By Forrest Whitman
Freight Train Wayne and I were talking with a group of Jicarilla Apache folks in their supermarket recently. We were in Dulce, New Mexico and were wondering how we’d get any further on our quest following a ghost railroad. That ghost was the Denver and Rio Grande Western narrow gauge.
We’re not the only Colorado Central readers who enjoy following the D&RGW through southern Colorado. The Cumbres and Toltec keeps the middle section alive from Antonito to Chama. The Durango and Silverton happily runs between those two towns. Not many folks try to follow the ghost tracks from Chama to Durango, though.
The auto roads beside the abandoned Rio Grande are designated as a “scenic byway” all the way from Dulce to Durango. The tourist is to follow Jicarilla #9 up to Pagosa Junction along the lovely river and beside remnants of the old roadbed. We were hoping to get some info in Dulce. There is a sign in Dulce pointing to a casino that says “Tourist Information Center.” Really? None of the locals knew about any information center. Their main information about Jicarilla 9 was, “Don’t try it.”
Wayne drove a mile or so until the road deteriorated, but we were rewarded. There’s a recently painted classic Rio Grande narrow gauge bridge. They built those high super-structures in an impressive way. The old roadbed was clear and some abandoned stock cars were there. Worth the trip for rail fans and worth a vow to try it from the top end next time.
Our “from the top end” attempt was in the new Subaru of the Hobo, aka Freight Train Wayne. That got us to Gato or Pagosa Junction. That’s where the eastbound and westbound San Juan passenger trains would meet for lunch prior to 1951. There you can see the remains of the old station, possibly the old hotel, and a couple other fallen-in structures. There are also two very well-preserved high-span bridges coming into town. Unfortunately we almost bottomed out on the road, so we gave up our ghost chasing from that end, too.
As the Hobo napped, I fantasized about what the conversations must have been like in the busy lunch room at Gato. Brakemen would debate about how to get the daily consist of 11 oil cars over the Cumbres to the refinery in Alamosa. (The Oriental refinery burned in 1964, ending that income and that section of the Rio Grande in ‘68.) Always discussed would have been the transition from narrow gauge to standard gauge at Antonito. Passengers probably complained about the lunch and shared gossip from all the small towns. Nice fantasies, those.
The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad is no fantasy or ghost. It’s a railroad reborn. When the D&RGW got bought up by Phil Anschutz’s Southern Pacific and was just passed around, it looked doomed. The outfit was looted by a holding company, and the rails were ready to be torn up.
Enter Ed Ellis and his Iowa Pacific Company. They are believers in passenger trains and own 10 of them. Right now they operate the only private long- distance train in the country, The Hoosier State from Chicago to Indianapolis.
The old Rio Grande, reborn as the San Luis and Rio Grande, owns 154 standard-gauge miles to Walsenburg, where they interchange with the Union Pacific. They haul quite a bit of freight and also serve as the bridge for the San Luis Central R.R. They pull barley and spuds 18 miles from Center to the Monte Vista interchange.
The Rio Grande then heads south to Antonito for fertilizer and rock loading. Heading west, it goes to South Fork. The excursion trains on that little line go over the spectacular La Veta Pass and are always fun. Last fall, we took the aspen photo train and found the food in the diner first-rate.
I predict some readers may try tracing the ghosts of the old narrow gauge Rio Grande once mud season is over. Surely, we’ll enjoy riding the Rio Grande Scenic this summer. All aboard for some railroad adventures!
Forrest loves to hike ghost railroads, but loves COLORAIL’S ideas for lively ones too.