Volunteers Help to Preserve a Uniquely Colorado Slice of Railroad History

“We have to be very aware of traffic at highway grade crossings,” explains senior motorman Larry Spencer.  “We don’t look like a train.  We don’t sound like a train.  People see this coming, and they don’t recognize it as being something on rails.” 

Instead of a smoke-belching locomotive, Spencer and fellow volunteers are driving Galloping Goose #5 – a silvery, rail-running contraption with a vintage auto front-end and a passenger-toting boxcar behind.  It’s one of seven such creations cobbled together during the Great Depression to keep the Rio Grande Southern Railroad (RGS) in business.

In the late 1880s, silver gushed from the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, and miners needed an economical means to haul ore out and supplies in.  To that end, Otto Mears, the famed Pathfinder of the San Juans, founded the Rio Grande Southern. 

Snaking between Durango and Ridgway, it serviced the mining communities of Rico, Ophir and Telluride.  The line, which opened in 1891, immediately proved profitable.

The good times ended two years later with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.  Prices plummeted, mines closed, and towns emptied.  With little to carry but the mail, RGS precariously hung on.

Then came the stock market crash of 1929.  Requiring a minimum of three to four employees to operate, running coal-burning stream trains over the mountains had always been an expensive proposition.  With demand further diminishing, the cost of plying the RGS route often exceeded the revenue earned.  Needing a cheaper way to conduct business, the railroad hatched their first Galloping Goose.

RGS crews in Ridgway took a 1925 Buick, shortened its cab, extended its frame and bolted a stake-bed platform in back to carry cargo.  They installed a swiveling rail-wheel undercarriage in front and flanged drive wheels in back.  Goose #1 hit the tracks in June 1931.

Burning cheap gasoline and requiring only one employee to operate, it paid for itself in less than a month.  A second Buick-bodied Goose came two months later with five more goslings to follow, all of which employed cast-aluminum, Pierce-Arrow bodies.

To help keep motors cool, these piston-engined creations often ran with open hood panels, which flapped like wings at speed.  The vehicles appeared to waddle on the ill-maintained RGS tracks and to some listeners, the original horns sounded like a goose with gas.  The railroad originally referred to their creations as “motors,” but it didn’t take long for folks to bestow them with their fowl moniker.

The RGS made modifications to the Geese over their two-decade life.  They replaced engines, added air brakes and resprayed their creations with longer-lasting aluminum paint.  In the late ‘40s, Geese #3, #4 and #5 had their Pierce-Arrow cabs replaced with war surplus bus bodies. 

After the RGS lost its mail contract in 1950, they cut windows into the boxcars, installed seats salvaged from Denver streetcars and tried to operate as a tourist train.  Few folks came and the railroad folded in 1952.  The Geese became orphans.

A faithful reproduction of Galloping Goose #1, which had been scrapped for parts in the ‘30s, can be seen at the Ridgway Railroad Museum. 

Goose #2, which originally went to Alamosa, now nests at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.  Knott’s Berry Farm bought Goose #3 for their California amusement park. 

A restored Goose #4 sits in downtown Telluride, and Goose #5 fronts the Galloping Goose Museum in Dolores. 

Geese #6 and #7, which were originally used by scrappers to tear up the tracks, have also found a home at the Colorado Railroad Museum.

“Seven was in very sad condition when we got it and #6 was, too,” explains museum volunteer Al Blount.  “Both engines were completely shot.  We found three 1956 Chevy six-cylinder engines and got two of them to work.  One is in Goose #7 and the other in #6.”

A retired global nuclear service specialist, Blount saw his first Goose in the late ‘40s on a Dolores River fishing trip.  He didn’t get to ride in one back then, and when he started volunteering at the museum in 2002, none of their three Geese were operational.  Blount recruited volunteers and personally took on the Goose restoration project.  By 2008, they had all three running.

“Some parts we had to manufacture ourselves,” he recounts.  “You can’t go down to a Pierce-Arrow dealer and buy something.  You have to make quite a bit.”

The upholstery in Goose #7 was unrecognizably rotten, but Blount discovered a usable sample of the original hidden behind some wood.  He found a near match, and using 14½ yards of fabric, he personally sewed the replacement upholstery himself.

“It took a while to do it.  I would have to sew something at home, come down and see how it fit and then go back and make alterations.”

While the upholstery is close to the original, the volunteers had a little fun with other parts of their restoration efforts.  The dashboard of Goose #6, for example, appears to hold an aircraft air speed indicator and an altimeter.

“They’re nothing but pieces of paper glued on the dash,” laughs Blount.  “Our Geese don’t fly that high.”

For those who would like to take a jaunt in a Goose, the Colorado Rail Museum frequently offers three-lap rides in Goose #7 around their 1/3rd of a mile circuit.  For longer excursions, the Galloping Goose Historical Society in Dolores periodically runs Goose #5 down the scenic Durango & Silverton and Cumbres & Toltec tracks.

