Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad

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Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad
System map
1930 map of the D&RGW and Western Pacific Railroad
Reporting marks DRGW
Locale Western United States
Dates of operation 18701988
Track gauge ft 8½ in (1435 mm) (standard gauge), and 3 ft (914 mm)
Headquarters Denver, Colorado

The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (AAR reporting marks DRG and DRGW) generally referred to as the Rio Grande, became the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1920, and is today a fallen flag (a railroad that has been absorbed into a larger system -- Union Pacific -- as the result of a merger). The D&RGW served mainly as transcontinental bridge line between Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah, and a major origin of coal and mineral traffic with a motto of Through the Rockies, not around them. The Rio Grande was the epitome of mountain railroading, operating the highest mainline rail line in the United States over 10,240 ft (3121 m) Tennessee Pass in Colorado and the famed routes through the Moffat Tunnel and the Royal Gorge. At its height around 1890, the D&RG had the largest operating narrow gauge railroad network in North America. Known for its independence, the D&RGW operated the last private long haul passenger train in the United States, the Rio Grande Zephyr.


D&RGW logo used 1908-1921

The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) was founded in 1870 by General William Jackson Palmer as a narrow gauge railway system with the intention of connecting Denver with Mexico City. Narrow gauge was chosen because construction costs -- and equally important, construction time -- are lower than standard gauge. The route was to pass over Raton Pass in what is now northern New Mexico. Feverish, competitive construction provoked the 1877-1880 war over right of way with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Both rivals hired gunslingers and bought politicians. In June 1879, the Santa Fe defended its roundhouse in Pueblo with Dodge City toughs led by Bat Masterson; on that occasion, D&RG treasurer R. F. Weitbrec paid the defenders to leave. In the end, the Santa Fe won the right to Raton Pass, while the D&RG paid $1.4 million for tracks through Arkansas River's Royal Gorge to the mining district of Leadville, Colorado. Subsequently, the D&RG focused on exploiting the lucrative mining service opportunities to the west.

Royal Gorge Route

The D&RG built west from Pueblo reaching Cañon City in 1874. The line through the Royal Gorge reached Salida on 20 May 1880 and was pushed to Leadville later that same year. From Salida, the D&RG pushed west over the Continental Divide at 10,845 ft (3305m) Marshall Pass and reached Gunnison on 6 August 1881. From Gunnison the line entered the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River passing the famous Curecanti Needle seen in their famous Scenic Line of the World Herald. The tracks left the ever increasingly difficult canyon at Cimmaron and passed over Cerro Summit reaching Montrose on 8 September 1882. From Montrose a line was laid north through Delta reaching Grand Junction in March 1883 and a rail connection with the Rio Grande Western Railroad for a narrow gauge transcontinental link to Salt Lake City, Utah.

The line from Pueblo to Leadville was upgraded in 1887 to three rails to accommodate both narrow gauge and standard gauge operation.

Narrow Gauge branch lines were constructed to Crested Butte, Lake City, Ouray and Somerset.

San Luis Valley Route

The D&RG also pushed west from Walsenburg, Colorado over La Veta Pass reaching Alamosa in 1878. From Alamosa a line was pushed south through Antonito eventually reaching Santa Fe, New Mexico and west as far as Creede, Colorado. A line containing one of the longest tangent tracks in US railroading (52.82 miles)also linked Alamosa with Salida to the North. From Antonito a line was built over 10,015 ft (3052m) Cumbres Pass along the Colorado-New Mexico border reaching Durango, Colorado in August 1881 and continuing north to the rich mining areas around Silverton in July 1882. A line was also constructed south from Durango, Colorado to Farmington, New Mexico (See also Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad and Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad).

