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.

The 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.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
RS35200-520419515
PA16001, 6003, 6011, 601319474
PB1252-25319472

One place to see large steamers in action was along the Rio Grande; here is Class M-68 4-8-4 #1804 circa 1940 (location unknown).

The Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
SW1200130-139196510
FTA540A-551A, 540D-551D1942-194324
FTB540B-551B, 540C-551C1942-194324
F3A552A-554A, 552D-554D19466
F7A555-564, 5651-5764 (Only 1s and 4s.)1949-195267
F7B555-564, 5652-5762 (Only 2s and 3s.)1949-195266
F3B552B-554B, 552C-554C19466
GP303001-30281962-196328
GP353029-30501964-196522
GP403051-3093, 3131-31531966-198366
GP40-23094-31301972-198337
GP603154-315619903
GP75101-51131950-195213
SD75300-530419535
SD95305-5314195710
SD455315-53401967-196826
SD40T-25341-54131974-198073
SD505501-5517198417
F9B5762-5263, 5772-577319554
F9A5771, 577419552
GP95901-5904, 5911-5914, 5921-5924, 5931-5934, 5941-5944, 5951-59541955-195624
NW2700019411

Krauss-Maffei

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
ML-44001-400319613

The Rio Grande did roster articulateds like this Class L-131 2-8-8-2 Chesapeake #3607 resting in Pueblo, Colorado on October 29, 1931. The railroad owned 36 examples of this massive locomotive design.

Steam Locomotive Roster

Standard-Gauged D&RGW Steam Locomotives

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
C (Various)Consolidation2-8-0
F-81Santa Fe2-10-2
K-59Mikado2-8-2
L-62, L-76Articulated2-6-6-2
L-95, L-96Articulated2-8-8-2
L-97, L-105Challenger4-6-6-4
L-107, L-109, L-131, L-132Articulated2-8-8-2
M-64, M-68Western4-8-4
M-67, M-69, M-75, M-78Mountain4-8-2
P-44Pacific4-6-2
T-29, T-31Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
Y-40Shay 0-4-4-4-0T

Another large steam locomotive used by the D&RGW was the 2-10-2 Santa Fe; here is Class F-81 #1403 at Grand Junction, Colorado on May 6, 1933.

Narrow-Gauge D&RGW Steam Locomotives

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
25, 37, 38, 42American4-4-0
35, 40Mogul2-6-0
45 1/2, T-12Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
56, 60, C-16 Through C-19Consolidation2-8-0
62Articulated0-4-4-0T
K-27, "Mudhens"Mikado2-8-2
K-28Mikado2-8-2
K-36Mikado2-8-2
K-37Mikado2-8-2
L-53, L-75Articulated2-8-8-2

Rio Grande Class K-36 2-8-2 #483 stops for a drink at the water tower near Bondad, New Mexico along the Farmington Branch during June of 1967.

Notable Passenger Trains

California Zephyr

Colorado Eagle

Prospector

Exposition Flyer: Operated between Oakland, California and Chicago in conjunction with the Burlington and Western Pacific until 1949 (replaced by the CZ).

Mountaineer: (Denver - Montrose, Colorado)

Panoramic: (Denver - Odgen)

The Rio Grand Zephyr travels through through beautiful Spanish Fork, Utah as it is about to climb Soldier Summit during August of 1973 led by an A-B-B set of F9s.

Rio Grande Zephyr: Replacement for the CZ between 1970 and 1983 it operated between Denver and Ogden.

Royal Gorge: (Denver - Pueblo - Ogden)

San Juan: (Alamosa - Durango, Colorado)

The Silverton: (Durango - Silverton, Colorado)

The Yampa Valley: (Denver - Craig, Colorado)

Other Reading

The Chili Line



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!

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