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Colorado Narrow Gauge Circle - 1994 akd 2004
A Classic Tour for the Narrow Minded

My photo essay on the Colorado Narrow Gauge Circle is based on two trips, the first in 1994, the second in 2004. Both were post-convention trips sponsored by the Denver Garden Railway Society. The 1994 trip was the better of the two – the weather cooperated, the tour was more leisurely, the guide knew the route intimately, and got us to places that we never saw on the 2004 tour.

The late Richard Schaffer, who also guided the European Narrow Gauge Circle Tour that I took in 1995, provided excellent commentary on the railways, routes, sites, and sights along the 1994 tour. There was little of this on the 2004 tour – our guide got us there on time to board the trains, but that was it.

The only Colorado tourist train I missed was the Cripple Creek and Victor Railroad behind Pike’s Peak. It is a 2 foot gauge steam line reminiscent of the Gilpin Gold Tram. It is a 4 mile, 45 minute round trip on former Midland Terminal (standard gauge) right of way – not much of a ride but the engines are unique. 

More recently, Como CO, on the old Denver, South Park and Pacific mainline, has become a center of atteaction with the restoration of Como Station and Roundhouse. A short train ride is available in summer with "Klondike Kate", a Baldwin 2-6-2 locomotive, originally from Dawson City, Yukon. Check it out!

A Colorado narrow gauge tour is not complete without seeing the Colorado Railroad Museum at Golden. My photo essay is in the Railway Museums and Heritage Parks section of this website. A short essay on South Park City near Fairplay is also on that page.

The narrow gauge circle of Colorado and New Mexico is really worth the time, whether as part of a guided tour or on your own. The roads are excellent, as is the accommodation, food, local attractions, mountain scenery, and (usually) the weather.


No, you won't find a Mason Bogie on your Colorado tour.... but you could dream...

On board Royal Gorge Route: Cańon City - Out and Back

Originally part of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s narrow gauge mainline from Pueblo westward to Salida, Leadville, and ultimately Salt Lake City, the Royal Gorge Route was the logo for D&RG advertising for years. It was converted to standard gauge in 1893 and is famous for its hanging bridge that allowed the track to follow the Arkansas River through the narrow 30 foot wide canyon.

Here the canyon is 1000 feet deep with near vertical walls. The hanging bridge was built in 1878 by the Santa Fe and inherited by the D&RG in 1880 after the “Treaty of Boston” gave the route to the D&RG. It has been strengthened several times but retains its original design to this day. The route was washed out on numerous occasions over the years, even in recent times.
 

The last D&RGW passenger train through the Gorge was run in 1967. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad opened for passenger traffic in 1999. It departs from Cañon City (southwest of Colorado Springs) and is strictly a tourist attraction on standard gauge, using ex Canadian VIA Rail passenger cars still sporting their original CN roster numbers.

Some cars have the roof and sides cut off between the undisturbed vestibules to make open-air excursion cars. You can touch the rock walls of the canyon if you are dumb enough to want to do so. Watch for white-water rafters on the river. A Vista Dome and a parlour car, Sunshine Falls, have been added to the roster since my 2004 trip.

The train has a vintage diesel at both ends and, believe it or not, is controlled by Santa Fe RR CTC in Omaha. The ride is out and back in about 2 hours. You have to use your imagination a bit to visualize what this trip must have been like in the early days of the narrow gauge.


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On The Bus: Alamosa to chama

Sounds backwards, but this is the normal route for this part of the tour. Driving from Denver via Cañon City, visit the locomotive and passenger car on display at Alamosa. (I assume it is still there – my photos are from 1994).

IN ALAMOSA, ENROUTE TO CHAMA

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IN CHAMA YARD, PRIOR TO DEPARTURE FOR ANTOITO

Then on to Chama, NM to board the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad for the all day trip to Antonito, CO. You need to be in the Chama Yard as early as possible to see all the action before departure. You can ride the train from Antonito to Chama if you wish, but it is less interesting as there is no double-heading on the grades. Counting the lunch stop at Osier, the train averages only 8 mph for the 64 mile journey. Watch for cattle on or near the tracks and other wildlife.

There have been many changes to Chama Yard over the 130+ years of its life. This is the current state of the track and building layout.

Chama was a major Division point for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s San Juan Extension, built in 1880. From here tracks were laid to Farmington, NM and to Durango, CO and from there to Silverton, CO. The last San Juan Express ran in 1951 and the last freight in 1968. Oil field traffic to Farmington had kept the line alive long after the original mining activity had died out.

