History of the Rio Grande Southern

Colorado once was netted over by what seemed to be an endless number of narrow gauge railroads.
Most of these railroads had been purpose built to serve a particular mine or lumber mill and once their scource of income was closed they vanished again. Thus a lot of these small lines were hurriedly constructed, the tracks layed down over lawns and through canoyons, oftentimes just following a creek or river bed.

Some of the narrow gauge was later discovered to be in line with other railroads and together some of these tiny lines made up the transcontinental Rio Grande route being soon converted to standard gauge. Since the track layout had never been built to make up the most economic route across the Rockies, the Rio Grande had to struggle until closure of Tennessee Pass by Union Pacififc against its purpose built competitors.

Few narrow gauge lines are still active today, notably the Cumbres & Toltic and the Durango & Silverton who both survive as tourist railroads. Meanwhile some authors are putting together volume after volume of the Colorado Narrow Gauge Annual as their is a wealth of disappeared lines.

To show just how these railroads came and went here is a chronicle of the Rio Grande Southern - a typical contender of the late 1800s and early 1900s, year by year:

1889 - The Rio Grande Southern Railroad Company is chartered in Colorado on Nov. 5th. Plans are to build tracks from Telluride (silver mines) to an intersection with the Denver & Rio Grande, aswell as a line from Rico to Durango. Later on both lines should be connected. President was none other than Otto Mears.

1890 - The Northern part from Telluride to Ridgeway Junction is completed and by year end the first trains are running. The tracks follow some rivers and then circle in a 180 arc to the other side of the valley back to Telluride. Like many other segments of the RGS this one has some intimidating features: grades in access of 3 %, tight curves and high trestles.
Construction also starts on the Durango line, but progrss is slower here.

1891 - The line to Durango is completed and both lines are connected. Business is good as new coal mines open west of Durango. Soon some additional locomotives are bought most of them second hand.
A line from Porter to Moldoon is built (over 70 Miles long) via the Cima Pass. Again the line follows some riverbeds, but even for the pioneer standards of 1891 this line is spectacular. The railroad climbs along the Howard Fork River on a ledge in the cliffs and crosses an endless chain of trestle bridges. At the end of the valley it crosses on high trestles several times and then reaches Lizard Head Pass at elev. 10250 ft.

1892 - The Silver Purchase Act is released by Sherman and brings confusion to the silver mines. Many of them close down. Since the RGS is dependant on those mines only few trains are operated. For financial reasons the RGS sells some bonds to the Denver & Rio Grande RR giving the later a major share in control of the RGS.
Two lines are construced one from Rico to Enterprise where a mine is located. This one is only 4 miles long but is located in such steep territory that Enterprise is reached by switchbacks.
The other line is from Ute Junction to Ute a coal mine.

1893 - More silver mines close. The RGS files for bancrupcy. new President is Edward T Jeffery

1894 - Jeffery and Meras try to save the RGS. More bonds are sold to the Denver & Rio Grande

1895 - The RGS is reorganized. All decisions are subject to approval by the Denver & Rio Grande

1896 - 1898 Only very few trains operate. There simply is nothing to transport

1899 - Seven locomotives are sold

1900 - The mine at Enterprise closes. Subsequently the branchline is scrapped

1901 - George Gould takes over managment. Gould dreams of his transcontinental railroad in which the RGS has no part. There are hardly any trains running on the RGS and another locomotive is sold

1902 - Gould buys the Rio Grande Western and does not really care about the RGS. The RGS discovers a new trade: logging. Business slowly picks up.

1904 - All locomotives that are not deemed necessary are sold or scrapped. The roster is now down to 17 engines.

1905 - The RGS returns to profitability for the first time

1906 - New coal mines open west of Durango. More profits are made. The Denver & Rio Grande buys the Boston Coal & Fuel Company brancvhline and leases it to its RGS. In turn the RGS builds a line from May Day Junction to May Day and leases one more locomotive.

1907 - Talks are in progress of merger with the Denver & Rio Grande

1908 - The Denver & Rio Grande merges with all its companies except the RGS. The RGS is seen as not a worthy addition as it is largely dependant on mines and the issued bonds in conjunction with rent for the BC&FC give the Denver & Rio Grande a theoretical 100% of anything the RGS earns. The branchline to Ute is closed as the mine is left open.

1909 - 1915 Finally all companies that had been left are merged. So the RGS becomes a part of the Denver & Rio Grande, Missouri Pacific, Western Pacific network. The bonds are handed over to the Western Pacific that needs cash badly. Over night the entire financial assets of the RGS disappear mysteriously within the safes of the Western Pacific. From an operating profit of 141000$ only - 324000$ in losses remain.

1916 - Through questionable bookings the RGS is near bancrupcy again. When the Western Pacific has to pay some penalties, the RGS has to participate as it is part of the system.

1917 - Despite increased traffic through World War 1 there are no more profits as everything disappears in the cash registers of its parent companies

1918 - 1920 USRA takes over the RGS as it is important for the war effort. being State controlled now, the railroad makes a fictional profit (as bond and rent payments are left out)

1921 - The penalties from the Western Pacific resurface. The RGS is bancrupt

1922 - Deficit now 100000$

1923 - A new scource of income, oil from Farmington

1924 - Despite a national record of 125% utilisation further losses

1925 - Debts are now in xcess of 2 Mio $

1926 - The coal mines west of Durango close. The branch from May Day to May Day Junction is torn up

1927 - 1929 The "Roaring Twenties" do not reach the RGS Debts climb to over 3 Mio $. The Pandora Mine closes. A landslide closes down the rest of the railroad. RGS files for bancrupcy

1930 - 1931 Efforts are made to save the line. The tracks are restored by building over the debries from the landslide. Old trucks are converted to the famous "Galloping Geese" freight and passenger buses.

1932 - 1938 The "Great Depression" takes away 85% of traffic. Despite this another locomotive and some freight cars are bought. The RGS is taken away from the Western Pacific and again ruled by the Denver & Rio Grande Western.

1939 - 1948 In 1941 the first application is made to close down the RGS. Local opposition talks some banks into giving a last loan. All locomotives and cars are sold and leased back. 9 engines are scrapped. A lot of traffic is lost to trucks.

1948 - 1953 Stock and Lumber travels via trucks now. The last customer, the Dolores Timber Company burns to the ground in 1948. In 1949 Mail and Passenger service is terminated. A last effort to use the "Galloping Geese" as a tourist attraction fails in 1951. The last train is operated by the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club on Sep 2nd 1951. In 1952 the railroad is dismantled


Last Update: Mar 1st 2008

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