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Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad

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Title: Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad  
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Subject: Timeline of Class I railroads (1977–present), Utah Division (D&RGW), Amtrak, Timeline of Class I railroads (1910–29), Alfred E. Perlman
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad

Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad
Map of historic D&RGW routes.
Reporting mark DRGW
Locale Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico
Dates of operation 1870–1988
Successor Southern Pacific Railroad
Union Pacific Railroad
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge and 3 ft (914 mm) gauge
Headquarters Denver, Colorado

The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (reporting mark DRGW), often shortened to Rio Grande or D&RGW, formerly the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, was an American Class I railroad company. The railroad started as a 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge line running south from Denver, Colorado in 1870. It served mainly as a transcontinental bridge line between Denver, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The Rio Grande was also a major origin of coal and mineral traffic. In 1988, the Rio Grande's parent corporation, Rio Grande Industries, purchased Southern Pacific Transportation Company, and as the result of a merger, the larger Southern Pacific Railroad name was chosen for identity. Today, most former D&RGW main lines are owned and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad; several branch lines are now operated as heritage railways by various companies.

The Rio Grande was the epitome of mountain railroading, with a motto of Through the Rockies, not around them and later Main line through the Rockies, both referring to the narrow gauge railroad network in North America. Known for its independence, the D&RGW operated the last private intercity passenger train in the United States, the Rio Grande Zephyr.

At the end of 1970 it operated 1,903 miles (3,063 km) of road on 3,227 miles (5,193 km) of track; that year it carried 7733 ton-miles of revenue freight and 21 million passenger-miles.


Baldwin's Montezuma, 1871, The first locomotive built for the Denver & Rio Grande.
D&RGW logo used 1908–1921


The Denver & Rio Grande Railway (D&RG) was incorporated on October 27, 1870 by General William Jackson Palmer and a board of four directors. It was originally announced that the new 3 ft (914 mm) railroad would proceed south from Denver and travel an estimated 875 miles (1,408 km) south to El Paso via Pueblo, westward along the Arkansas River, and continue southward through the San Luis Valley of Colorado toward the Rio Grande.[1] Closely assisted by his friend and new business partner Dr. William Bell, Palmer's new "Baby Road" laid the first rails out of Denver on July 28, 1871. Narrow gauge was chosen in part because construction and equipment costs would be relatively more affordable when weighed against that of the prevailing standard gauge. Palmer's first hand impressions of the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales buoyed his interest in the narrow gauge concept which would prove to be advantageous while conquering the mountainous regions of the Southwest. Eventually the route of the D&RG would be amended (including a plan to continue south from Pueblo over Raton Pass) and added to as new opportunities and competition challenged the railroad's expanding goals.[2]

Feverish, competitive construction plans provoked the Leadville, Colorado. While this "Treaty of Boston" [2] did not exactly favor the purist of original D&RG intentions, the conquering of new mining settlements to the west and the future opportunity to expand into Utah was realized from this settlement.

By late 1880 William Bell had begun to organize railway construction in Utah that would become the Palmer controlled [2]

Royal Gorge Route

The D&RG built west from Pueblo reaching Salida on May 20, 1880 and was pushed to Leadville later that same year. From Salida, the D&RG pushed west over the Continental Divide at the 10,845 feet (3,306 m) Marshall Pass and reached Gunnison on August 6, 1881. From Gunnison the line entered the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River passing the famous Curecanti Needle seen in their famous Scenic Line of the World Herald. The tracks left the increasingly difficult canyon at Cimmaron and passed over Cerro Summit, reaching Montrose on September 8, 1882. From Montrose, a line was laid north through Delta, reaching Grand Junction in March 1883, which completed a narrow gauge transcontinental link with the Rio Grande Western Railway to Salt Lake City, Utah.

The line from Pueblo to Leadville was upgraded in 1887 to three rails to accommodate both narrow gauge and standard gauge operation.

Narrow gauge branch lines were constructed to Crested Butte, Lake City, Ouray and Somerset.

The route over Tennessee Pass was known for steep grades, and it wasn't uncommon to see trains running with midtrain and rear-end helpers. In 1997, a year after the D&RGW/SP merger with Union Pacific, the UP closed the line. Although it has been out of service for fourteen years, the rails are still in usable condition, though many of the signals have been ravaged by time and vandals. In 1998, Union Pacific sold 12 miles (19 km) of the route's track through the Royal Gorge in an effort to preserve the scenic route. Two new corporations, the Canon City & Royal Gorge Railroad (CC&RG) and Rock & Rail, Inc. (R&R), joined together to form Royal Gorge Express, LLC (RGX) to purchase the line. Passenger service on the new Royal Gorge Route Railroad began in May 1999. The heritage railway. Apart from this stretch of track, and the odd Hi-Rail inspections between Parkdale and Dotsero, the Tennessee Pass subdivision has been out of service.

