Rabbitbrush Rambler: D&RGW

Ahead for the valiant “Baby Road,” as it was popularly called, lay receiverships and bankruptcies during the half century after its arrival at Alamosa in 1878. Reflecting its troubles as well as its opportunities to expand, the line’s name also changed from Denver & Rio Grande Railway to Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and to the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad a few years after acquiring other tracks.

Locomotives and rolling stock increased in size and weight on much of the line, but the equipment here was all narrow-gauged and steam-powered until the D&RG moved its line a few miles south across Veta Pass, and moved the name of the pass with it in the 1890s. Previously, also, the Valley’s narrow-gauge service had gone only to the resort at Wagon Wheel Gap, but, thanks to David Moffat’s injection of cash, standard gauge now ran all the way into the booming mines and melee at North Creede.

Narrow gauge was still running south and west from Alamosa, though. Meanwhile, in the 1890s new narrow-gauge trackage even appeared, this being what was called the “Valley Line,” running from Salida and Poncha Spings in the D&RG’s Division 3. The original purpose of this new track across Poncha Pass was to serve CF&I’s Orient Mine east of Villa Grove, but the tracks then continued south through Moffat, Hooper, and Mosca to Alamosa, and even had a branch to serve a mining mill at Crestone.

Being in Division 3 instead of Division 4, the operation of the Valley Line’s equipment and employees involved complications, but it chugged along until the 1960s. It came into East Alamosa where Division 4 had some railroad yards on that side of the Rio Grande.

In addition to mining, which waxed and waned, the D&RG was serving the ever-growing needs of agriculture in the area. Two standard-gauge short lines were incorporated and built in the Valley in the early 1900’s to provide a link for products across La Veta Pass with standard-gauge service. The first was the San Luis Valley Southern Railroad (aka the San Luis Southern Railway) between Blanca and Jaroso that operated for about 40 years. In the end, it ran only a few hundred yards to a scoria operation near Blanca.

The other short line was the San Luis Central Railroad, incorporated in 1913, to run between Center and Sugar Junction on Monte Vista’s east side. This important service in the central part of the Valley is still operating actively.

The narrow-gauge was simultaneously providing much-needed service and jobs for hundreds of people in the San Luis Valley. Eventually, abandoning narrow-gauge was deemed to be an economic necessity by the owners, whose program had shifted to through traffic with modern equipment on the main line. The old narrow-gauge extensions, branches, services, and even the workers had to be trimmed away, a traumatic event for local folks, but it now seems amazing to us that the old procedures of transferring products and passengers from narrow gauge to standard at Alamosa survived as long as they did.

By 1941 the Chili Line south from Antonito had been the first to go, an event that is easy to understand as this branch was only serving mainly a little local traffic. Harder to accept was the loss of passenger service in 1951 to and from Durango and its connecting service at Alamosa with standard-gauge trains to and from the Front Range.

The final blow, or almost the last, was abandonment of freight service on the San Juan Extension in 1968, but in the 1970s, with a joint purchase by the States of Colorado and New Mexico, part of the San Juan line got a new life as the tourism enterprise called the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

By the 1980s, even the standard-gauge link with Creede had to be abandoned, and in that decade a series of events witnessed the end of the D&RGW. After transitioning through various owners and mergers, Iowa Pacific Holdings purchased the railroad. With the name of the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad, the railroad provides vital freight service to and from Walsenburg, where a connection to the Union Pacific line exists, for which our region’s shippers and workers are sincerely grateful.

The San Luis Valley has seen more than one industry in its long life, and tourism now is an important one. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, a sister of the San Luis & Rio Grande, operates in summer between Alamosa and the town of at La Veta. Using comfortable, standard-gauge passenger equipment, it has daily trips and also offers a series of popular musicians on weekends at its venue at Fir, the site of an old depot atop the pass.

For memorable experiences and historic preservation, the two states, with the support of Friends of the C&TSRR, have been operating summer trips with narrow-gauge since the 1970s. This route between Antonito  and Chama, boasting scenery and old-time nostalgia, crosses the Continental Divide at Cumbres Pass.

The rail routes through the Valley have many tales to tell. Enjoy!