The C&TS took over the Chama to Antonito portion of the line over Cumbres Pass (10,015 feet) in 1969 and the first excursion train ran in 1970. The railway is owned jointly by the States of Colorado and New Mexico and operated by an independent third party. The C&TS crosses the Colorado – New Mexico border 11 times.

Volunteers from the Friends of the C&TS provide maintenance and fund raising. C&TS has rebuilt a number of D&RGW K-37’s for use on the line and has built its own excursion passenger cars on old standard gauge flat car frames. Lots of other MOW equipment is parked in the Chama Yard, including two rotary snow plows and the derrick car. Photos below are from 1994.

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On Board C&TS: Chama to Antonito

The trip on the Cumbres and Toltec route  can be divided into 3 parts: climbing the 4% grade to the summit of Cumbres Pass, the downhill glide on the 2% grade along Toltec Gorge, and the relatively flat romp across the lava prairie and aromatic sage brush to Antonito. The uphill climb features double-headed K-37’s, which have to split up temporarily to cross Lobato trestle. Sharp mule-shoe curves gain altitude by following side valleys to return 30 or 40 feet above the starting point. At Cumbres, the lead engine turns on the wye to return dead-head to Chama for another helper run.

Before embarking, you need an hour or two to explore and photograph the yard facilities and locomotive preparations. Rise early to get it all.

 


Chama Depot

    

After a healthy lunch at Osier dining hall, the train edges along Toltec Gorge and Rio de los Piños, some 400 feet below. Photos cannot give the full sense of depth seen by the naked eye. This portion of the route is sometimes called the “High Line”, but other railways used the term too. Rock Tunnel and Mud Tunnel (supported by wood lining) are shortcuts through headland that could not be circumnavigated. As the Gorge rises and the train drops into the valley, large herds of cattle are found grazing.

The final run into Antonito seems a little boring by comparison, but it gives a better impression of the typical train ride of the narrow gauge era between 1880 and 1950. It wasn’t romantic, comfortable, or scenic in those days – just a necessity.

On the drive from Antonito to Durango via Pagosa Springs and Wolf Creek Pass, we sidetracked back to Chama for dinner at Viva Vera’s Mexican Kitchen – it was worth the extra miles. Photos below are mostly from 1994, a few from 2004.


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ON BOARD: Durango to Silverton and Return

The San Juan Extension turned north from Chama for 107 miles and found Animas City waiting for it in 1881. After a squabble with city fathers, the railway established a new townsite, named it Durango, and nearly everyone left Animas City (now a suburb of Durango). The D&RG pushed the line 45 miles further north to Silverton by 1882.

From here, three independent feeder railways were built to bring ore to interchange with the D&RG: the Silverton Railroad, Silverton Northern Railroad, and Silverton, Gladstone and Northern Railroad. The Rio Grande Southern Railroad also connected at Durango, bringing traffic from west and north of D&RG territory. Otto Mears built these feeder lines, but he didn’t own the RGS for long.

The San Juan Express ran from Alamosa to Durango via Antonito and Chama. It ran for 70 years making its last run in 1951. When Durango to Chama was abandoned in 1968, the Silverton branch was still a popular tourist attraction and the D&RGW ran the isolated line until 1981.

It had been looking for a buyer of the line for some time and in 1981, Charles Bradshaw bought the road and equipment. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has refurbished rolling stock and locomotives and runs 3 to 5 trains a day in summer season. A tragic fire took the Durango roundhouse and damaged some locomotives in 1989, but this was all rebuilt, giving D&SNG one of the best steam locomotive shops in North America.

Locomotives are rebuilt D&RGW K-28 and K-36 2–8–2 steamers. The “Rio Grande Gold” passenger cars look like the original wood coaches from the turn of the 20 th century, except for the colour which was deep red before 1923 and Pullman Green after 1923. The refurbished cars are actually metal clad with scribed siding to look like the original tongue-and-groove wood siding. Open excursion cars are built from standard gauge boxcars with the roof removed and sides cut down.

There are numerous original boxcars, gondolas, and MOW rolling stock in various states of disrepair parked along the line. The roundhouse has an interesting museum and major equipment under repair and rebuild.

