Spring break of 2012; I was a young adult ready to graduate high school when my dad and I set of for a journey down to the Four Corners area. I had a desire to go and see the famed Durango and Silverton railroad. I was a relatively new railfan, having been actively photographing trains for only a few years.
It was during this time I had a hankering to go and see some good steam engines at work. Other than my family trips to Disneyland every other year or so; I rarely got the opportunity to see steam engines. The clean, polished, and cooking grease fired steamers at Disney also made them seem less authentic than "the real deal" engines lurking at other railroads and museums. It had been years since I had visited the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit, and at that time the Heber Valley's steam had gone quiet. My only memories of steam that were fresh in my mind were a brief encounter with Virginia and Truckee #29 in Virginia City, Nevada; and a brief chase of UP 844 through my hometown in late 2011.
August 8, 2010; other than my encounters with the Disneyland steamers; I went years between my experiences as a small child seeing UP 618 and the Promontory engines in steam, to the point in 2010 when I got to see Virginia and Truckee #29 "Robert C. Gray" pulling a short car load of tourists into the station in Virginia City, Nevada. I didn't get to ride the engine that day; nor did I have more than ten minutes to admire it... But the oily smoke, the hissing machinery, and the beautiful appearance of this 2-8-0 reignited a passion for steam engines within me.
If the V&T 29 piqued my interest in steam engines, it was the UP 844 which set the hook! I was lucky enough to have the 844 pass through my hometown on the Lynndyl Subdivision during my senior year of high school. Compared to the hundreds of miles some railfans take to chase these steamers, my brief jaunt across the county from Stockton to Erda, Utah; was rather modest in comparison. Yet the image of a large steamer blasting through my hometown has stuck with me.
One amazing thing about steam engines is that you don't need to be a dedicated railfan or "foamer" to understand the appeal. A large crowd of locals gathered in Stockton, Utah; to see UP 844 when it stopped in town. This sight would be repeated nearly three years later in 2014 when Big Boy 4014 was towed through town dead in consist.
With my renewed interest in steam engines reaching fever interest; my dad and I planned our trip to see the Durango and Silverton. Along the way, we would stop at both Arches National Park, and Mesa Verde National Park. Our route would take us over old Denver and Rio Grande Western territory, including Soldier Summit and Spanish Fork Canyon (places I finally got to go and railfan up close just a few weeks ago as I wrote about in this blog post here). I was a new comer to Soldier Summit at the time, I had only passed through the route twice before; first time in 2006 with my family (back when SD40T-2 units such as DRGW 5371 still called Helper home), and a second time with my local Boy Scouts of America group to go to a camp in Moab. I wasn't stopping to admire the scenery in Spanish Fork Canyon with my dad, as my knowledge of the area was still growing and new. I had heard about the Thistle landslide, and I knew that Helper was named after helper locomotives; but that was about it!
On a bit of non-train related side note; my dad and I stopped in Moab to see Delicate Arch before setting off on the road again. Once we reached the vantage point of the arch, rain clouds formed and soon we were drenched in a quick desert rain. Fortunately, my camera stayed dry during the process; ready for the train pictures coming up the following day...
After a surprisingly wet stop in Arches National Park, my dad and I continued on our trip to Durango, Colorado. What followed was one of the most quirky road trips I had ever been on. My dad and I entered what was new territory for the both of us as we passed down into the Four Corner's region. My Grandfather Lyman insisted that we stopped in Dove Creek, Colorado; to buy him some Anasazi Beans. After searching the town high and low to buy some Anasazi Beans, we continued on our trip; beans in tow, only to shortly there after recognize the brakes on our old Dodge Caravan weren't doing so good... As we made the descent down Highway 160 in darkness, my dad was fighting the brakes in the car to keep us on the road. Our dramatic descent into Durango was without incident though, and we were fortunately able to come to a stop at the end of the road!
It was there at the intersection of Highway 160 and 550; that I got my first glimpse of the Durango and Silverton railroad. In the cold damp air, steam was rising above the roundhouse; suggesting the slumbering steam locomotives inside. Few moments in my time railfanning have made me feel like I was in another time; that I was witnessing something far more ancient than I was (walking around East Ely yard in the Nevada Northern, and watching a set of MK50-3 units being fired up in Martin, Utah; are the only comparable memories in my mind). I was ecstatic for our upcoming trip on the railroad, and could hardly wait for the next day!
Of course, we had to find our hotel building... After driving up and down the 550 a bit, we finally pulled our beaten Dodge Caravan into a parking lot and set off to sleep for the night. It had been a long trip getting there!