Tennessee Pass

The D&RG built west from Leadville over 10,240 ft (3121m) Tennessee Pass in attempt to reach the mining areas around Aspen, Colorado before its rival railroad in the area, the Colorado Midland, could build a line reaching there. The D&RG built a line through Glenwood Canyon to Glenwood Springs reaching Aspen in October of 1887. The D&RG then joined with the Colorado Midland to build a line from Glenwood Springs connecting with D&RG at Grand Junction. Originally considered a secondary branch route to Grand Junction, the entire route from Leadville to Grand Junction was upgraded to standard gauge in 1890, and the original narrow gauge route via Marshall Pass became a secondary route.

Denver and Rio Grande Western

The D&RGW Business Car 101, originally built as a passenger car was converted to a business car at the Burhnam shop in 1929 and is now restored as the Abraham Lincoln

The original Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway had built a narrow gauge line from Ogden, Utah via Soldier Summit, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado. The railroad became the Rio Grande Western Railway in 1889 as part of a finance plan to upgrade the line from narrow gauge to standard gauge, and built several branch lines in Utah to reach lucrative coal fields. In 1901 the Denver and Rio Grande merged with the Rio Grande Western consolidating in 1908. However, the railroad was weakened by speculators, who had used the Rio Grande's equity to finance Western Pacific Railroad construction. The United States Railway Administration (USRA) took over the D&RG during World War I. In 1918 the D&RG fell into receivership after the bankruptcy of the Western Pacific. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RGW or DRGW) emerged as a new company in 1920.

The Moffat Road

In 1931, the D&RGW acquired the Denver and Salt Lake Western Railroad (a company in name only), a subsidiary of the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad (D&SL) which had acquired the rights to build a 40 mile (64km) connection between the two railroads. After years of negotiation the D&RGW gained trackage rights on the D&SL from Denver to the new cutoff. In 1932, the D&RGW began construction of the Dotsero Cutoff west of Glenwood Springs to near Bond on the Colorado River, at a location called Orestod (Dotsero spelled backward). Despite the common misconception that Dotsero is a shortening of "Dot Zero," the station name exists from the construction of the Standard Gauge line to Glenwood Springs in the 1890s. Construction completed in 1934 giving Denver a direct transcontinental link to the west. The D&RGW though slipped again into bankruptcy in 1935. Emerging in 1947 it merged with the D&SL on 3 March 1947 gaining control of the "Moffat Road" through the Moffat Tunnel and a branch line from Bond to Craig, Colorado.

"Fast Freights" and the California Zephyr, 1950-1983

Rio Grande Industries logo used 1970-1997

Finally free from financial problems, the D&RGW now possessed a direct route from Denver to Salt Lake City (the detour south through Pueblo and Tennessee Pass was no longer required for direct service), but a problem still remained: for transcontinental service, the Union Pacific's more northerly line was far less mountainous (and, as a result, several hours faster). The D&RGW's solution was its "fast freight" philosophy, which employed multiple diesel locomotives pulling short, frequent trains. This philosophy helps to explain why the D&RGW, despite its proximity to one of the nation's most productive coal mining regions, retired coal-fueled steam locomotives as quickly as new, replacement diesels could be purchased. By 1956, the D&RGW's standard-gauge steam locomotives had been retired and scrapped. The reason: Unlike steam locomotives, diesel locomotives can be easily combined, using the diesels' multiple unit (MU) capabilities, to equip each train with the optimum horsepower needed to meet the D&RGW's aggressive schedule.

The D&RGW's sense of its unique geographical challenge found expression in what is arguably the world's most famous passenger train, the California Zephyr, which was jointly operated with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) from Chicago to Denver and the Western Pacific Railroad from Salt Lake City to Oakland, California (with ferry and bus connections to San Francisco). Unable to compete with the Union Pacific's faster, less mountainous route and 39-hour schedules, the California Zephyr offered a more leisurely journey – a "rail cruise" – with ample vistas of the Rockies. Although the California Zephyr ran at full capacity and turned a modest profit from its 1950 inception through the late 1950s, by the mid-1960s the train was profitable only during the late spring, summer, and fall. In 1970, Western Pacific, claiming multi-million dollar losses, dropped out. However, the D&RGW refused to join the national Amtrak system, and continued to operate its share of the Zephyr equipment as the Rio Grande Zephyr until 1983.

