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Take the last train

Brief by Central Staff

Transportation – November 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Take the Last Train

Last trains come in many forms, so there are several answers to this question: When did the last train roll on the old D&RGW line through the Royal Gorge and Tennessee Pass?

The last passenger excursion, along with the last steam locomotive, was on June 22. The last regular passenger service was in 1966.

The last regular eastbound through freight was CWECS20 (freight trains have such charming, romantic names, don’t they?). It was a 104-car coal train which pulled into Minturn at 8 p.m. on Aug. 22. It picked up its helpers — the last helpers to serve on the line — in Minturn and pulled out at about 9 p.m. It cleared Tennessee Pass at 10:45 p.m., and rolled on down the Arkansas through the early hours of Aug. 23.

The last such westbound, and the last through train, was 96-car OMIGV19, a load of taconite — iron ore from the Great Lakes, bound for Geneva Steel in Utah.

It pulled out of Pueblo at 11:25 a.m. Aug. 23. That afternoon, the engineer called out station names on his radio as he passed, among them “clear approach, Salida — for the last time.”

It arrived at Minturn at 8:07 p.m. to change crews, and that was the last through freight over Tennessee Pass. After that, UP turned off the signals, and the helper locomotives based in Minturn were dispatched to Grand Junction for use elsewhere on the UP system.

However, a work train, picking up materials the UP might use elsewhere, was dispatched about a month later — we spotted it the afternoon of Sept. 29 in the Salida yards. Eastbound, it consisted of one Southern Pacific locomotive, a flat car with a crane, and two gondola cars. It could be the last train to run the entire route before the scrappers come, so this picture should make this edition of Colorado Central a valuable collector’s item.

At press time, local service continued on the west end, picking up loads of concentrates at Malta from the Asarco Black Cloud Mine east of Leadville, bound for a smelter in East Helena, Montana. Our spies tell us that one loaded car went down to Grand Junction, returned a few days later still full — and this happened several more times to the same car.

When the UP proposed to merge with the SP and take Tennessee Pass out of service, we heard that this sacrifice would improve rail service elsewhere.

The “improvements” to date include record gasoline prices in Grand Junction — instead of taking a couple days to get tank cars from the Conoco refinery in Denver to the tank farm in Grand Junction, it now takes nearly two weeks. The ensuing shortage means high prices.

A beer distributor there had to switch to trucks because rail service became so bad.

Nationally, the UP was so clogged at Los Angeles — as Christmas goods arrive from the Orient on ship to be transferred to trains for distribution in the U.S. — that the railroad proposed chartering ships and moving the freight through the Panama Canal.

The UP couldn’t move timber from Portland to Southern California, so the lumber industry hired barges. Chemical companies along the Gulf Coast are suing the UP for the $100 million they’ve lost in missed production on account of bad rail service since the merger. Farmers in the Midwest can’t get cars to ship their grain, and when they can, it gets lost in the yards.

So, maybe America needed Tennessee Pass, even if the UP persuaded the federal authorities that it was crooked, slow, expensive, and unnecessary.