After my dad ensured that our Dodge Caravan was in a repair shop getting new brakes; we finally rushed off to the train station in Durango. Durango is a unique town; while the railroad gives it a certain historical appeal, tourism and the local university have kept the place modern. This is not the hard luck mining town that the Denver and Rio Grande Western served; but instead a modern small city. While the darkness of the night made the sight of the railroad more authentic feeling, in broad daylight it felt more anachronistic. The large McDonalds encroaching the railyard, only helped to further the feeling like the railroad was the prized antique in a very modern city. Any feelings of modern encroachment though were shunned when I finally got to get close to our train.
The classic narrow gauge rolling stock was being lead by D&S 478. An ALCO 2-8-2, the utilitarian look of this K-28 class engine was in stark contrast with the refined taste of the V&T 29, the race horse look of the 844, or the pristine colors of those Disneyland engines. 478, looked like a true working steamer, weathered; oily, and dirty. Appliances sat on the frame and smokebox of the engine, hissing and growling. The coal smoke it breathed was dirty and dense; not unlike the smelters and mines this engine was built to serve. The winter snowplow was still affixed on the pilot of the engine, and gave it a sort of mean, aggressive look. It was everything I was hoping for, and as we climbed aboard for our trip to the Cascade Wye, I was excited to see this machine in action.
After our train left Durango; we began to climb through the river valley and then slowly up through a small forest on approach to Rockwood. Even though our train was running in what is considered "the off-season" for the Durango and Silverton; we still had quite the crowd with us on the train. The first car was entirely full of school kids on a trip, with their teaches herding them and keeping them in line. There was a large amount of European tourists. One of them who I remembered, was a man from Britain who was taking a month long vacation to the United States. He was riding Amtrak across the country, getting out to see the tourists steam railroads along the way! Another group of European tourists smuggled what appeared to be a zip lock bag of Vodka onto the train, and were sharing it among themselves.
I was spending a large chunk of the trip from one of the open air cars, watching as our train entered Rockwood. The forest here made it hard to see the engine up front, but the distinct chuffing sound carried all the way back to us. After departing Rockwood, we began our trip along the highline route.
There is a very good reason that the highline on the Silverton Branch is world renowned. The Denver and Rio Grande Western and its predecessors, seemed to have an astounding habit of building railroads in the most extreme of mountain passes. Sharp curves and sudden drops can give riders a sense of vertigo, as the train slowly crawls through the terrain. It is absolutely a gorgeous area to, making it look less like a real railroad; and more like something out of the mind of some model railroader. 478 held up well making the trip, even as her stalk barked in loud chuffs signalling the effort the engine was putting into keeping our train climbing up hill.
After crossing the bridge over the Animas river, our train came closer to the waterside. This part of the trip is not to dissimilar to the experiences one may get on the Heber Valley Railroad in Utah or other tourist lines; as the train snakes alongside a river in a forested canyon. Of course, even in springtime this forest of the Durango and Silverton was chilly; a reminder of its high altitude. We were truly in the heart of the mountains, and 478 pulled us towards the Cascade Wye.
Now out in the woods, parked on the leg of the wye, and away from such modern structures such as Durango's McDonalds and coffee shops; #478 truly looked like it was back in its element. The forest was a great backdrop to view the engine, and crowds gathered around to closely inspect the stalwart machine which had brought us this far on our journey. Of course, even at rest on the wye; the crew was preparing our train for our departure back to Durango. The engine's two air compressors on its smokebox were firing constantly, probably filling up the air tanks to provide a steady air stream to power the brakes which would keep our train under control on the downhill trip. Every time the air compressors fired, the front of the engine would violently shudder; as if the machine was sneezing!
Our trip down hill had the benefit of being able to try and nag some photos and views of the train for a second time. We crawled along the highline again, admiring the scenery one last time before our train returned to Durango. Although the Cascade Wye "off-season" trip is shorter than the summer season trains to Silverton, it is still a lengthy journey which takes a round trip of three hours to complete. Compared to modern passenger trains, or highway speeds; the narrow gauge steamers of Durango are rather slow. Yet, the view is incredible; and watching a train being pulled by a steam train is always a ton of fun. I am pretty sure sometime during this leg of the trip, a piece of ash from the engine landed in my eye! Ouch! One of the few downsides to riding behind a coal burning steamer I guess!
On our return to Durango we toured the line's roundhouse. The roundhouse was built in the 1990's to replace the original, which had been destroyed in a fire. We toured the museum displays inside, then watched as diesel engine #11 began switching the yard. The Durango and Silverton's small fleet of diesels are used only for MOW trains, yard switching, and dry summers where using a steam engine runs the risk of starting a lineside fire.
Once our Dodge Caravan left the repair shop, my dad and I were off out of Durango on our way to see Mesa Verde National Park. Although we had left behind the famed railroad, the memories of riding behind a K-28 climbing up the Animas River valley is still fresh in my mind.