The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Main Line Thru The Rockies
The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, also known as simply the Rio
Grande, is one our country’s most famous railroads. Its
speed-lettering herald is likewise one of the most recognized of all
time and people continue to flock to its scenic routes to travel trains
such as the California Zephyr, now operated by Amtrak, and the Durango & Silverton,
perhaps the most famous tourist line in the country which operates
several miles of the D&RGW’s former narrow-gauge trackage in
southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. While the railroad
officially became a fallen flag in 1996 when the Union Pacific took over
the Southern Pacific the railroad’s identity had mostly disappeared
before that when its parent company Rio Grande Industries purchased the
SP in 1988 and began consolidating D&RGW operations into the much larger railroad.
What made the Rio Grande so endearing to railfans, and even historians, was its rugged main line through the Rocky Mountains that required large and powerful locomotives to move freight, during both the steam and diesel eras. Seen here is a trio of the road's classic SD40T-2 tunnel motors, a GP40-2, and GP40 as they muscle westbound freight #151 up Soldier Summit at appropriately named Helper, Utah on September 28, 1985.
Rio Grande has an interesting if somewhat complicated history. Like
many of the now-famous fallen flag railroads, it was created through mergers and acquisitions
of smaller railroads. Its predecessors’ primary purpose for being
built was to conquer the Rocky Mountain range and link Denver with Salt
Lake City, Utah. This would come later, however, as the new and
prospering town of Denver chartered the Denver & Rio Grande Railway
in 1870 to build south, wanting the railroad to reach El Paso, Texas and
eventually Mexico but after it came under the control of Jay Gould in
1880 it took on a new direction and would only make it as far south as
Santa Fe, New Mexico.
One of the classic aspects of the Rio Grande was its narrow-gauge lines in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. In this scene two of its 2-8-2 Mikes, Class K-37 #492 and Class K-36 #484, wrestle a short freight train through the weeds at Durango, Colorado during August of 1965.
After its southern expansions the D&RG set out to head west towards
Salt Lake City which it reached in 1883 after it connected with its
subsidiary the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway (later named the
Rio Grande Western) which had been building east from the city. One
interesting aspect of the railroad, which continues to this day with the
Durango & Silverton, was that it used the narrow-gauge three-foot track alignment to complete its line to Salt Lake City to save on construction costs.
The drawback resulted in the fact that most railroads by the late 19th
century were either switching or had already done so to the
standard-gauge alignment of four-feet, eight and half inches which
caused interchanging problems and delays.
D&RGW SD40T-2 #5374 leads its westbound freight out of the famed 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel on May 23, 1977.
By 1890 the railroad had completed an upgraded route to Salt Lake City
and in the process it became highly demanded as a means of shipping
goods efficiently over the Rockies from Denver. How the D&RG and
its affiliates became the now-famous Rio Grande was actually a result of bankruptcy.
In the early 20th century the D&RG owned the Western Pacific, a
railroad building east from the Pacific Coast at Oakland to Salt Lake
City. The WP would fall into bankruptcy taking its owner with it and in
the subsequent reorganization in 1921 the railroad would emerge known
as the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
The new D&RGW would become a
very profitable railroad for much of the rest of its life acting as a
bridge line hauling freight headed to and from the Pacific Coast via
other railroads such as its affiliate the Western Pacific, Union
Pacific, Santa Fe, and the Burlington (CB&Q). Besides the
railroad’s famed narrow-gauge lines two other future ventures would earn
the railroad legendary status. At the Continental Divide northwest of
Denver, the Rio Grande's predecessor, the Denver & Salt Lake Railway
completed its famous Moffat Tunnel in 1928, some 6.21-miles in length
and in doing so bypassed the torturous Rollins Pass, over 11,000 feet in
height! The new tunnel cut down transit times over that section of
main line from several hours to mere minutes and further strengthened
the line’s demand as a high-speed connection over the Rockies.
Even more famous than the tunnel was the introduction of a joint
passenger train by the Burlington, Rio Grande, and WP in 1949 known as
the California Zephyr deliberately routed for passengers to
witness the stunning beauty offered over the Rio Grande’s main line
through the Rockies. Not surprisingly the train was an instant hit with
the public and did so well that the Rio Grande elected to continue the
train itself following its discontinuance in early 1970, renaming it as
the Rio Grande Zephyr.
Interestingly, the original CZ by then was so well known that Amtrak did not hesitate to
keep it in service when the Rio Grande elected to relinquish
the train in the early 1980s.
One of the most scenic stretches of the legendary California Zephyr was certainly the ride through the Rockies on the Rio Grande. By the date of this photo, though, only the D&RGW continued to operate the train as the Rio Grande Zephyr, seen here climbing Soldier Summit in Utah during July of 1974 powered by an A-B-B set of F9s.
In a final nod to honor the original Amtrak renamed it back to
the California Zephyr in 1983 and regained its transcontinental connections. On paper its somewhat amazing
that the Rio Grande became so famous for so many
things as in terms of operations it was a rather small railroad in the
amount of lines it owned, accumulating less than 2,500 miles at its
peak. Paper and reality, though, are two very different things and
aside from its famous train, narrow-gauge lines, and extraordinary
tunnel, the railroad could proudly say that it offered the most scenic
stretch of railroad in the continental United States.
This side-profile view gives one a good idea of what six and four-axle EMD locomotives looked like, particularly the difference in length; three SD40T-2s, a GP40-2, and GP40 are power for a westbound freight at Desert, Utah on September 28, 1985.
After taking over the ailing Southern Pacific in the late 1980s Rio
Grande Industries (parent of the Rio Grande) slowly began to integrate
the smaller Denver and Rio Grande Western into the larger (a rare
occurrence in any industry, a parent company being merged into its
subsidiary) and by the time the Union Pacific purchased the Southern
Pacific in 1996 the D&RGW had, for the most
part, lost its independent identity. With the merger the Rio Grande
became yet another fallen flag along with its subsidiary although its
legacy continues to thrive in the way of the California Zephyr, Durango & Silverton and its magnificent Moffat Tunnel. If you ever get the chance please take a trip on today’s California Zephyr or Durango & Silverton because the sights both offer surely will not disappoint you!