The trip to Silverton and return takes 8 hours, counting 2 hours for lunch and shopping at Silverton. Following Rio de las Animas Perdidas ( River of Lost Souls), the track rises slowly until it is more than 600 feet above the river – the famous “High Line” that hugs the edge of the mountains. Photos from the train only hint at the feeling of great depth just feet from the train windows. Silverton has many historic buildings, but nearly all are souvenir shops or fast food outlets – not the authentic historic townsite that one might have hoped for.

Durango has better shopping and a more attractive downtown. Special entertainment, for example, the Bar D Ranch chuckwagon supper and cowboy music, is easy to find. Our 2004 trip coincided with RailFest, so we saw the restored Eureka and Pallisades 4–4–0 at the Durango Depot. Goose #5 from Delores was also around but we didn’t see it. Photos below are mostly from 1994, a few from 2004.

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Here are photos that you can't get while riding the train, taken from D&S official website.

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On The Bus: Durango to Ridgway

The Rio Grande Southern Railroad was built in 1890 by Otto Mears to connect mines at Telluride and Placerville with the D&RG at Durango and Ridgway. There are no operating tourist railways on the RGS route and all the tracks have disappeared.

        

There are many artifacts along the route, as well as RGS Motor #5 (one of 7 Galloping Geese) at Dolores and Goose #4 at Telluride. A working replica of Goose #1 resides at the Ridgway Museum. Geese #2, 6, and 7 live at the Colorado Railroad Museum along with 4–6–0 #20 and a number of pieces of rolling stock. Goose #3 is at Knott’s Berry Farm in California. The Galloping Geese added an extra twenty years to the life of the railroad, but in 1952, the Rio Grande Southern abandoned its railroad forever.

The RGS route was steep with 4% grades, lots of trestles, and tight curves. The famous Lizard Head Pass was a monster in winter and a tourist attraction in the summer. You can re-live the RGS by car, ducking into many sideroads to see the relics of its past.

Take some time to tour Mesa Verde and the Anasazi Heritage Museum just a mile or two from Dolores. You won’t believe the sophisticated architecture that the Anasazi possessed more than 1000 years ago.

A little known fact about the RGS is that, as early as 1898, it hauled uranium ore, called carnotite, from Placerville to Ridgway for forwarding to eastern US and Europe. The ore originated from mines west of Placerville and was hauled there by oxen. Soon after, the ore was being refined locally for uranium and vanadium to reduce the tonnage to be shipped.

Madame Marie Curie purchased Placerville ore to obtain radium samples for her experiments. It was her daughter, Dr. Irene Joliet-Curie, who first developed the concept of atomic fission, leading ultimately to the Manhattan Project and Hiroshima. The real value of this ore was the radium at $180,000 per gram compared to $80 per ton for the concentrated ore. Radium was widely used to create luminous dials on aircraft and ships in World War I and on watches for civilians thereafter.

The uranium ore traffic had several boom and bust cycles that severely affected the financial state of the RGS. Finally, the US Government started paving highways to strategic mines in 1945, sealing the doom of the RGS. Ore continued to be trucked to Durango into the 1960’s and uranium mining in western Colorado is still big business today.

It is ironic that turn-of-the-century narrow gauge steam engines heralded the atomic age, only to be smitten by the internal combustion engine and pavement. Photos below are from 1994 unless otherwise noted.

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RGS #1 at Ridgway Railroad Museum, from their postcard.


 

On The Bus: Cimmaron to Gunnison

Highway US50 takes you along classic D&RGW country. The first stop east bound after Montrose is the Cimarron Canyon sheep loading exhibit maintained by the US National Forest Service. A static display of sheep loading facilities, two double deck sheep cars and a MOW camp car are easily accessible.

 

A half mile up the canyon, the Service has mounted D&RGW #278, 2 freight cars, and caboose #0577 on the bridge. It is isolated from the land so vandals can’t do any damage. These have been maintained very well and look as they did in 1940.

After Cimarron, take the sideroad to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park visitor center. A short walk to the view point will illustrate why it is called Black Canyon.

At Gunnison, visit the Gunnison Pioneer Museum on the highway. Here D&RGW #268 in Bumblebee livery sits under a replica snow shed to protect it a bit from the weather. My 1994 photos show the engine in black and silver before the fake smokestack was removed. Various freight and MOW cars, including flanges OF and OD, with long caboose #0589 are tagged to #268.

The historic buildings are beautifully maintained and very photogenic. The large machine shop holds a great collection of well restored autos and trucks, that weren’t present on my first trip in 1994. These 3 stops will kill most of the day and still leave time to reach the next destination. Photos are from 1994 unless otherwise noted.