“Our Fall Color Special on the Cumbres & Toltec is pretty spectacular,” brags society president Lou Matis.

Like the driver of a bus, the motorman sits at the left front.  There’s a clutch pedal and accelerator on the floor, a gear shift lever to the right and a rear-view mirror overhead.  What’s missing is a steering wheel.  The Goose boasts a five-speed transmission and a 140-horsepower, GMC straight-six engine capable of pulling its eight tons up four-percent mountain grades.

“It’s geared in such a way that the top speed on this is about 45 mph, but we’re limited to 20,” explains senior motorman Larry Spencer.  “Above that we start to oscillate with the front section going one way and the back the other.”

Spencer, a retired Denver firefighter, developed a lifelong fascination of railroading, especially narrow gauge railroading.  On family vacations to Ouray, his father and brother often explored the Rio Grande Southern railroad grades, which had only been abandoned a few years.

“In 1999, a good friend of mine belonged to the Galloping Goose Historical Society and asked if I would like to come down for a ride.  I got hooked,” he recounts.  “Since then, I’ve done maintenance, learned to drive and been a motorman for about eight years now.  I’ve driven all of the existing Geese except Knott’s Berry Farm’s #3.  They wouldn’t let me because I wasn’t an employee.  I wanted them to put me on the payroll for ten minutes, but they had very strict rules.”

Running with doors open and no glass in back, passengers hear the pounding of the engine, the whine of the transmission and the clacking of wheels on rails.  Whistles blow and bells ring at every roadway crossing.  Cars stop and people stand beside the tracks, waving and taking photos.

It doesn’t look like a train.  It doesn’t sound like a train.  The surprised looks on faces suggest most probably have never seen a Goose galloping down the rails.

[Story originally appeared in the September-October 2016 issue
of Colorado Life magazine]

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Offers a
Colorful Autumn Excursion on Tracks Through the Past

In the movie “Back to the Future,” a plutonium-powered DeLorean sportscar catapulted Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, 30 years into the past.  Onboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a coal-fired locomotive does a similar thing, transporting me and my fellow passengers a century and more back in time.

The longest and loftiest narrow-gauge route remaining in the country, the Cumbres & Toltec snakes back and forth along the state line between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico.  Just as passengers have done since the train’s inception, we hear steam-driven pistons throb and wheels clack as cars sway down the tracks.  Billowing smoke from the boiler scents the air with the heady aroma of burning coal.  Over most of its 64-mile route, there are no paved roads, no powerlines and to the dismay of social-media addicted teens, no WiFi, internet or cell coverage.  A panorama of wilderness-worthy scenery passes by in blissfully slow motion.

 “It’s the past as far as the eye can see in any direction,” observes Cumbres & Toltec president John Bush.  “It’s this eddy in the current of time.”

The route dates back to the early 1880s when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad laid tracks linking Colorado’s capital with the mining mecca of Silverton.  Rather than using standard gauge with rails spread 56½ inches apart, the Denver & Rio Grande placed its rails 36 inches apart so their trains could make tighter turns through sinuous mountain terrain.  While many of the line’s narrow-gauge tracks were later converted to standard, the route between Antonito and Silverton remained unmodified.  Today, the preserved sections from Durango to Silverton and Antonito to Chama offer scenic escapes into a bygone time.

Unlike its more northerly sister, which follows the Animas River through a lush canyon, the Cumbres & Toltec climbs through the mountains with sweeping views of hills and valleys along the way.  Come fall, those slopes glisten with the Midas-touched leaves of autumn aspen.

“Riding this train is on my bucket list,” an excited passenger told me over breakfast at the vintage Steam Train Hotel in Antonito.

One-way Cumbres & Toltec journeys depart daily from either end.  On this journey, I chose to head westbound from Antonito, which allowed me to watch herds of pronghorn dart across the San Luis Valley in the crisp light of morning.  After the conductor punched my ticket, I left my reserved seat in a closed passenger car and headed for the open gondola where docents from Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec provide a commentary about what we’re seeing.  As we approached a wooden trestle five miles from town, docent Bob Ross related a tale of its multiple monikers.

“There are two stories, the first of which I don’t believe,” he admitted.  “Theoretically in 1880, they hung a guy named Ferguson off this trestle.  That’s why they called it Hangman’s or Ferguson’s Trestle.  The second story is definitely true.  Willy Nelson made a movie out here in 1988 called ‘Where the Hell is That Gold.’  During the filming, they accidently burned the trestle down.  So, they had to build us a new one.  We now call it the Willie Nelson Trestle.”

A trackside sign soon revealed that we’d passed into New Mexico, the first 11 border crossings.  We’d gained several hundred feet in altitude, and the sage and rabbitbrush of the San Luis Valley were giving way to piñon and juniper.  Crossing back into Colorado, we rounded Whiplash Curve, a series of horseshoe-shaped loops needed to maintain an ascent angle of less than 1½ percent or roughly 80 vertical feet per linear mile. 

