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Uncle Amos's Knapsack Guide to the Purgatory & Devil River Railroad
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   If you have studied the railroads that ran in the southwest corner of Colorado then you are familiar with Otto Mears and his Rio Grande Southern and the various Silverton railroads and Gen. William Jackson Palmer and his Denver & Rio Grande Western.

     In 1890 the Federal Government passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The basis of the act was to mint 15 silver coins for each gold coin. The Act provisioned that a large portion of the silver was to be purchased from North American mines. Mining increased in southwest Colorado and the railroads prospered greatly from the shipping of ore. Then came the Silver Panic of 1893 when Congress repealed the law. This caused financial problems that would eventually bring about the end of many of the railroads.

    Several small railroads grew up and disappeared over the next 60 to 70 years. To get the supplies into the mining camps and get the ore back out required rails to be laid over some of the most rugged terrain in America. Many grades were 4 percent and some greater. The trains were small and ran on rails only 3 feet apart.

    Otto Mears was trying to extend the Silverton Railroad to the mining town of Ouray. He was stopped 12 miles short by the Uncompahgre River Gorge. This little 8 mile long gorge would either have to be filled or bridged. Even with that accomplished the grade would be close to 7 percent which was too steep for any engine of the day. Since all routes into Ouray were unfeasible he decided to build the Rio Grande Southern to run from Ouray up to Ridgway and down to Durango.

    What follows is what I would like to call "Historical License". It is a concocted history of Colorado and her narrow gauge railroads. With that in mind... 

Uncle Amos's Knapsack Guide to the Purgatory and Devil River Railroad.

    In 1890 Otto Mears sold stock in two roads and began construction that spring. The Rio Grande Southern would begin in the new town of Ridgway with a line that would extend down into Ouray and another going around the West Side of the San Juan Mountains to Durango.  Otto also began construction in the little town of Purgatory, Colorado and began working his way south along the Rio Diablo on the East Side of the San Juan Mountains. When all of the land grants were received and the right of way purchased they began construction on the 9th of July in Purgatory. With extra effort they were able to reach the town of Orson Wells before the first heavy snow of winter. Since the P&DR was the only way that the ore could be transferred to the smelting plants the railroad was able to keep the mines open during the long winter months.

    As soon as spring cleared the snow, work continued through the summer. On July 2nd the rails arrived at Aspen Flats. The railroad had a steady supply of coal from area mines, water from the Rio Diablo and operations were extremely busy. All of this got the P&DR into the black very quickly.  Otto was not to be satisfied until the rails reached into New Mexico. He met with several local businessmen and it was decided that the P&DR would begin pushing rail southward. To begin the El Lobo division he went south into Richardson County and established the town of Blanchard Springs and began working north while the rails came south from the other end. There were, however two large obstacles in the way. First was the Diablo Canyon where the line would have to  follow the river on the canyon floor only to climb its way up and across Lobato Gorge.  The mines at Black Rock and Cold Springs plus the lumber possibilities at Bitter Creek out weighed the cost of construction through what many believed to be impossible terrain. Several bridges would have to be constructed to allow the rails to twist and turn on it's way up the grade to El Lobo and continue climbing to Blanchard Springs.  From there the rails extend up to Timberline where the Bitter Creek Lumber Company operates it's branch line.  

The Bitter Creek Lumber Company, with backing from the Harlen Coal & Coke company, purchased an engine from the Colorado & Southern and built a small railroad to connect Bitter Creek to Timberline.  The line mostly hauls supplies and material, as well as the daily passenger train, in and out of the mine and the small town of Bitter Creek.  This is one of the most scenic parts of the line as the train twists and turns it's way towards Bitter Creek.  There are several places along this branch where the rails cling to small ledge that was blasted into the mountain.

    On July 23rd 1892 the first train pulled into Blanchard Springs completing the El Lobo Division. Shortly there after a new line was under construction to Sand City, New Mexico. Not only would Sand City provide the link with the Texas Western and Tucson it would also provide a great source of sand for the railroad. The connection with the TW&T would provide service to the Gulf of Mexico as well as an interchange with the Frisco.  Then came the Silver Panic of 1893 and the line was hit hard. With most of his capital tied up in the El Lobo Division and the Sand City Extension the P&DR, along with the RGS, went into receivership almost immediately. The D&RGW became the receiver for both of the railroads and a link between them was created.