CIMMARON

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BLACK CANYON

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GUNNISON

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On Board: Leadville to Climax and Return

The rush to get railways to Leadville in 1879 – 1880 pitted the Denver and Rio Grande against the Denver, South Park and Pacific. The D&RG won the race, but a joint trackage agreement allowed DSP&P to enter Leadville until they finished their own track in 1884. It took this long because of financial problems and the Alpine Tunnel construction.

The DSP&P route was Denver -- Como -- Boreas Pass -- Breckenridge -- Freemont Pass -- Leadville, crossing the Continental Divide twice. The D&RG route to Leadville was more than 275 miles from Denver; the DSP&P was only 150, but the steep terrain meant that trains were only marginally faster in arriving at the Cloud City.

The DSP&P was purchased by the Union Pacific in 1885 and the railway was re-named the Denver, Leadville and Gunnison. A few years and a few mergers later, it became the Colorado and Southern. The last narrow gauge train to Denver on the C&S “High Line” was in 1937. In 1942, this line was converted to standard gauge and became part of the CB&Q/C&S complex serving mines in the area. The last molybdenum mine near Climax closed in 1982 and so did this portion of the C&S.

Six years later, the Leadville to Climax portion was purchased for a tourist operation. This deal included the Leadville depot and roundhouse, both of which were the original DSP&P buildings from the 1880's..

The Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad is privately owned by Stephanie and Kenneth Olsen, who set up this tourist train in 1987. It runs home-built excursion cars from Leadville to Talus Slope (nearly to Climax) using a 50+ year old GP-9 to push the train up the hill on the old DSP&P right of way. It then leads the train quietly back down the hill to Leadville depot. It’s hard to believe that the sexy looking GP-9 is actually an antique.

This tourist line is unique in Colorado in that it is still connected to mainline track and could become a common carrier if the mines re-open. The trip is over in less than 3 hours so there is time to get to Georgetown for an afternoon run. However, Leadville is worth an overnight stay, just to walk and photograph the historic streets.



Photos are from 2004.

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On Board: Silver Plume to Georgetown and Return

One of the busiest and one of the most interesting narrow gauge trips is the Georgetown Loop. Built as the Georgetown, Breckenridge and Leadville in 1882, headed to Leadville, it got a few miles past Silver Plume when the silver price crashed. It never went any farther. The rise from Georgetown to Silver Plume is nearly 600 feet in 2.1 miles, giving a 6% grade. This was not feasible so the railway made several loops over the valley to make the distance 4.5 miles and the grade only 2%.

The major structure is the Devil’s Gate Viaduct, 300 feet long, 95 feet high, on a continuous sharp curve, and a 2% grade. Numerous smaller trestles allowed the track to make three and a half complete circles while ascending the grade. The first passenger train ran in 1884 and the last in 1939. The viaduct was scrapped during World War II.

The Colorado Historical Society acquired the roadbed and Silver Plume Depot in 1972 and started running a narrow gauge tourist train in 1975. In 1982, the Boettcher Foundation provided funds to re-build the viaduct from the original plans. This was completed in 1984 and trains ran the full Loop to the town limits of Georgetown.

The city fathers didn’t want those smoky smelly trains in town so they prevented the train from reaching its logical destination, the Georgetown Depot. There is a locomotive on display at the depot (C&S #44) but Silver Plume has more and better stuff, so buy your souvenirs at Silver Plume.

1994 Photos
 

The Georgetown Loop has a number of static cars on display at the Silver Plume Depot, including D&RGW caboose #0486 and one marked Georgetown Loop #0400. C&S caboose #1006 is on display in town and C&S 4–6–0 #60 as well. The town itself is very attractive so plan to spend some time here.

Prior to 2005, the railway had 3 Shays, numbers 8, 12, and 14 which hauled most of the trains. These are ex West Side Lumber Company locos. There were two rod locos, numbers 40 and 44 built by Baldwin, also not original C&S equipment. Two 54 ton GM diesels from US Gypsum arrived in 1994. My photos show the white and blue livery of 1994 as well as the 2004 black and orange paint job. The diesels were used only if a steamer died or needed help to get home.

A major dispute between the CHS and the railway operator erupted in 2004 resulting in the operator losing the contract to run the railway. However, the CHS lost their access to the locomotives described above – definitely a lose- lose scenario. CHS acquired one steamer from Coeur D’Alene, ID and it pulled the first 2005 train. Designated #12, it looks like a 2–6–0 Mogul but the CHS website photo is pretty muddy and it’s hard to tell. They will need more motive power soon, so if anyone can update this info please let me know. The Loop now goes by the name “Georgetown Loop Historic Mining and Railroad Park”.

