The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, begun in 1870, once served most of Colorado, a good chunk of Utah, and a smidgen of northern New Mexico. The builders, looking at the amount of cutting, blasting and filling it would take to build tracks over, through, and around the Rocky Mountains, calculated that adopting a narrow 3-foot gauge instead of the 41/2-foot standard gauge would save them a bundle. This wasn’t a radical decision: America, like the rest of the world, had a rich variety of different track gauges in use at the time. The forests of Maine, for example, were full of little railroads running on 2-foot gauge track. But 3-foot seems to have been the most common nonstandard gauge
In Colorado, branches of the railroad extended to many high places in order to serve the needs of the thriving mining industry. One of these ran into the San Juan mountains in the southwestern part of the state. The D&RG, though it held out until 1970, is now history, but both the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (which we rode during our 2004 trip) and the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad were originally parts of that San Juan branch, which was built in the early 1880s. Their railroad cars and steam engines originally belonged to the D&RG.
The Cumbres and Toltec runs between the small towns of Chama, NM and Antonito, CO. In between, it climbs up to pass through the 10,000 foot high Cumbres Pass and later runs through a part of the Toltec Gorge—these features account for its name. Rte 17, which has the same number in both states, connects the same towns, but its route is much shorter because the railroad track has to follow so many switchbacks to get up and down. Steel wheels on steel tracks can’t handle grades as steep as rubber tires on asphalt can. Even with the switchbacks, it’s necessary in some places to put sand on the tracks to provide sufficient traction and keep the driver wheels from spinning. The locomotives have a mechanical system, controlled by the engineer, that squirts sand directly in front of those wheels when it’s needed. The system on our train failed at one point, and the train had to sit still until it was fixed. Except for the locomotive, that is: uncoupled from the cars, it was able to get moving and run ahead to a repair facility that happened not to be far away, and when the mechanical problem had been overcome, it backed down to where we were waiting and coupled to the cars again.
Photo #21 shows a monument to the memory of President James Garfield that stands beside the tracks just outside a tunnel above the Toltec Gorge. Garfield was assassinated in September, 1881, while the railroad was under construction, and workers held a memorial service for him at this location a week later, on the day of his funeral in Cleveland. The National Association of General Passenger and Ticket Agents (or, more likely, the members of that association who worked for the D&RG) collected money to build a monument, and later, when it was finished, decided that this was an appropriately consecrated place for it. I would be surprised to find that any ticket agents were involved in the construction work or present at the memorial service, but information on this point is hard to come by.
Not far beyond the Garfield memorial, we passed the rock formation shown in #23, which has been (appropriately enough, I think) given the name “Grandpa and Grandma.” Grandma, in her bonnet and Victorian skirts, looks like a very sweet lady (you may have to enlarge the picture to see her face)—but Grandpa is pot-bellied and has a nose so much like W. C. Fields’ that it’s hard to imagine Grandpa being any more abstemious than Fields was.
I think Grandma must have been a saint to put up with him.