San Juan Extension

DRGW Alamosa Rounddhouse, June 1967.

The D&RG also pushed west from Walsenburg, Colorado over La Veta Pass (now "Old La Veta Pass") by 1877. At the time the 'Uptop' depot on Veta Pass, rising over 9,500 feet (2,900 m) in elevation, boasted the highest elevation for a narrow gauge railroad. The railroad reached Alamosa by 1878. From Alamosa, a line was pushed south through Antonito eventually reaching Santa Fe, New Mexico (the Chili Line) and west as far as Creede, Colorado. A line containing one of the longest tangent tracks in U.S. railroading (52.82 miles or 85 kilometres) also linked Alamosa with Salida to the north. From Antonito a line was built over 10,015 feet (3,053 m) Cumbres Pass, along the Colorado-New Mexico border, reaching Durango, Colorado in August 1881 and continuing north to the rich mining areas around Silverton in July 1882. A line was also constructed in 1902 as a standard gauge line, perhaps in anticipation of possible standard gauging of the entire line, south from Durango, Colorado to Farmington, New Mexico. Originally hauling mainly agricultural products and serving as a deterrent to the Santa Fe building up from the south, the line was converted to narrow gauge in 1923,[3] and later delivered pipe and other construction materials to the local oil and natural gas industry into the 1960s.

Portions of the Alamosa-Durango Line survive to this day. The Walsenburg-Alamosa-Antonito line survives as the standard gauge San Luis and Rio Grande Railroad, with passenger excursion trains service provided by the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. Two narrow gauge segments survive as steam railroads, the Antonito-Chama line as the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad and Durango-Silverton as the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Tennessee Pass

D&RGW train at Tennessee Pass, circa 1910s or 1920s.

The D&RG built west from Leadville over 10,240 feet (3,120 m) Tennessee Pass in an attempt to reach the mining areas around Aspen, Colorado before its rival railroad in the area, the Colorado Midland, could build a line reaching there. The D&RG built a line through Glenwood Canyon to Glenwood Springs, reaching Aspen in October 1887. The D&RG then joined with the Colorado Midland to build a line from Glenwood Springs connecting with D&RG at Grand Junction. Originally considered a secondary branch route to Grand Junction, the entire route from Leadville to Grand Junction was upgraded to standard gauge in 1890, and the original narrow gauge route via Marshall Pass became a secondary route.

Denver & Rio Grande Western

The D&RGW Business Car 101, originally built as a passenger car was converted to a business car at the Burnham shop in 1929 and is now restored as the Abraham Lincoln

The original Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway built a narrow gauge line from [4]

Moffat Road

A portion of a DRGW hopper car showing the Royal Gorge/Moffat Tunnel logo in 1943.

In 1931, the D&RGW acquired the Denver and Salt Lake Western Railroad (a company in name only), a subsidiary of the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad (D&SL) which had acquired the rights to build a 40-mile (64 km) connection between the two railroads. After years of negotiation, the D&RGW gained trackage rights on the D&SL from Denver to the new cutoff. In 1932, the D&RGW began construction of the Dotsero Cutoff east of Glenwood Springs to near Bond on the Colorado River, at a location called Orestod (Dotsero spelled backward). Despite the common misconception that Dotsero is a shortening of "Dot Zero," the station name exists from the construction of the standard gauge line to Glenwood Springs in the 1890s. Construction was completed in 1934, giving Denver a direct transcontinental link to the west.[5] The D&RGW slipped into bankruptcy again in 1935. Emerging in 1947, it merged with the D&SL on March 3, 1947, gaining control of the "Moffat Road" through the Moffat Tunnel and a branch line from Bond to Craig, Colorado.

"Fast Freights" and the California Zephyr, 1950–1983

Rio Grande Industries logo, used 1948–1967

Finally free from financial problems, the D&RGW now possessed a direct route from Denver to Salt Lake City (the detour south through Pueblo and Tennessee Pass was no longer required for direct service), but a problem still remained: for transcontinental service, the Union Pacific's more northerly line was far less mountainous (and, as a result, several hours faster). The D&RGW's solution was its "fast freight" philosophy, which employed multiple diesel locomotives pulling short, frequent trains. This philosophy helps to explain why the D&RGW, despite its proximity to one of the nation's most productive coal mining regions, retired coal-fueled steam locomotives as quickly as new, replacement diesels could be purchased. By 1956, the D&RGW's standard-gauge steam locomotives had been retired and scrapped. The reason for this was that unlike steam locomotives, diesel locomotives could easily be combined, using the diesels' multiple unit (MU) capabilities, to equip each train with the optimum horsepower which was needed to meet the D&RGW's aggressive schedule.