The following are my 1994 photos.

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2004 Photos
 

The following are my 2004 photos.

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ON BOARD: anitou to Pike's Peak and Return

For more than 100 years, the Manitou and Pike's Peak Cog Railway (the world's highest cog railroad, the highest Colorado railroad AND highest train in the United States) has taken passengers to the 14,110 foot summit of Pikes Peak. The founder of the Manitou & Pike’s Peak Cog Railway was a Mr. Zalmon Simmons, owner of the Simmons Mattress Company. The first train to the summit made it in 1891 pushed by unique steam powered cog locomotives. It is not narrow gauge, but it is a must-see on any tour of Colorado railways.

 


M&PP Ry #5 on display at Manitou Springs CO

The mountain was discovered by Zebulon Pike in 1806 during his exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. Gold was found nearby some years later that started the main invasion of the Colorado area by miners, then the railways.
 

There is abundant wildlife and you can see 4 states from the peak on a clear day. There is a static display at the Manitou Springs depot and another downtown. A third loco is at the Colorado Railway Museum. Don’t try the railway on the weekend when the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb is on – it’s a zoo unless you are involved in the race. It’s probably a zoo then too.

A total of 8 tiny 0–4–0 steamers with inclined boilers were built by Baldwin during the 1890’s. A homebuilt gasoline powered railcar appeared in 1938. Five General Electric diesel-electric rack locomotives were delivered in 1940 and ran till 1965 with streamlined passenger cars. These were replaced by Swiss Locomotive Works diesel electric streamliners starting in 1964 and were augmented by larger articulated units in 1976, 1984, and 1989. The line also runs a rack driven 500hp diesel snow blower and a small diesel for shunting.

The Garden of the Gods is just a few miles away. It has only minor railway significance, but it has such spectacular rock formations that you must see it. Get out and walk around – it is unimaginably strange and beautiful. The park was originally owned by Charles Perkins, President of the CB&Q. He died in 1907 and in 1909 his family donated the land to the City of Colorado Springs. The stipulation was that it be free to all and that no booze be allowed. It’s still free and still teetotal.

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The Cog Locomotives over time



 

On Board: Mount Washington Cog Railway

I know Mt. Washington is not in Coloeado. I have no other place to put this story and it follows the Manitoo and Pikes Peak photo essay, so it will be easy to compare the two cog railway lines.

Mt. Washington is the
highest peak in Norteast USA, at 6288 feet (1916 m), located in New Hampshire, near Breton Woods. The summit is reached by the Mt. Washington Cog Railway, better known as "The Cog". Built in 1869 by Sylvester Marsh, it is the world's first cog railroad and it still runs one steam train per day, plus numerous bio-diesels in season. Europe's first cog railway came 2 years later at Mt Rigi.

The Cog is the second steepest rack railway in the world (after Mt Pilatus in Switzerland) with an average grade of over 25% and a maximum grade of 37.4%. The railway is approximately 3 miles (4.8 km) long. The steam train ascends the mountain at 2.8 mph (4.5 km/h) and descends at 4.6 mph (7.4 km/hr). Our train was pushed by steamer #9 "Waumbek" built in 1908 by Manchester Locomotive Works.

On a clear day you can see the mountains and valleys of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, north into Canada, and east to the Atlantic Ocean. There are, however, precious few clear days; fog and wind are more common. Mt Washington boasts the highest recorded wind speed measured on earth (231 mph) and the record low tempersture (-50 F) in the lower 48 states. Snowfall averages 311 inches (7.9 meters). Cairns and ropes mark the climbing and hiking trails.  Photos on this page by Sonja.

 
Mt Washington Base Station and "Peppersas?                Traction Engine on display


Bio-diesel #M-1 and coach                                             0-4-0T #9 and coach


0-4-0T #9 and coach                                                       0-4-0T #9 ready to travel up the hill


Bio-diesel #M-1                                                               and his coach


A sunnier view of #9                                                       and her coach


Bio-diesel #M-3                                                              and his coach

Our coach, ready for the "All Aboard"                          Bridgework on Jacob's Ladder


Lower switch on passing siding - 9 moving parts           Upper switch, headed for the steep incline    

         
   Manually controled brakewheels used during descent                Fall colour had just begun
 
















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