Monday, December 15, 2008

The Rio Grande Southern Railroad: Joshua Tree Style, Part 1

Here is a thumbnail history lesson from now frequent guest blogger, Ken Eells. Who knows? You might learn something! - Chris

It was 1889 when Otto Mears decided that a railroad through western Colorado would be a viable venture, as there were growing mining, timber and livestock interests that the right railroad could service. Mears proceeded to incorporate the Rio Grande Southern Railroad and two railroading legends were born.

Known as the “Pathfinder of the San Juans”, Otto Mears already owned other railroading and mining interests. Not only had he built and operated wagon toll roads in the San Juan Mountains, he was the primary owner of the Silverton Railroad as well as owner of numerous mining operations. With the advent of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, Otto Mears would create an instant western railroading icon he would coin; Silver San Juan, Scenic Line.

The plan was very simple as the RGS would begin in the yet to be incorporated town of Ridgway, Co. and head south to Durango, 162 miles away. Executing his plan however, was not so very simple as the surveyed right of way began at an elevation of 7002’ rose to that of 10250’and back down to 6523’. The grade for the railroad varied from just under 2% to that of a whopping 4%. Snow drifts at the higher elevations were measured in the tens of feet.

As a three foot gauge railroad, the RGS would be able to seamlessly connect with the Denver and Rio Grande’s Ouray branch at Ridgway and again in Durango to the south. The railroad would have two districts with the first operating from Ridgway to Rico for a distance of 66.2 miles and the second district operating from Rico to Durango for a distance of 95.9 miles.

By March of 1890, 5.5 miles of track had been laid from Durango west to the Porter Coal Mine and the RGS was born. In just two short years of its inception, the 162 mile line was complete and immediately profitable. Then in 1893, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 was repealed by Congress and the mines that Otto Mears had built his railroad to began closing, one after another. The whole San Juan region began to die economically and Mears lost control of his young brainchild forever.

The RGS continued on under new leadership well into the 20th Century. With hiccups, bumps and even successes along the way the RGS served the San Juan region for several decades. By 1930, revenue was down and operating costs were high. In 1931, the RGS began constructing a series of internal combustion powered conveyances that would allow for the reduction of normal steam operations thereby cutting operating costs, but maintain revenue business.

Initially known as Motors and eventually Buses by the management, these unlikely looking and operating mechanical concoctions began plying the rail delivering Passengers, Mail and light freight up and down the line. Seven different units were constructed in all and allowed the little railroad to remain in operation. Who originally coined these Narrow Gauge legends as Galloping Geese is somewhat vague, however if the webbed shoe fits . . .

The RGS had another unique distinction, although a bit more sobering. Without many learning of it, until long after World War II had ended, this little railroad had been employed to haul a secret cargo by our government. Previously mined and discarded in mine tailing dumps, seemingly insignificant ore was being loaded into boxcars by miners wearing three piece suits. As it turns out, these materials were subsequently used in developing the first atomic bomb.

The RGS operated until August of 1952 at which point this storied little rail line would cease to exist. But now, a portion of this celebrated railroad is being constructed in 5” scale at the JTSRR Museum as the Ridgway Engine facility of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad.

Journey back in time with us to an era of Big Bands, Coal Soot and War Bonds as we present the RGS, Joshua Tree Style. -Ken Eells

Some historic photos of the RGS in Ridgway, CO.