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 Then came the Silver Panic of 1893 when Congress repealed the law.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
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
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.
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
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.