As the piñon and juniper slowly surrendered territory to ponderosa pine, we were treated to sneak peeks of the autumn magnificence that lingered ahead.  Trackside willows shimmered with gilded leaves.  Nuggets of golden aspen began to salt slopes and line the tracks.  A motherlode of 24-karat color sluiced down hillsides beyond. 

The train stopped at the former railroad station of Sublette to take on water.  Here, in seemingly the middle of nowhere, stands the home where a section foreman and his family once lived year-round.  There were seven such section houses between Antonito and Chama, but only three remain.  They have all been restored by the Friends along with trackside signs, whistle boards and mileage markers along the route.

 “About 10 years ago we were out here painting the mileposts,” Ross told us.  “All of a sudden, we heard something and looked up the hill.  A mountain lion was staring down at us from maybe 50 feet away.  Fortunately, the lion was not hungry, and we were able to get out of there without any problems.”

One of the advantages of narrow-gauge trackage was that many obstacles could be rounded and tunnels avoided.  There are two exceptions on the Cumbres & Toltec.  The first is the 342-foot-long Mud Tunnel, so named because it was bored through soft, loose volcanic material.  It needed to be lined with heavy timbers to keep ceilings and walls from caving in.   It, too, was featured in Willie Nelson’s movie.  Fortunately, his pyro-crew avoided setting this one aflame.

We rounded a curve lined with freestanding rock pillars known as hoodoos.  These monoliths cast eerie shadows in locomotive headlights at night, causing crewmen to christen it “Phantom Curve.” 

Three miles later, we reached a bar hanging above the tracks with weighted ropes dangling down.  Called a telltale, its purpose was to bonk the heads of brakemen walking atop boxcar roofs, warning them to duck.  Rock Tunnel lay just ahead.

The 366-foot, curving shaft was blasted through solid igneous rock and needed no shoring.  Immediately beyond, we enjoyed a quick glimpse into Toltec Gorge where sheer cliffs plummet 600 feet to the canyon’s floor.  A sign asks passengers to not throw rocks as there may be fishermen below.  Beyond stands a monument to James A. Garfield, America’s second president to be assassinated in office.

A bit past high noon, both the westbound and eastbound trains converge at Osier Station where a hot lunch, included in the ticket price, is served.  Here, the railroad built a section house and depot, which the Friends have restored and opened to visitors. 

While we stuff stomachs, wrench-wielding crewmen oiled bearings, checked brakes and attended to other maintenance needs.  Unlike a living history museum where staff mimic tasks for show, crewmen on the Cumbres & Toltec perform the very same jobs their forebearers did to keep the trains running.  Not only are the tasks the same, but many of the employees come from families who have worked on the railroad for generations, including our conductor’s son who’s a fifth-generation railway worker.

Back onboard, we crossed the 13-story-high Cascade Trestle, looped a hill, circled a meadow and chugged past a few summer homes.  Here we got our first glimpse of Highway 17 connecting Antonito and Chama.  Topping Tanglefoot Curve, we crossed the highway and stopped for water atop 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass where a depot, section house and other historic buildings still stand.

Cumbres Pass was a busy place in the old days.  Because long, eastbound freight trains couldn’t ascend the four-percent grade from Chama, cars needed to be uncoupled in town and hauled up a dozen or so up at a time.  When all the cars were atop Cumbres, they would be reconnected to a single locomotive and hauled down to Antonito and beyond.  Even today, if more than eight cars are in the train, the railroad has to use a double-header arrangement up Cumbres with a pair of locomotives linked together to power the train to the top of the hill.

Departing Cumbres, we wound around Windy Point and began our steep descent toward Chama.  The open valley beyond looked like a giant fruit bowl bursting with shades of lime green, lemon yellow and tangerine orange.  The pavement winding below provided a silvery bow through this cornucopia of color.  Where tracks recrossed the highway at the bottom stood a gaggle of camera-toting railroad groupies.  Like paparazzi shadowing stars in a Technicolor blockbuster, they filled their memory cards with pictures of us as we chugged by.

Passing the Cresco Water Tank, we entered New Mexico for the final time.  The land flattened out.  I saw cattle grazing near the tracks, some of which looked as hairy as a Summer of Love hippie.  They’re Asian yaks being bred for meat. 

We passed the fake, movie-set water-tower pipe that the young Indy swung from in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”  No fewer than 15 movies have been filmed on the Cumbres & Toltec line. 

After traversing a narrow section of the route, appropriately named the Narrows, we cross the Chama River on a steel-truss bridge, waved to campers at the Rio Chama RV Park and entered the rail yard where locomotives and scores of bygone freight cars line the sidings. 

The present-day world awaited, but unlike Marty McFly, I didn’t need a silvery DeLorean to power me there.  A thoroughly modern bus idled beside the depot, ready to whisk me and my fellow passengers back to the 21st century.