Even as the D&RGW exploited the best new standard-gauge technology to compete with other transcontinental carriers, the railroad continued to operate the surviving steam-powered narrow gauge lines, including the famed narrow gauge line between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. Although most of the remaining narrow-gauge trackage was abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s, two of the most scenic routes, including the Durango-Silverton route, were sold to tourist railroad operators, and remain in operation today.

Merger with Southern Pacific

In 1988, Rio Grande Industries, the company that controlled the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, under the direction of Philip Anschutz, purchased the Southern Pacific Railroad. The combined company took the Southern Pacific (SP) name due to its name recognition among shippers. In time, the D&RGW's "fast freight" philosophy gave way to SP's long-established practice of running long, slow trains. A contributing factor was the rising cost of diesel fuel, a trend that set in after the 1973 oil crisis, which gradually undermined the D&RGW's fuel-consuming "fast freight" philosophy. By the early 1990s, the D&RGW had lost much of the competitive advantage that made it attractive to transcontinental shippers, and became largely dependent on hauling the high quality coal produced in the mine fields of Utah.

Merger with the Union Pacific

On 11 September 1996 Anschutz sold the combined company to the Union Pacific Railroad, partly in a response to the earlier merger of the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe which formed the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. As the Union Pacific absorbed the D&RGW into its system, signs of the fabled mountain railroad's existence are slowly fading away. As of December 1, 2006 the DRGW 5371, the last operating original D&RGW locomotive on the Union Pacific, is still operating on local and helper service out of Helper, Utah. Union Pacific has decided that it will be kept in DRGW paint until it is retired, whereupon it will be donated to a museum.[citation needed]

Union Pacific recently unveiled UP 1989, an EMD SD70ACe painted in DRGW colors.

Passenger trains

This is a partial list of D&RGW passenger trains since 1947. Westbound trains had odd numbers, while eastbound trains had even numbers.

Train numbers Train name Endpoints Years of operation
1/2 Royal Gorge Denver-Grand Junction (via Royal Gorge)
5/6 The Exposition Flyer Chicago-Oakland 1939-1949
5/6 Amtrak's California Zephyr Chicago-Oakland 1983-
7/8 Prospector Denver-Salt Lake City/Ogden 1941-1942; 1945-1967
9/10 Yampa Valley Mail Denver-Craig
17/18 California Zephyr Chicago-Oakland 1949-1970
17/18 Rio Grande Zephyr Denver-Salt Lake City 1970-1983
19/20 Mountaineer Denver-Grand Junction-Montrose 1936-1959
115/116 San Juan Express Alamosa-Durango
461/462 Silverton Durango-Silverton
Ski Train Denver-Winter Park

Today, the D&RGW's Ski Train serves the city of Winter Park, Colorado, out of Union Station in Denver.

The Silverton, which has been operating since 1881, provides scenic day trips from Durango.


  • Athearn, Robert G. (1962). The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Rebel of the Rockies. Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, University of Nebraska, 1977. Reprint of Rebel of the Rockies: A History of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962. ISBN 0803258615
  • Athearn, Robert G. (1957). "Railroad Renaissance In The Rockies," Utah Historical Quarterly," 35: 1, (January, 1957): 1-26.
  • Merle Armitage, Operations Santa Fe (1948), pp. 9-15
  • James R. Griffin, Rio Grande Railroad (2003) ISBN 076031442X
  • Ross B. Grenard, Rio Grande In Color, Volume 1 (1992) ISBN 1878887114
  • James Sandrin, Rio Grande In Color, Volume 2 (1998) ISBN 1878887947
  • Jackson C. Thode, A Century of Passenger Trains...And Then Some... (1972)
  • Stewart, Paul Logan (1931). The History Of The Denver And Rio Grande Railway, 1871-1881. M. A. Thesis, University of Colorado, Boulder.
  • Colorado Rail Annual, No. 11 (1981)
  • C.W. McCall, The Silverton (song)

See also

External links

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