The California Zephyr pulled by D&RGW locomotives along the Colorado River in Western Colorado.

The D&RGW's sense of its unique geographical challenge found expression in what is arguably the world's most famous passenger train, the California Zephyr, which was jointly operated with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) from Chicago to Denver and the Western Pacific Railroad from Salt Lake City to Oakland, California (with ferry and bus connections to San Francisco). Unable to compete with the Union Pacific's faster, less mountainous route and 39-hour schedules, the California Zephyr offered a more leisurely journey – a "rail cruise" – with ample vistas of the Rockies. Although the California Zephyr ran at full capacity and turned a modest profit from its 1949 inception through the late 1950s, by the mid-1960s the train was profitable only during the late spring, summer, and fall. In 1970, Western Pacific, claiming multi-million dollar losses, dropped out. However, the D&RGW refused to join the national Amtrak system, and continued to operate its share of the Zephyr equipment as the Rio Grande Zephyr between Denver and Salt Lake City until 1983.

Loading gold ore concentrate into freight cars, Ouray, Colorado, 1940

Even as the D&RGW exploited the best new standard-gauge technology to compete with other transcontinental carriers, the railroad continued to operate the surviving steam-powered narrow gauge lines, including the famed narrow gauge line between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. Most of the remaining narrow-gauge trackage was abandoned in the 1950s and 1960s. Two of the most scenic routes survived in operation by the D&RGW, until they were sold to tourist railroad operators. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad assumed operation of the line between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico in 1970. The last D&RGW narrow gauge line, from Durango to Silverton, was sold in 1981 to the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, exactly one hundred years after the line went into operation.

Merger with Southern Pacific

In 1988, Rio Grande Industries, the company that controlled the D&RGW under the direction of Philip Anschutz, purchased the Southern Pacific Railroad. The combined company used Southern Pacific's name due to its name recognition among shippers. In time, the Rio Grande's fast freight philosophy gave way to SP's long-established practice of running long, slow trains. A contributing factor was the rising cost of diesel fuel, a trend that set in after the 1973 oil crisis, which gradually undermined the D&RGW's fuel-consuming "fast freight" philosophy. By the early 1990s, the combined Rio Grande/Southern Pacific Railroad had lost much of the competitive advantage that made it attractive to transcontinental shippers, and became largely dependent on hauling the high-quality coal produced in the mine fields of Colorado and Utah.

D&RGW locomotives retained their reporting marks and colors after the merger with Southern Pacific. The one noticeable change was to Southern Pacific's "Bloody Nose" paint scheme - the serif font on the sides of the locomotives was replaced by the Rio Grande's "speed lettering", which was utilized on all SP locomotives built after the merger.

Merger with Union Pacific

On September 11, 1996, Anschutz sold the combined company to the Union Pacific Railroad, partly in response to the earlier merger of Burlington Northern and Santa Fe which formed the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. As the Union Pacific absorbed the D&RGW into its system, signs of the fabled mountain railroad's existence are slowly fading away. D&RGW 5371, the only original D&RGW locomotive in full Rio Grande paint on the Union Pacific, was retired by UP in December, 2008. As previously promised by UP, the D&RGW 5371 was donated to the Utah State Railroad Museum at Ogden's Union Station on August 17, 2009, and will reside in the Eccles Rail Center at the south end of the building. The museum is located at 25th Street and Wall Ave in Ogden, Utah. Many other Rio Grande locomotives still run in service with Union Pacific, but have been "patch-renumbered," with a patch applied over the locomotive's number and the number boards replaced. This method allows the locomotives to be numbered into the Union Pacific's roster but is cheaper than fully repainting the engine into UP Armour Yellow.

Union Pacific recently unveiled UP 1989, an EMD SD70ACe painted in a stylized version of the DRGW color scheme. This unit is one of several SD70ACe locomotives the UP has painted in stylized colors to help preserve the image of the railroads it has merged; the others are Missouri Pacific Railroad, Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, Chicago and North Western Railway, Southern Pacific Railroad, and Western Pacific Railroad.


Denver & Rio Grande depot in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The following people served as presidents (or the equivalent) of the D&RGW and its predecessors.

Passenger trains

D&RGW passenger train at the Colorado Railroad Museum. The F9 A&B diesel electric locomotives (1955) were used for the California Zephyrs and Rio Grande Zephyrs.
California Zephyr headed by D&RGW locomotives passes through the Colorado Rockies in winter.
D&RGW locomotive on the next to last run of the California Zephyr, March 21, 1970, at Salt Lake City.

