Michael Quin Heavener

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Nowhere line to Farmington

Funny place to build a railroad

I received a short message that I felt compelled to answer the long way:

From: J.B. Reber
Subject: durango to farmington

So you are into narrow gauge??

Can you tell me or find out how the standard gauge got to Durango??

I was told that the line was standard gauge before it was changed to narrow.
Were all of the loco's and rolling stock brought in by trucks??


JB,

Thanks for writing. I noticed your ISP is based in Farmington. Does that mean you live in that area? (J.B. Reber's reply: Bloomfield) We used to live up on East 26th Street in Farmington but moved to Seattle when I was 11. Dad ran a concession stand and mom did art displays every year at the San Juan County fair. I spent that whole week each year hovering around the model railroads on display in the hobby hall.

Yes, I love narrow gauge, especially the old D&RGW's Durango to Silverton branch. I loved the sight of the narrow gauge, as it played peek-a-boo with me in Farmington. I lived for the moments of joy when my parents' errands took them off the hill into downtown. I love steam locomotives and grew up clinging to every whistle sounding and every sighting of those wonderful belching black K-28s, K-36s, and K-37s at crossings. Still love them, though I haven't been able to visit since 1973.

In David Myrick's New Mexico's Railroads, there is a section devoted to the line to Farmington as it was in the early 1900s. By turn of the century, the Rio Grande (D&RGW) had standard gauged all of its trackage that bridged the national railroad network. Branches south of the Tennessee Pass/Grand Junction main line—i.e. most of what we know as the narrow gauge—were effectively orphaned. There was talk of completing the changeover system-wide but the railroad's Denver-based management team never felt that Southern Colorado could generate revenues warranting the additional construction (more on why later).

At that time, Farmington was not impacted at all—it had no rail line. The nearest trains ran 56 miles to the north and more than 100 miles to the south.

But … the Southern Pacific Railroad, as a hedge against the future, in 1905 surveyed and registered a line from Deming, New Mex., to the Mancos, Colo., coal fields. The new line was arrowed straight through Farmington.

Mancos (once believed to be among the richest coal beds in the world) was already served by the Rio Grande-controlled narrow gauge Rio Grande Southern (RGS), providing coal for D&RGW's locomotives and the coking plants and steel mills at Colorado Springs, also owned by Rio Grande. It was a cherished asset and worth protecting.

Rio Grande's management must have felt as though SP (or Espee) had stabbed them in the heart. Denver certainly did not want Espee to have access to that coal. Any harmony between the Harriman-controlled Espee and Gould-controlled Rio Grande was tenuous at its very best—and this helped not at all. In reality, the Espee survey was a sly maneuver to keep the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad from gobbling up western New Mexico.

AT&SF, the Santa Fe, was using its New Mexico & Arizona and New Mexico & Southern subsidiaries to buy every existing railroad west of the Rio Grande River and north of an imaginary line between Fort Sumner and Clovis. Most were marginally usable logging lines, but having them in pocket tied up the real estate between so no one else could survey railroads—at least not under 19th/early 20th century regulations.

 

Dueling it out in the desert Southwest

D&RGW was no friend of Santa Fe either, having literally lost the entire railroad to AT&SF in a shootout (more than 100 shots were fired, one man was killed, and Bat Masterson was the Rio Grande's ringleader) over possession of the Royal Gorge, only winning it back in a heated courtroom battle. The priceless opportunity of the pass over Raton summit went to Santa Fe, ending Rio Grande's aspirations to build to Mexico City.

Rio Grande was hardly in a position to want Southern Pacific and Santa Fe starting a turf war in its backyard.

Had the Southern Pacific line been built, it would have originated on the Los Angeles/New Orleans mainline near the Mexican border and crossed AT&SF west of the continental divide near Grants, New Mex., between Albuquerque and Gallup. The two railroads already had a checkered history of battling each other, including a ludicrous scene in the Mojave Valley where an SP switch engine was stationed at the only place Santa Fe could build a crossing. It moved out of the way for Espee trains to pass, then back.

Rio Grande still had lingering hopes of completing its own transcontinental main line to the Pacific. A straight line between Alamosa and the Four Corners was drawn and surveyed as the best possible route, though it would require extensive rebuilding and considerable relocation of the existing narrow gauge to accommodate the volume of traffic envisioned. From the San Juan region (Durango, Silverton, Farmington, Mesa Verde, etc.), the line was projected north of the Grand Canyon across southern Utah and Nevada into California's Central Valley near Fresno.

To counteract the potential Espee threat at Mancos, the Denver road decided to build a standard gauge line from Carbon Jct. (near Durango) to Farmington, where no line had previously been, effectively bisecting the Espee survey. When it was constructed in 1906, it was 164 miles from the nearest standard gauge line that could possibly sustain it. Rio Grande might have envisioned it as breaking-of-ground for their transcontinental dream, but at the time little intrinsic economic worth justified the line.

Idealists around San Juan County, New. Mex., had their visions, though, of turning the area into the fruit capital of the United States … and any railroad connection between Farmington and the east coast was a dream-come-true. Maybe, they might have hoped, Southern Pacific and Rio Grande will make a deal and connect … or swap lines … or …

 

Plenty of talk but no action

The legendarily penurious Rio Grande had very little money to standard gauge the 164 miles of railroad from Alamosa through the most difficult mountainous terrain in the region, including the fuel-hungry four-percent eastbound Cumbres grade from Chama, New Mex.

A number of routes to Durango from Alamosa had been surveyed, all with better grades and weather, but when this line was built in the 1880s it offered the fastest construction to tap into what were then-flourishing mines. Speed was essential—the mines had a 25-year head start on the railroad and demanded immediate action. The primitive mule roads just didn't serve them well, they wanted action, and they were willing to invest their own money when necessary.

They knew swift shipment of their outpourings by the steam cars would … and did … bring unimaginable wealth that not only raised them above the hoi-polloi but clear their way to equality with European glitter and aristocracy. "The narrow gauge was king," said author Lucius Beebe; indeed, it seemed to run everywhere. One miner's daughter, Evelyn Walsh, was married in the Rose Garden at the U.S. White House, her hand given in matrimony by none other than President Grover Cleveland; her father, Tom, was an equal partner with the King of Belgium. She later owned the Hope Diamond.

The idea of all that free money laying around the Silver San Juans for want of assistance in the form of railroads, was enough to make every dimestore Jay Gould in the country drool. The number of hair brained, and in many cases, downright dangerous, rail-building schemes that actually floated construction was enormous. Most never made it to their projected destinations before running out of money, though some continued to pay phantom stock dividends years after their rails were ripped up.

Others, like the perennial also-ran Denver, South Park & Pacific, spent far too much on tunneling (Alpine Tunnel), or got there too late (Leadville), or ran into serious competition with other railroads, including Rio Grande and Harriman's UPRR-controlled Colorado and Southern.

Passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 ended once and for all the question about whether the United States would base its international financial dealings on gold or silver—gold won, as its advocates desired—and it blew the bottom out of the silver industry. It brought the narrow gauge's halcyon days to an abrupt halt. Overnight, mines lost millions in net worth, and mine owners went from being the toast of their self-financed auspiciously-appointed opera houses to pick-and-shovel scrabblers in a rocky, wasted land.

The resulting nationwide depression of the 1890s evaporated the largest source of Rio Grande's traffic from the San Juan region. The line was too poor to standard gauge, yet too necessary to abandon. That is why it clung by its fingertips until tourism rescued it in the late 1950s.

The railroad lived off a few cattle here and there (mostly in fall drives), a few sheep now and then (in spring drives), and a smattering of other cargo the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) refused to let D&RGW foresake: a few newspapers tossed to dirt farmers at Trimble or Tacoma, a few packages of linens for townholders in Rockwood or Animas City, a few crates of dynamite for miners in Silverton and Gladstone who stubbornly refused to give up.

The line had a renaissance of sorts in the early 1940s, when vanadium in the silver tailings proved to contain sufficiently high concentrations of uranium isotopes as to warrant airborne delivery to the doorstep of Japan. Once delivered, though, railroads nationwide felt the sting of recession. It wasn't until the Farmington natural gas boom of the mid-1950s that Rio Grande car loadings rose again to exceed operating expenses—sudden, dramatic, and short-lived.

