Train time at the yellow brick Alamosa depot.
Colorado is very fortunate to have more historic, steam operated railways than most other states and more active locomotives too. We have the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, the Georgetown Loop as well as occasional operations at the Colorado Railroad Museum and a visit or two yearly from one of the two big Union Pacific engines based in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Add to all that a new steam passenger railroad: the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad based in Alamosa.
RGSR 18 making up the train at Alamosa.
Alamosa, Colorado is a railroad town; it always has been. Where the rapidly advancing tracks of the Denver & Rio Grande first encountered the company's namesake river, the town was built. Tracks were completed to Alamosa on June 22, 1878. Soon after, trains arrived with temporary buildings from Garland City, the end-of-track construction camp and the freight wagon and stage coach stop since the preceding summer. It has been reported, that workers had breakfast in Garland City in the morning and dinner in the same building that evening in Alamosa.
The first few miles east of Alamosa are flat and straight, but then begins the ascent toward La Veta Pass.
The burgeoning town soon became a hub of the narrow gauge empire. Yards, roundhouses and locomotive shops and were built. Within a few years, tracks fanned out in all four directions; it became a busy division point.
Soon. the train starts into the mountains that border the San Luis Valley to the east.
Getting to Alamosa hadn't been easy. For the first time, the railroad encountered the harsh realities of building a mountain railroad: overcoming 9,390 foot high Veta Pass - the highest pass on any US railroad at the time. This was what the narrow gauge concept was all about: building a railway more cheaply by following the landscape as much as possible - avoiding cuts, fills and tunnels, and doing everything in a more lightweight manner. But by 1899, the D&RG, having realized the limitations of the gauge, especially for heavy traffic, rebuilt the line to standard gauge. In doing so, it was necessary to realign the tracks and move the line a few miles to the south over slightly lower La Veta Pass (elevation 9242).
West of Fir, a balloon loop was provided for turning snow plow trains.
Over the years, the railway corporate structure evolved from the Denver & Rio Grande to the Denver & Rio Grande Western. Much later, merger into Southern Pacific and finally into the Union Pacific were completed. Finally the San Luis Valley lines were sold to a short line operator.
Since 2005, the railroad has been owned by the San Luis and Rio Grande which operates summer passenger service, under the name of Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, over each of its three lines centered in Alamosa. The most notable of these routes is the one from Alamosa over La Veta Pass to the little artist colony town of La Veta on the east side of the pass. This is a 61.4 mile run departing Alamosa at nine am, with a two hour layover in La Veta. The return to Alamosa is at 5:45 pm. It is not only the most scenic of the three routes operated by the RGSR, but many of the trains on the La Veta run are powered by steam.
Our train paused at Fir.
The RGSR owns three steam locomotives although only one, Number 18, is currently operational. Former Southern Pacific 1744, a 1901 Baldwin 2-6-0 has been used but is currently undergoing major work. The other two are former Lake Superior and Ishpeming, 1910 ALCO built 2-8-0s. Both 18 and 20 previously belonged to the Grand Canyon Railroad.
Naturally, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to check out one more steam train in Colorado. One fine fall day, my wife and I set off to Alamosa to sample the new Rio Grande Scenic Railway to La Veta and return.
Alamosa is the principal town in the San Luis Valley, the largest of Colorado's several large "Parks" - a flat spot in the mountains surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges. The valley covers approximately 8,000 square miles at an average elevation of 7,500 feet. One of the nation's newest National Parks (in the conventional sense) is the Great Sand Dunes National Park, located on the east side of the valley north-east of Alamosa. Potatoes are a major crop in the valley.
Filming for a Japanese documentary.
We arrived at the depot early with a little persuasion to my wife who thought it unnecessary. I was able to get a few shots of Number 18 making up the train for the day. I rode the cushions with my wife for awhile, but soon found it compelling to go to the vestibule where pictures could be taken. Carlos, our conductor, was an interesting character. He had been an engineer on both the C&TS and the D&S and had run about every engine on each of them, even the visiting Eureka & Palisades Number 4.
Scenery in the flatlands out of Alamosa was a bit uninteresting, but soon we started up into the Sangre de Cristo range towards La Veta Pass, or Fir as designated by the railroad. It was fall and the Aspens were just beginning to turn.
At Fir we stopped. I got off quickly to take a few pictures before the hoards arrived, then reboarded never hearing the notice that we had stopped so that a Japanese film crew, one that had also been there filming the previous day, could get a good photograph our train ascending the grade. With me, unfortunately, still aboard, we backed up completely out of sight while the film crew and many of the regular passengers photographed the attack on the pass. After reloading the train at Fir, we proceeded over what proved to be the most scenic part of the line down to La Veta.
As soon as the passengers were off the train, our engine was turned on the wye.
RGSR 18 at LaVeta.
La Veta is a quiet little town well off the main highway, but with several shops and restaurants. The Mexican restaurant we tried was a good one, and quite popular.
RGSR 18 at LaVeta.
Station at La Veta.
The best scenery, including a tunnel, is from La Veta to Fir.
As we left La Veta, for the second time we passed through the prettiest part of the line once again. It was all uphill toward Fir, then all downhill back to the yellow brick depot at Alamosa.
Looking out over the engineer's shoulder.
Thank you, people of the RGSR, for a very successful and enjoyable experience. I left feeling well treated and well pleased by my trip.
D&RGW's station and division headquarters in Alamosa's third depot. In narrow gauge days, the division superintendent and the dispatcher had offices in the second story.
More information:Rio Grande Scenic Railroad