltec Gorge.
Nowadays the bulk of the work on both lines is done by the K36 class 2-8-2’s. Ten of these locos were built by Baldwin in 1925 and all of them have survived except for the hapless no. 485 which was dismantled after falling into the turntable pit at Salida in 1955. Many of its parts were re-used to keep the other locos going. The three surviving K28’s are all at Durango. Between 1928 and 1930 the Rio Grande rebuilt ten of its 190-C41 standard gauge 2-8-0’s to become the 3ft gauge K37 class 2-8-2’s. They’re heavier than the K36’s and have a longer coupled wheelbase. Three of them disappeared before the preservation era. No. 491’s now at the Golden museum . Two of the others are at the Durango & Silverton and four at the Cumbres & Toltec. They don’t seem to have been very popular in preservation. Only no. 497 on the Cumbres line has been in use in recent years but Trevor Heath reports that it was in covered storage in 2007. The Cumbres & Toltec is also home to K27 no. 463, a much older and very handsome loco. It’s been away for an extensive overhaul in recent years but should be back in 2012.
The two preserved sections, along with the White Pass and the East Broad Top, must be the only 3ft gauge railways in North America where you can still see authentic steam trains running on their original lines with much of their historic infrastructure still in place. The countryside, of course, is magnificent and the lines provide two of the world’s great scenic rides. Just one word of advice here with regard to riding on the Durango line. Check your ticket carefully! My return train was listed as running more than two hours later than it did in reality. Return would in fact have been impossible and if I hadn’t bought a second ticket I’d have been stuck! More than three weeks later I’m still waiting for the refund. You’ll need to visit on special occasions if you want to see the trains running in the iconic Rio Grande livery and looking as they did when the San Juan Extension ran for real. If your luck’s in with the weather (the sun doesn’t always shine at this altitude!) then you’ll be well rewarded.
For more info Bob Turner’s magnificent book “The Thunder of their Passing” (Sono Nis Press, Winlaw, BC, Canada ISBN 1-55039-130-5) is compulsory reading. Its 288 pages are full of detailed historical narrative interspersed with anecdotes and recollections from many of those who have served, griced or just known the railway over the years. Bob must have spent a very long time interviewing all those involved. And then there are the photos...the railway may very well be unique in having attracted the attention of skilled photographers throughout its lifetime, from the construction period right through to the preservation era. During the last 20 years or so before the 1968 closure many of the country’s top railway photographers must have made the long journey to Colorado. Many of the photos in the book are just astounding. Its landscape format does full justice to them and the standard of reproduction, especially of the many colour photos, is outstanding. It must be one of the all-time great railway books. Amazon UK often have it in stock though it’s pricey with them and it may well be preferable to buy it from a North American bookshop and pay to have it shipped here.
Durango & Silverton steam locos at September 2011
Cumbres & Toltec steam locos at September 2011
Here is a brief photographic look at the Durango and Silverton operation:
Here is a brief photographic look at the Cumbres and Toltec operation:
484 and 487 have contrasting front ends:
The fourth K36 was 489 and beside it is K27 463 one of 14 of these 2-8-2 locomotives built by Baldwin for the Rio Grande in 1903.
Here is 463 in all its glory, if it were a product of the UK it would no doubt be described as possessing Edwardian elegance.
The man purpose of the visit was to enjoy a public run of 463 double heading with 2-8-0 315 which was built by Baldwin for the Florence & Cripple Creek RR in 1895 ('Victorian' in UK terms) and was bought second hand by the Rio Grande in 1917. 315 was restored by the Durango Railroad Historical Society around 10 years ago after being plinthed for many years. It now lives in the old Silverton Northern RR loco shed at Silverton station whither it will have returned a few days later, it seems it does not see regular use. (It is a 'dead ringer' for many Cuban ng sugar locos by the same builder, save for having inside frames, an absolute gem. See my feature on this site. RD)
James rode the train, given the indifferent weather, the two put up a stirring performance as can be seen: