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Steam Over Tennessee Pass, video by Pentrex

Review by Ed Quillen

Transportation – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Steam Over Tennessee Pass
#SOTP 149871
90-minute video
produced in 1997
by Pentrex
P.O. Box 94911, Pasadena CA 91109-4911
and Steam Over Tennessee Pass: Train Ride Special
#SOTPTRS 149872
also 90 minutes from Pentrex

LAST SUMMER may have been the last time trains ran on the Royal Gorge Route, the old Denver & Rio Grande Western main line now absorbed into the Union Pacific, which wants to abandon it.

In the days of D&RGW passenger service, which ended in 1966, this was “the scenic line of the world,” and the route was still a considerable attraction in 1997.

With abandonment looming, the Sacramento, Calif., chapter of the National Railway Historical Society chartered a train from Denver to the society’s convention in Salt Lake City.

This train, with tickets starting at $400, was not a string of generic Amtrak equipment. It was a consist from the UP’s treasure vault: eighteen refurbished passenger cars, an A-B-A lashup of gleaming streamliner diesels, and, leading the way, steam locomotive No. 844.

It pulled out of Denver Union Station on June 21, spent the night in Cañon City, passed through Central Colorado on June 22 for a night in Grand Junction, and reached Salt Lake City the next day.

Think of this 90-minute video, Steam Over Tennessee Pass, as a documentary of that excursion, and you’ll have it about right.

A narrator explains the train’s progress, starting with a busy day at Denver Union Station — just before the steamer left, another special train departed for Winter Park, carrying the spouses of the national leaders gathered for the Denver Summit of the Eight.

Security relaxed after that, so that 844 could back its train out of the depot (as lower downtown Denver gentrifies, it loses rails, including those leading south from the station) and climb Palmer Divide. It got stuck behind a slow coal drag, so it didn’t have time to stop in Colorado Springs before reaching Pueblo and turning west.

The next day took it into the mountains — the Hanging Bridge and the Royal Gorge, Salida, Brown’s Canyon, Malta, the Tennessee Pass Tunnel, Glenwood Canyon — before it stopped in Grand Junction. Then came a day of desert, as well as some curves, climbs, and descents, to reach Salt Lake City.

In general, Steam Over Tennessee Pass seems to have captured this last-of-a-kind trip quite well. The vantage shifts often, from trackside to distance to aboard the train, and the narrator seldom gets in the way of the train sounds — clickety-clack, squealing flanges, and, of course, the whistle and the chugging — that come through quite well.

And when something seemed curious, like half of a bridge that crossed the tracks and just ended over the Arkansas, the narrator appeared with an answer. I particularly enjoyed the segment of the Tennessee Pass tunnel taken from the west end. The train is quite visible as it enters, headed straight toward the camera, then the smoke obscures the headlight and the entire train before it emerges in a big cloud.

I wished for more narration of local rail lore, and the pronunciation (“Brown Canyon”) sometimes made it evident that the narrator didn’t live around here. And I wanted a cab shot or two, along with an explanation of what those maintenance guys were doing with their grease guns and oil cans.

I was rather surprised by some good taste, either by Pentrex or our local river runners. It was duly noted that the first ladies’ special was mooned by river folks, and every time I’ve ridden the Zephyr during boat season, we passengers get mooned. But along the Arkansas, even though it teemed with rafts and kayaks that day, no moons. Did the photographers avoid them, the editors eschew them? Or are we just that polite around here?

This video is well crafted, with sufficient scenery, variety, and lore to interest even a non-railfan, and it should appeal to anyone who wants more than a photo or a few minutes of home video to remember the day that last excursion train came through — just two months later, there were no trains at all and the rails now sit rusting, awaiting final abandonment.

Pentrex had enough spare footage of the Tennessee Pass segment to produce a companion, the Steam Over Tennessee Pass: Train Ride Special. It has no narration, and it shows you pretty much what you’d have seen if you’d been aboard the train and looking out between Cañon City and Minturn — the big locomotive occasionally when a curve makes it visible, rafters on the river, Elbert and Massive as the train pounds along Hayden Flats. All the sounds are there, but no views of the train’s interior.

The Special struck me as more for the hard-core rail buff, whereas Steam Over Tennessee Pass should appeal to just about anybody with an interest in this area and its rich main-line rail heritage, now about to end.

— Ed Quillen