As an aside, my father, a restaurant manager, brought his family to Farmington in 1955 when the boom was at its height, to manage the restaurant in the Farmington Hotel and later the country club. As drilling activity petered out in the early 1960s, both my father and Rio Grande felt pangs of hunger in the downturn.

Rio Grande began planning for abandonment of the entire narrow gauge line and/or a potential purchaser. Dad went back to the University of New Mexico, earned his education degree, and eventually became an elementary school principal. And that's what brought us to Seattle. My last ( and maybe best ever) birthday present was a day alone crawling the narrow gauge and riding the train one last time before saying goodbye.

By World War I, it has become apparent to D&RGW they had a white elephant appendixed on the end of an already dangling and greatly hemorrhaging drain on the balance sheet. The Farmington branch accounted for negligible return on its investment. It shipped some seasonal fruit from the orchards around Fruitland, a few carloads a year of bales of bottomland hay, two weeks in the fall and two weeks in the spring of cattle and sheep runs on the Navajo and Ute reservations, and an occasional item of machinery too large for the two-lane US 550.

The transcontinental aspirations were gone, too. The Gould financial empire had collapsed, bankrupting Western Pacific as well as Rio Grande, which had been bled dry to finance it; as well as the other Gould railroad properties: Erie, Missouri-Kansas-Texas, Texas & Pacific, and Denver Pacific; and even the Gould-owned Associated Press, Western Union, and New York World newspaper. The financial collapse took with it all hope of floating any transcontinental railroad construction bonds.

Most other transcontinentals originated revenue-generating cargoes within their own systems. The best Rio Grande could hope to break even was enough traffic from other railroads heading from the east end to the west end—shipments commonly known as "bridge traffic". And, frankly, that traffic was never going to move through the San Juans to the Pacific. It was already moving, and would stay moving, over D&RGW's Tennessee Pass enroute to Salt Lake City for handoff to Western Pacific.

 

From point A to point B on a knife edge

So, as the world passed the Rio Grande narrow gauge by, it continued its sleepy hand-to-mouth existence, miniature steam engines huffing from the Alamosa/San Luis Valley region to the sharp-peaked, colorful San Juans, skirting Toltec Gorge with its monument to assassinated President James Garfield, circling the little unnamed lake in the heart of Tanglefoot Curve (the narrow gauge equivalent of the horseshoe curve), pausing for water at Lava tank on their struggle up and over unprotected Cumbres—to say Cumbres Pass is redundant; Cumbres means high mountain. The railroad called it "summit" and kept a section crew there to shovel more than 200 inches of snow each winter from the frozen switch points.

Professor George Hilton, in his definitive work American Narrow Gauge Railroads, documented the worldwide movement that resulted in narrow gauge railroads, starting with Robert Fairlie's ideas in the early 1860s and culminating with Rio Grande founder William J. Palmer's grand scheme in the 1870s of linking the U.S. heartland and the Mexican capitol with tracks just 36 inches apart. Palmer, once aide-de-camp of Pennsylvania Railroad founder Edgar Thomson, got his railroading feet wet building the famous Horseshoe Curve and knew he could climb even higher mountains with tiny steel wheels on spindly steel rails. Colorado was a natural draw, with more than 50 peaks above 14,000 feet tall hiding an Inca king's ransom of precious metal.

But the world's economy eventually dictated the advantages of the 56-½ inch right-of-way. A long-projected and partially built transcontinental narrow gauge was abandoned in Ohio and Indiana. Palmer, ever so reluctantly, widened his track and made it sturdier. And his Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which smelted and rolled the heavier rails, made him so rich that when he was finished—when his Rio Grande Western to Salt Lake City was purchased by his Denver & Rio Grande to Grand Junction—he toured the line handing out $100 bonus to every employee … and then retired to Broadmore, his palatial home in Colorado Springs.

The resulting union, the Denver & Rio Grande Western, passed into the hands of Wall Street financial shark Jay Gould, and on his death into the hands of his even more avaricious son George. If it didn't drip money when they took over, they ignored it. If it did, they robbed it blind, metaphorically speaking. Both were experts at bleeding a railroad's stocks and bonds so dry it squeaked, without outright killing it.

