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Riding the narrow-gauge over Marshall Pass

Article by Jim Stitzel

Transportation – December 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

WORLD WAR II may seem an odd source of reminiscences about railroads in Central Colorado. Yet, my last-hurrah, pre-induction trip in 1942 included a spectacular “Grand Circle” tour of the state — a loop of rail travel that went from Denver to Grand Junction to Durango to Alamosa and back to Denver. It made me want to see more of Colorado’s

I spent most of the war training in and then guarding the Upper Mid-West. I was assigned to a military intelligence unit. The unit’s duties included (so they tell me) escorting submarines down the Illinois River. But being a soldier meant a discount on railroad tickets — it cost about a penny per mile.

So, in July 1945, I wangled a furlough and hit the rails — to the dismay of my mother, who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t spend my entire leave at home. The adventure began at the spectacular St. Louis Union Station, which could hold 32 passenger trains under one roof. Here, I caught the Missouri Pacific’s Colorado Eagle to Pueblo, and then rode into the mountains on the Denver & Rio Grande’s Royal Gorge Express. I marveled at the scenic trip through the Royal Gorge itself, then disembarked in Salida.

Salida in the 1940s was a busy railroad town with a shop, roundhouse, freight and passenger depots, and a narrow-gauge to standard-gauge transfer dock that picked up entire narrow-gauge coal cars and dumped them into larger standard-gauge hoppers. Steam engines of both gauges were de rigueur, and a big 2-8-0 steamer served as switcher for both the tie plant north of town and the three-rail dual-gauge tracks in the yards.

My goal was to see Marshall Pass from narrow-gauge rails. I had learned that on the following day the narrow-gauge line would be running a train of empty gondolas west to the coal mine at Crested Butte. I hoped to ride it, even though there was no more passenger service. As to how I would get an “official” ride on a freight train, I only recall that my plans were vague. They may have somehow involved using my uniform, some bluster, and perhaps an excuse involving my intelligence work.

I spent the night at a hotel not far from the Rio Grande depot. In the morning, I walked down to the depot and found two narrow-gauge Mikado locomotives under steam, making up the train of little wood-sided ore gondolas bound for Gunnison, then Crested Butte. I asked the ticket agent about getting a ride to Gunnison. He suggested I ask the train’s conductor.

THE CONDUCTOR stood by the caboose, awaiting the sorting of the gondolas. I explained that I wanted to ride to Gunnison. The grizzled old-timer eyed me up and down and opined that I could not ride with him. He was not in the least impressed by my uniform.

“It’s a freight train! We can’t let passengers ride on it! The only way you could ride this train was if you got a letter of permission from Denver.” He seemed satisfied that this ultimatum would stop me. This crusty fellow might as well have said, “Over my dead body!”

Still, having come this far, I was not about to give up. I quickly walked to the depot and explained to the agent what had happened. He rubbed his jaw. “He said that, did he?” The agent reached for his telegraph sender and mentioned to me, sympathetically, “Got a son in the service myself.” (I also got the impression that there was no love lost between the agent and the conductor.)

After a few minutes of telegraphic communication, he wrote the message on a form, handed it to me, and said: “Give this to the conductor. It’s your permit, and oh, you need to buy a ticket from me for your transportation.”

Rummaging in a drawer he came up with a ticket, noting, “Haven’t sold any since the last train went off.” He was referring to the little train from Salida west that had boasted a parlor car and coach along with the mail-baggage car, right up until the train’s discontinuance in 1940.

Grabbing my permit and ticket and extending thanks, I hurried back to the caboose just as a helper engine coupled ahead of it. Another engine backed a long string of empty gondolas slowly onto the same track. I handed my forms to the conductor. He glanced at them and scowled at me. A brakeman finished coupling the helper onto the caboose.

The fuming conductor told him, “This here soldier boy is gonna ride with us! Just keep him the hell outta my way!” The brakie grinned at me and told me to hop on. Mission accomplished: I had my ride over Marshall Pass.

WE ROLLED PAST PONCHA JUNCTION west of Salida and headed south on trackage following Poncha Creek. We stopped for water at a tank and, after slaking the thirst of the two locomotives, settled into the steady pull westward to the foot of the heavy grade over Marshall Pass.

The brakeman was nice enough. “You mind if I let this soldier ride up here in the cupola?”

The conductor, sitting at his desk going over his waybills, remained as grumpy as ever: “Hell, yes, I mind!”

At least I could see out the side windows and the open back door.

I had come prepared to take pictures with both a 35-mm still camera and an 8-mm movie camera. Unfortunately, I began having trouble with my movie camera — it plain refused to function. So now it was up to my cheap still camera for a blurry photographic record of my ride. We reached the big horseshoe curve above Shirley where the engine at the front of the train was almost directly opposite our caboose, going up the other side of the valley in the opposite direction. The engines labored up the grade, even with a train of empty cars. We made another water stop before arriving at the snowshed that covered the top of Marshall Pass.

There was a railroad oddity at the summit: a complete turntable inside the snow shed. Our surly conductor admonished me to stay on the caboose when I politely requested permission to step off and take a shot of the turntable and the process of uncoupling the helper engine.

With the helper gone, the crew set retainers valves under each car to assist in the braking, and we went slowly down the west side of the pass. The friendly brakeman warned me to brace myself for the times when the air brakes were applied. His warning came none too soon as a series of neck-snapping jolts occurred as the small bits of slack between the couplers bunched up with each application of the air brakes.

We made a service stop at Sargents. I remember the big coal dock: an enormous track-side coal loader that was itself loaded by a locomotive that pushed coal cars up a huge sloping trestle to dump into the top. Then we steamed into the beautiful Tomichi valley with arrival at Gunnison in the late afternoon.

THE BRAKEMAN advised me that with my permit, I could probably get a ride on a work train that would be going into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison the next day to clear a rock slide. The grouchy conductor wouldn’t be there, either. For some reason, I said, no, I had to return to Salida. To this day, I regret not trying for that ride, though for the life of me I still can’t recall why I didn’t. Lord knows, Illinois would have been safe from the remnants of the Axis powers for a few more days without me.

I did, however, accept an invitation to join the crew for beans at the little restaurant adjacent to the Gunnison station. (The building may even still be there.) The food was good, but it was dark when the meal was over. So I missed getting pictures at the coal dock and roundhouse. I returned to Salida that evening via a Rio Grande Motorway bus in a pouring rain. A ride on the D&RGW’s Scenic Limited returned me to Pueblo, then I rode back east on the Colorado Eagle.

I finally returned to ride through the Black Canyon in the 1950s — but it was with my wife in our own car after the line had been abandoned and made into a county road. We did photograph a stock train full of sheep that ran west from Gunnison to the end of track at Sapinero. By 1956, all the narrow-gauge rails were gone west of Salida.

The waters of Blue Mesa and Morrow Point reservoirs now cover all traces of rails in the Black Canyon — rails which were once part of the original and spectacular main line of the Denver & Rio Grande from Denver to Salt Lake City.

It saddens me now to see the empty spaces in Salida where the busy yards were once located. And in Gunnison there is little left to remind you that it was once a busy railroad town. I miss the old narrow-gauge truss bridge over the river and the curving north side of the Rio Grande’s passenger depot. And in the mountains to the west, few traces exist of what was once a busy narrow-gauge line — an anachronism even by the 1950s and now vanished. But us old-timers still have our memories.

Jim Stitzel is now retired and lives in Fort Collins.