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Remnants of the Narrow-Gauge Circle

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

C&TS RR – September 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

The C&TS locomotives are now confined to the tracks between Antonito, Colo., and Chama, N.M., but when they were put into service decades ago, they pulled freight and passengers across vast stretches of Colorado and northern New Mexico.

In the 1920s, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad promoted “Narrow-Gauge Circle Tours.” A tour typically began with a trip from Denver or Pueblo over the standard-gauge to Salida, where they shifted to narrow-gauge for a trip over Marshall Pass to Gunnison, and then a climb over Cerro Summit to Montrose.

Some tours proceeded south to Ouray, followed by a bus ride over Red Mountain Pass to Silverton, where they resumed rail travel to Durango. Others switched to the Rio Grande Southern Railroad at Ridgway to reach Durango via Lizard Head Pass and the Ophir Loop.

From Durango, the tours went east to Chama, then over Cumbres Pass to Alamosa, where some boarded the standard-gauge for a return to the Front Range over Veta Pass, and others returned to Salida via Poncha Pass.

Abandonments of the “narrow-gauge circle” began in 1947 between Gunnison and Montrose. The Poncha Pass line came out in 1951, followed by Marshall Pass in 1955. The Alamosa-Durango segment remained in service until 1967. All that remains of the narrow-gauge today is the Durango-Silverton line and the Cumbres & Toltec between Antonito and Chama.

However, the commercial geography defined by the “narrow-gauge circle” remains very much in effect. The circle had four interchange points where the standard-gauge met the narrow gauge: Salida, Montrose, Alamosa, and Durango (the line to Farmington, N.M., was originally built standard-gauge with an eye toward an eventual connection with the AT&SF RR at Gallup, N.M.). At those places, additional railroad facilities were required, which meant larger payrolls to support more retailers and service providers. More train traffic also meant better postal service.

Each of those cities remains a regional trade center (and a Postal Service sectional center), even though the railroad’s importance has faded (or pretty much vanished, in the case of Salida).

–Ed Quillen