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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Hear the whistle blow, Part 3

Posted: Tuesday, Sep 4th, 2012

After the 1920s, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) had a split personality, part narrow gauge and part standard gauge. The narrow-gauge Chili Line ceased running in 1941, the San Juan Express passenger train stopped running in 1951, and D&RGW was not eager to send occasional freight trains north of Alamosa, since trainmen who lived there were paid for an extra day of work on the Salida run, being in the Third Division.

After World War II, other than standard-gauge trains, only the San Juan Extension and the Silverton Branch remained. Testing the mettle of their trainmen with its four percent grade over Cumbres Pass, derailments and fatalities occurred and heavy snow could block the line – with one train being marooned in the high country for two weeks in one episode.

But this segment of the system was not ready to become a ghost yet. It had a third rail between Antonito and Alamosa to accommodate both narrow- and standard-gauge trains.

Traffic still was connected to agriculture, lumbering, and mining industries, with freight, livestock cars, gondola loads, cabooses, mail/express, occasionally a business car. Although mining still produced some mostly low-grade ore, hauling it to smelters at Leadville or Denver was economically marginal.

What accounted in part for activity on the San Juan Extension 1950 was crude oil, an industry that began in southwest Colorado in the 1930s. East of Chromo, NM, Lafayette Hughes of Alamosa, popularly called “Gramps,” drilled wells and piped oil in a pipeline to Chama, where a loading dock and tank were located.

Labeled Gramp’s, tank cars were leased from the Union Tank Car Co. to transport oil from Archuleta County to Alamosa on daily across Cumbres Pass. In the area of D&RGW yards and shops on the west side of the Rio Grande River, the oil was stored in large tanks by the Oriental Oil Refinery. This operation continued until 1963 or 1964.

Activity in the Farmington area became important for a few years beginning in 1951, until competition from a competing railroad and trucking changed the D&RGW’s business. Hoping to make the Farmington Branch part of a transcontinental connection, this branch had been constructed as standard-gauge but soon went back to narrow-gauge.

The oil and gas field around Farmington, NM, required far more narrow-gauge rolling stock, and it was of the wrong type besides, so D&RGW standard-gauge boxcars were converted to narrow-gauge gondolas and lengthened to accommodate the long pipe to the oil field. For the next few years, conversions and shipping of pipe were important activities in Alamosa.

Pipe was hauled daily from Alamosa on the long trains, which returned empty eastward. By the 1960s, the D&RGW’s San Juan Extension had lost much of its traffic on the Western Slope.

In 1968, rumors were rife that the San Juan Extension was going to be abandoned and tracks removed, but aficionados in Colorado and New Mexico got busy. Working together, the two states purchased the 64-mile line between Antonito and Chama and created the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which since then has been to carrying delighted fans behind steam locomotives, which wiggle back and forth across the state line.

During these 41 years, the narrow-gauge equipment has seen improvements without diminishing the fun or the firsthand information about the historic era. The first of its passengers rode in freight cars, but before long there was a choice of refurbished coaches appropriate to the historic era, parlor cars, open gondolas, or cabooses.

And let’s not forget that the C&TSRR also provides seasonal work for conductors, engineers, firemen, brakemen, gandy dancers, railcar operators, and jobs in reservation offices at Antonito and Chama and in food services at Osier, among important considerations.

A crisis occurred in 2010 when the Lobato Trestle burned near Chama. Through the years, however, the two states, the Friends of the C&RTSS, and grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce have kept this excursion line running.

Next week, the modern era.

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