And if they owned it and it wasn't profitable, they let it rot. The narrow gauge branch from Alamosa to Salida on the Tennessee Pass line, eventually vanished along with the Marshall Pass line—the Rio Grande's other, more colorful original route to Grand Junction. The line to Durango, and its branches to Silverton and Farmington, mouldered. Some locomotives worked so low to the soggy rotting ties they earned the nickname "mudhens" and others easing carefully along the weed-infested right-of-way were dubbed "grass cutters."

Freight goods were hand-shoveled or hand-carried from standard gauge cars to narrow gauge cars at Alamosa, a process widely known as "transloading." This ate half the total net revenue from a cargo shipment. And with addition of the second transloading at Carbon Jct./Durango for Farmington-bound cargo, all economic worth was wiped. All non-standard-gauge railroads suffered the financial depredation of transloading, whether Fairlie's little Festinog in Wales, the East Broad Top in Pennsylvania, or the Russian state railway at the Ukrainian border. And if cargo filled up one car and needed a second car, however minimal the excess might be, the transloading crew got paid for two complete cars.

Durango was attainable only via a third rail laid alongside the narrow gauge track (they shared the opposite rail) the 2-½ miles from Carbon Jct. Derailments were so common, employees were instructed to refer to them as incidents, not accidents, on penalty of termination. Narrow and standard gauge locomotives mingled, as did their train consists, with the mixed gauge cars spliced together with little non-revenue "idlers"—cars with couplers at both ends that could be hung quickly in any of the three necessary positions.

Making matters worse, the 40-year-old Durango shops were only built to do repairs to narrow gauge locomotives; there were no covered service facilities for the standard gauge locomotives.

D&RGW finally bit down hard on the bullet in 1923 and moved the rail on the Farmington branch's eastward side 20-½ inches closer to the westward rail, matching the rest of the system's 36-inch gauge. South of Bonito, it was the rail on the river side; north of the Animas crossing, it was the side away from the river. It took exactly one weekend to narrow gauge the entire 56 miles. It was only the second of two times this happened in the United States (New York's Erie Railroad, also a Gould property, was the other) and it happened only once in Europe with England's Great Western Railroad.

Standard gauge crossties lingered to the end of the branch's functional life and perhaps still exists in places where the rails rust in place—sticking out two feet farther on the east side than on the west.

Joseph P. Schwieterman's book When the Railroad Leaves Town, Western United States (Volume 2) discusses the effect of abandonment not only on Farmington but more than 300 other communities nationwide. I had an opportunity to proofread the chapter on Farmington before it was published. Professor Schwieterman did an excellent job of telling the economic story and describing the aftermath.

Farmington was one of the lucky ones.

 

So … just how did they do it?

To answer your question, I've never heard how standard gauge equipment was transported to Carbon Jct. for set up and operation—but I have my theory.

Given the pathetic state of improved highways in the early 20th Century, road transport was not a likely D&RGW option. The federal Interstate Highway Act of the 1950s that gave rise to our present nationwide system of freeways earned President Eisenhauer's signature because of his memory of the U.S. Army's nearly abortive month-long attempt to cross the country by automobile in the 1920s. And since Rio Grande was a railroad, and knew railroading best, I doubt its management would willingly have paid anyone else to move their own equipment for them.

However, they were accomplished masters at transloading—and one widely practiced form was to jack up a standard gauge car, roll the standard gauge trucks out from under, roll narrow gauge trucks back beneath, and lower the car. The yard at Alamosa had extensive transloading facilities. When East Broad Top did it, they didn't even bother with jacks; they had ramps built at just the right height to clear the trucks. It would have been easy to move standard gauge rolling stock to Farmington the same way.

The practice did come with its dangers. Balance was seriously deficient in the wide cars on the narrow trucks—the Interstate Commerce Commission finally banned the practice in the 1920s after investigating a record number of derailments with fatalities.

I suspect the motive power—the locomotives on the Farmington branch—was never very big or powerful, nor did it need to be. Narrow gauge trains were shorter; over Cumbres they rarely exceeded 40 or 50 cars and Farmington probably never had more than 10 or 15 in a single train. Even at the height of the 1950s gas boom, the privately-owned Gramps fleet of tank cars was under 70 total, and rarely did more than one-third travel in a single train; the rest were stayed in unloading at Alamosa or loading at Farmington.