This is a partial list of D&RGW passenger trains. Westbound trains had odd numbers, while eastbound trains had even numbers. Many of the trains were named and renamed as well as being re-numbered. There are over 180 names on a complete list of all the railroad's named trains.[6]

Train numbers Train name Endpoints Years of operation
1/2 Scenic Limited Denver-Salt Lake City (via Royal Gorge) 1906-1946[7]
1/2 Royal Gorge Denver-Grand Junction (via Royal Gorge) 1946-1967[7][8]
5/6 The Exposition Flyer Chicago-Oakland 1939–1949
5/6 California Zephyr Chicago-Oakland 1949-1970
7/8 Prospector Denver-Salt Lake City/Ogden 1941–1942; 1945–1967
9/10 Yampa Valley Mail Denver-Craig 1949-1963[9]
9/10 Yampa Valley Denver-Craig 1963-1968[9]
17/18 California Zephyr Chicago-Oakland 1949–1970
17/18 Rio Grande Zephyr Denver-Salt Lake City 1970–1983
19/20 Mountaineer Denver-Grand Junction-Montrose 1936–1959
115/116 San Juan Express Alamosa-Durango 1881–1951[6]
315/316 Shavano Salida-Gunnison 1937–1940
461/462 Silverton Durango-Silverton 1882–1981
Special Ski Train Denver-Winter Park 1940–2009

Other named passenger trains operated by the Rio Grande included the Colorado Eagle (operated in conjunction with the Ski Train connected Denver with Winter Park, Colorado. This started as a D&RGW train but was bought by the Ansco Investment Company in 1988, then re-sold to Canada in 2009.

Note that the San Juan Express earlier was called the Colorado and New Mexico Express, and express passenger service had been offered between Alamosa and Durango since shortly after the line was completed in 1881. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad now operates scenic trips over this route between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico.

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which has been operating since 1881, provides scenic day trips from Durango to Silverton.

The largest collection of surviving California Zephyr equipment can be found at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum at Portola, California, although this museum focuses on the Western Pacific Railroad, rather than the Rio Grande. Several items of DRGW owned Zephyr rolling stock still survive in private hands.

See also


  1. ^ Athearn, Robert G. Rebel of the Rockies. Yale University Press 1962 p. 15.
  2. ^ a b c Athearn, Robert G. "Rebel of the Rockies". Yale University Press, 1962,
  3. ^
  4. ^ Athearn, Robert G. "Rebel of the Rockies". Yale University Press, 1962, pgs. 241-243.
  5. ^ "First Trains Enter Cut Into Rockies". Berkeley Daily Gazette. 16 June 1934. Retrieved 28 March 2012. 
  6. ^ a b "Rio Grande Passenger Trains". Retrieved 7 March 2012. 
  7. ^ a b "Scenic Limited". Retrieved 7 March 2012. 
  8. ^ "Royal Gorge". Railroad Emporium. Retrieved 7 March 2012. 
  9. ^ a b "Yampa Valley Mail". Retrieved 7 March 2012. 


  • Armitage, Merle. Operations Santa Fe 1948. 9-15.
  • Athearn, Robert G. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Rebel of the Rockies. Lincoln (Nebraska): Bison Books, 1977.
  • Athearn, Robert G. "Railroad Renaissance In The Rockies," Utah Historical Quarterly, 35: 1, (January, 1957): 1-26.
  • Colorado Rail Annual, No. 11 1981.
  • Griffin, James R. Rio Grande Railroad 2003. ISBN 0-7603-1442-X
  • Grenard, Ross B. Rio Grande In Color, Volume 1 1992. ISBN 1-878887-11-4
  • Henderson, Charles William (1926). Mining in Colorado. U.S. Geologic Survey Professional paper 138. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. p. 61. Retrieved May 16, 2012.  (Includes table of locations and dates of line extensions.)
  • Sandrin, James. Rio Grande In Color, Volume 2.\ 1998. ISBN 1-878887-94-7
  • Stewart, Paul Logan. The History Of The Denver And Rio Grande Railway, 1871-1881. Boulder (Colo.): Masters Thesis, University of Colorado, 1931.
  • Thode, Jackson C. A Century of Passenger Trains... And Then Some 1972.

Further reading

  • Brayer, Herbert Oliver. William Blackmore: Early Financing of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway 1871–1878. Volume two. Denver: 1949.
  • Farewell, R.C. "Rio Grande: Ruler of the Rockies." 1987, Trans-Anglo Books ISBN 0870460803.

External links

  • Rio Grande Info
  • Rio Grande Modeling & Historical Society
  • Abraham LincolnThe 1910 Heavyweight D&RG Business Car 101 now the
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