Michael Quin Heavener


The Narrow Gauge Circle


Yes, there really was a Narrow Gauge Circle. An advertising success for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway around the turn of the century, it could be toured entirely by diminutive trains on tracks three feet apart. Between 1891 and 1952, it did, indeed, connect into an oddly-shaped loop of approximately 650 miles circumference surrounding the most mineral rich, steepest parts of Colorado. While Rio Grande didn't actually own all the trackage of the Circle, the railroad company operated all of it.

The north-south tracks used by today's Silverton train are roughly parallel to the Narrow Gauge Circle's meandering westernmost edge, but never earned eligibility in the circle. Silverton was 497 miles from Denver's Union Depot, measured by rail. Laying a ruler on the map shows the air distance to be less than 200 miles across the most rugged mountains in America, a quadrant where almost 50 peaks surmount 14,000 feet.

There was an attempt to close the circle using the tracks of the Silverton Railroad (which connected to the D&RGW at Silverton) but the San Juan Mountains scored the defeat. A German immigrant named Otto Mears graded for a stagecoach road and envisioned converting it to a railroad, but could not raise capital necessary for the line's construction. In the late 1930s, the State of Colorado finally finished an expensive paved highway (U.S. 550) using Mears' exact route.

Miles from anywhere

Just six miles of an impassable box canyon between Ouray and the Silverton Railroad's terminus at tiny Albany squelched the narrow gauge circle—although the little railroad did successfully surmount Red Mountain Pass (11,100 feet) by way of a switchback with a covered turntable at its apex. Mears was the Silverton Railroad's largest stockholder, president, builder, and major consumer of its weekly cargo of champagne.

D&RGW's original target for tapping southwestern Colorado was the silver mines of Leadville. In fits and starts of narrow gauge track building, the town was finally tapped, to the great delight of the mine owners for whom mule wagons were an economically limiting mode of transportation. Not satisfied with this plum of wealth, the Rio Grande looked around for other glittering meccas to exploit—and found quite a few.

The Narrow Gauge Circle achieved considerable fame among railfans. Even cosmopolitan Life magazine sent photographers to record the trains and natural beauty of the country. Still, railroads in the sparsely populated region, especially after the silver panic of 1893, were never profitable enough to be highly maintained nor poor enough to be abandoned altogether. During the 20th Century, the biggest cargoes in the region were annual cattle and sheep trains every autumn.

Meandering and mean-spirited

Starting at Alamosa, Colo., the Narrow Gauge Circle's tracks pointed southwest to Antonito, Colo., and over Cumbres Pass (10,022 feet) to Chama, N. Mex., crossing the state line 11 times in 64 miles. Cumbres Pass held a wicked reputation as the snowiest place on the D&RGW, reaching drifts of 30 to 40 feet in a single snowstorm. Clearing track was a bitter, cold fight that took weeks and exhausted crews. The Slim Gauge topped the continental divide (7,695 feet elevation) 25 miles further, and construction pointed due west to Durango and north to Silverton.

The three-rail, dual-gauge line between Alamosa and Antonito was used by both narrow and standard gauge trains. It was routine to see narrow gauge locomotives pulling trains of standard gauge cars, using an "idler"—a flatcar with couplers for both kinds of equipment—or vice versa. Until 1951, when the narrow gauge service ended, passengers were never conveyed on standard-gauge trains.

The narrow gauge circle

From Alamosa, narrow gauge rails ran due north to within 10 miles of Salida, where they connected to the Rio Grande's standard gauge Royal Gorge-Tennessee Pass line. The Alamosa-Salida section boasted the longest[Ed.] Please note the map's inaccuracy in one small detail. Several correspondents have mentioned that the record-setting distinction for this line is being the longest straight stretch of—narrow gauge—railroad in the United States. The actual record for the longest straight track in America is held by a dormant 60-mile section of standard gauge between Valdosta and Waycross, Ga., on Henry B. Plant's Atlantic Coast Line, now part of CSX. That line was built to the then-normal five-foot gauge used throughout the South and, in 1887, was standard-gauged to 4 feet 8½ inches. stretch of tangent (straight) track on any narrow-gauge railroad in the United States—56 miles (or 53, depending on whose authority) without a single bend.

Heading west from the junction to Salida over the continental divide (again) at Marshall Pass (10,846 feet), the circle paused at Montrose, (touching another D&RGW standard gauge line). Between were mining profit centers at Monarch, Crested Butte, and Lake City, tapped by branch lines. From Montrose, a narrow gauge branch followed the Uncomphagre River south to Ouray.

Landmarks and lizard's heads

From Ridgeway, on the D&RGW's stub-ended Ouray branch, another slim gauge railroad, the Rio Grande Southern, headed southwest to Rico over Lizard Head Pass (10,222 feet), throwing out a branch to Telluride, before looping around 165 miles of nowhere to a connection with the D&RGW at Durango—closing the Narrow Gauge Circle. The Rio Grande Southern was also built by Silverton Railroad's Mears, who also built the tiny but rich Silverton Northern Railway and Silverton, Gladstone, and Northerly Railroad, both connected to the D&RGW at Silverton.

Across the Gunnison River from the narrow gauge tracks, hugging the confines of the river's canyon near Sapinero, towered the red Curicanti Needle rock formation, which found its way onto the railroad's emblem (left). Long a nationally recognized landmark halfway between Montrose and Gunnison—and though on a railroad attuned to heavily exploiting scenery through which it traveled—the odd rock formation was never actually scheduled as a stop for D&RGW trains. The entire valley is now flooded by a water-storage dam and only the Needle's upper third is visible

Otto Mears started his Colorado career constructing stagecoach roads before he discovered a penchant for organizing impossible-to-love narrow gauge railroads. The D&RGW's Marshall Pass line was largely constructed by laying rails on a well graded road purchased from Mears as right-of-way when the railroad needed rapid access to the carbonate mining regions of Leadville and Monarch. A junction where narrow gauge tracks split northeast to Salida, west to Montrose, and south to Alamosa was named after Mears.

The Colorado and Southern, a competing railroad at that time controlled by the Burlington, opted to bore its famous haunted Alpine tunnel toward Leadville and, in construction setback after setback, lost the mineral race. C&S eventually abandoned the impossible-to-ventilate tunnel, leased trackage rights over parts of the Narrow Gauge Circle, and finally quit—giving the rest of its better-built track to the D&RGW for free.

Bottomed out and still dropping

Mears' Rio Grande Southern stumbled along, begging for scraps of business after the Panic of 1893, until D&RGW assumed full control (but not ownership) in one of many bankruptcy reorganizations. The Denver road used it for hand-me-down equipment disposal, most still in D&RGW lettering, so RGS always operated with an eclectic mixture of ancient motive power and odd cars. Rio Grande forced RGS to use the Durango terminal but charged outrageously for facilities rental.

In the 1930s, RGS' resourceful but impoverished master mechanic welded the rear half of a boxcar to the front half of a Pierce-Arrow touring automobile mounted on flanged wheels— and called the monstrosity a Galloping Goose. It was eventually joined by four other Gooses (all different, except for the famous RGS logo at right), as traffic failed to warrant operating locomotives on the line. Several Gooses—they were never collectively called Geese—are on display at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, near Denver, and one has been restored for operation on C&TS.

When the Great Depression devastated the Southern Colorado economy, a steady stream of railroad bankruptcies ensued (including the D&RGW). Narrow gauge railroads across the United States became unwanted, undesired drains on the balance sheets of their various absentee (read: standard gauge) owners. A gallant Interstate Commerce Commission, holding devoutly to its national charter, fought back to keep the lines open by requiring that gallons of red ink be spilled before abandonment would be considered.

The three Mears Silverton lines were scrapped in 1949, followed by Rio Grande Southern in October, 1952. The rights-of-way, stripped of anything metal, reverted back to nature and are in many places impossible to follow today. The world-renowned double trestlesAs an intellectual exercise, the famous Ophir loop with its two spectacular approach trestles was resurveyed long after the true-grained Colorado pine of the bridges rotted into forest duff, using state-of-the-art laser-aimed technology. The surveyors concluded that RGS chief engineer C.W. Gibbs had been dead-on right all those years before; all other possible routes yielded more punishing grades than Gibbs effected. at Ophir collapsed, stations were demolished, and fences strung across and along the Slim Gauge's cinder trail.

Not much left

Locals in Telluride quickly linked the isolated town's name to the railroad's misfortunes—dubbing it "to-hell-you-ride"—and it was a legitimately listed, if lightly used, stop in the Official Guide. Legend has it that Butch Cassidy pulled his first bank heist there. Alternatively, he may have stolen only a horse there, troubled as he might have been over Rio Grande Southern's lifelong inability to adhere to its published arrival schedules. In any case, Telluride was not on the RGS main line, so Cassidy departed that fair land for the desolation of Wyoming. In his wake came mountain lovers, musicians (including C.W. McCall of Convey trucker fame), and a monied set of young urbane professionals the likes of which Butch must in his grave envy.

Narrow gauge traffic over Marshall Pass was ended in 1956 in favor of using the standard gauge Royal Gorge-Arkansas River-Tennessee Pass route and later the even shorter route through the publicly funded Moffat Tunnel. The three-foot rails were consigned for their scrap value. Life Magazine sent a photographer to cover the Marshall Pass line's demise with a black-and-white essay on the rail removal trains, forever offending a small dedicated fandom. Ironically, since Union Pacific bought controlling interest in D&RGW, the Tennessee Pass line itself has been embargoed and is now up for abandonment. Fortunately, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, a tourist short line, has now saved that famous section with its renowned "Hanging Bridge".

The late-1950s to mid-1960s saw a run on closing narrow gauge Rio Grande lines from Alamosa north, west and southwest. At about the time Rio Grande's "Speed Script" lettering began migrating from standard gauge to slim, three-foot equipment was constrained to the segment from Alamosa to Durango, even that destined later to be shorn of its eastern and middle sections—as Durango to Chama and the inner rail from Antonito to Alamosa vanished.

The Narrow Gauge Circle is now just a bright memory, represented only by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge and Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

But during a 20-year heyday before passage of the Sherman Silver Act of 1893, the mountains penetrated and surrounded by the Narrow Gauge Circle helped create more millionaires than any other area in U.S. history. One such magnate, Tom Walsh—proprietor and co-owner of the phenomenally high yielding Camp Bird mine at Ouray (jointly with King Leopold I of Belgium)—also owned a number of luxurious private railroad cars (of both narrow and standard gauge) and a fabulous collection of European jewelry. His daughter, Evelyn Walsh McLean, first owner of the Hope diamond, was married at the White House in a ceremony hosted by President Grover Cleveland.


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