Rio Grande might have strapped its littlest standard gauge locomotives securely onto narrow gauge flatcars. That was done in other places, too. However, neither of the two Toltec tunnels had enough vertical clearance for both flatcar and locomotive.

Still … there's another alternative:

It would have been very easy to jack up the Farmington-bound locomotives, pull off the standard gauge wheels and axles and ship them in gondolas, slide narrow gauge idler wheels into the empty axle journals, and couple the doctored (and much lowered) locomotives—now free-rolling without their side rods—into a train between empty narrow gauge flatcars (to protect overhanging equipment).

The practice paid off for D&RGW later. In 1923, Rio Grande backshopped ten standard gauge C-41 class locomotives built in 1893 to create the narrow gauge 490-series K-37s. Pulled off their wheels, rebuilt the frames, made a few other modifications, and lowered them onto narrow gauge axles. One of them (492) is still operating and seven others are stored as is … by that time the Farmington Branch's standard gauge locomotives were long gone.

Denver finally got ICC permission to abandon the rest of the narrow gauge, after the Durango-Silverton branch was sold to Charles Bradshaw in 1968. The Indian lawyers of the Mountain Ute tribe failed in their attempt to preserve the entire line as a necessary adjunct to their shepherding livelihoods. From Durango to Chama over Florida Hill, and up the lush green valley of the Pagosa through their reservation, the narrow gauge line is gone, obliterated, almost untraceable.

So, too, gone from Alamosa to Antonito, the other section of third rail operation, with just an idle standard gauge stub remaining. The states of New Mexico and Colorado pooled their resources to save the 64 miles through Toltec and over Cumbres, successfully retaining integrity of that historic route, which snakes across the state line 11 times between Antonito and Chama.

The Farmington branch never had a chance. It was formally abandoned in 1969—the year I graduated from high school in Seattle, earned my Eagle Scout award, and served alongside my dad on the National Jamboree staff at Farragut, Idaho. The rails were hastily ripped up and the right-of-way left to revert to desert. Justifiably demolished; not a wheel had turned on it in ten years.

In some places south of the state line, neighboring landowners converted the branch to their use, scratching away embankments and filling in cuts. In other places, it is still just as it was, a ribbon of scarred wooden crossties wandering across a summer sun-blasted and winter snow-crusted moonscape of nothing, going nowhere, with no one to care. From Carbon Jct. to Durango, Colorado re-routed U.S. 550 onto the narrow gauge roadbed, ending the highway's jagged turns through residential Durango, but ensuring no later-day tourist incarnation of the railroad would ever roll past the concrete footings of the long-gone Durango water tower.

The Farmington depot was destroyed in a natural gas explosion before the railroad had a chance to convey it to the city or demolish it. A lonely string of cattle and box cars, wheels removed and ends cut off, still huddle together as storage sheds where the tracks once ran. So, in the end, little remains of the 64-year Farmington railroad experiment, nor the eighty-plus years of slim gauge that begat it.

Narrow gauge or standard, time has moved along for the names on this page. No transcontinental railroad ever undulated aross southern Utah. Mancos coal never became a household item like that from Pennsylvania/West Virgina bores. Rio Grande bought Espee and both became Union Pacific; Santa Fe merged into Burlington Northern. Tennessee Pass is closed and its depots permanently shuttered. Their famous names live on only in the bibliography. My father hiked off to meet the Great Scoutmaster years ago. Even my hair is graying.

 

Beebe, Lucius, and Clegg, Charles; 1958. Narrow Gauge in the Rockies. Berkeley, California; Howell-North Books.

Hilton, George W.; 1990. American Narrow Gauge Railroads. Palo Alto, California; Stanford University Press.

Myrick, David F.; 1970. New Mexico's Railroads—An Historical Survey. Golden, Colorado; Colorado Railroad Museum (Colorado Railroad Historical Foundation, Inc.).

Schwieterman, Joseph P.; 2004. When the Railroad Leaves Town, Western United States (Volume 2). Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press.

 

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