    In 1897 the mining and railroad interests sent representatives to Washington to plead their case before Congress to reinstate the Silver Purchase Act (or some version of it). After months of lobbying Congress passed the Silver Protection Act of 1897. This new law tasked the mint with a 70/30 ratio of Silver to Gold coins. It also contained an agreement that the mines and government would set standards to keep the prices from getting out of control.  This reopened many of the mines in the area and brought some stability to the railroads that served them. With profits from the Silverton Railroads Otto was able to reacquire the RGS and P&DR from the receiver. With both ends of the railroad connected he was hoping to make a fortune. Unfortunately, neither line would ever bringing in the large amounts of money that Otto was hoping for but it was able to make a small profit.

     All along the line mines opened and towns grew up. Passenger service was also a profitable venture for the fledgling railroad. Service was steady through the First World War and continued through the 1920's. Like most of the country the stock market crash in 1929 hurt the railroad tremendously. On the Rio Grande Southern they created several motor coaches to replace small passenger runs as well as LCL (Less the Car Load) freight. It was remarked that it appeared to "Waddle down the rail like a Galloping Goose."  With the success of the Goose on the RGS the P&DR soon had a small fleet of motor coaches running the rails between Purgatory and Blanchard Springs.  The motor coaches were named after a lizard who had taken up residence in the box car used in the building of the first of the P&DR's coaches.  Every time they chased the lizard out he would come back later that night.  Shop foreman Willy Fisk decided that he was going to evict the lizard once and for all.  During the "eviction" Willy managed to step on the lizard which gave it a peculiar limp.  It soon became the shop pet and the coaches were dubbed the Limping Lizard.

    During WWII service again picked up and the RGS would send ore to the army that would eventually bring about the atomic bomb. Regular passenger service was again established to both haul men off to war and for a growing trend…. Railfaning. The Rocky Mountain Railroad Club had been chartering special trains for years and the Galloping Goose and the Limping Lizard were so popular with the railfans that they were kept in service. Occasionally they are used for LCL work, however they were generally used for postal service and light passenger traffic.

    Over the years freight has varied from ore and lumber to pipe and consumables. The Dolores areas abundant farm and pasture land requires frequent trains hauling live stock and other crops to market. In 1941 oil and natural gas were discovered in Freeman's Gap. Tracks were laid from Bitter Creek into Freeman's Gap to help ship it to processing plants.

    On any given day you can see several different types of engines in operation from the P&DR's rather eclectic roster. As some of the narrow gauge railroads closed, standardized, or converted to diesel power the P&DR purchased some of their engines. Many of the older engines were purchased from the D&RGW as they were being phased out. There are several new engines as well.  Some were produced locally at McNeely Boiler and Locomotive as well as others built by Baldwin and Alco from the K-27 & 28 classes. Due to weight restrictions neither the P&DR nor the RGS purchased anything larger than a K-28 class engine. There are also engines ranging from 70 year old C-16's to oil burning engines purchased from the Colorado & Southern and the Southern Pacific. All of these engines were refurbished and hurriedly put into service…some before they were even repainted or renumbered.  This didn't stop with just locomotive power. Some of the rolling stock came from the D&RGW, among others. Any new rolling stock on the P&DR came from the Richardson Coach Works of Blanchard Springs. While some of the used cars still carry the numbering and herald of their previous line there is an extensive program underway to repaint and reletter the entire roster.

    Where the engines and rolling stock may appear to be a little run down the other facilities are quite the opposite.  The depots along the P&DR are always kept as clean as possible and staffed with friendly, courteous people. When riding a passenger train on the P&DR you will experience top of line customer service. Many of the coaches were built in the 1890's (it was the only new equipment that Otto purchased when the line was opened). A few new coaches have been added over the years and all are kept so you will have the most comfortable ride possible.

    A trip around the Narrow Gauge Loop would not be complete without a trip over the rails of the Purgatory and Devil River Railroad. It is truly amazing to see trains running through this kind of country. It is a railroad that only Otto Mears could envision.


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