Railroad Glory Days Social Media

Quick Table of Contents

The formative years

Villa Park, my home town

Doctor Geno E. Beery,Villa Park's pioneering woman physician

How I became a lifelong railfan

Father was a man of the automobile age

Grandfather's Watch

Railroad Time

Remembering the Chicago Great Western

Remembering the 'Ror'n' Elgin

Wabash Philo Station Destroyed

Pursuing Remains of the Glory Days

Riding the Electroliner

My first fan-trip

To a locomotive in winter

The boy who would buy a steam locomotive

In search of the eponymous Brewer, Illinois

The last all steam powered mixed train in America

Iron horses put out to pasture

Some thoughts on public travel then and now

Narrow Gauge Mania

D&RGW narrow gauge in the twilight years -- Part I

D&RGW narrow gauge in the twilight years -- Part II

Steam up the Rotary!

A rotary under the sun

Bob Richardson and the founding of the Colorado Railroad Museum

Is this any way to run a railroad museum? Part 1
Colorado Railroad Museum

Is this any way to run a railroad museum? Part 2
Colorado Railroad Museum

The Return of Colorado & Southern Number 9

Was the Georgetown Loop a poor design?

Riding the Sumpter Valley
Three-foot gauge steam in Eastern Oregon

Gold Rush Narrow Gauge
White Pass & Yukon Route

Rio Grande Southern narrow gauge
The spirit of this much loved, southwestern Colorado railway isn't dead, it just retired and moved to Southern California

Steaming Up
Looking on as Denver & Rio Grande Western Number 491 is readied for an evening on the Polar Express.

Narrow Gauge Steam Railways in the Land of their Origin

The Welsh Connection
The Ffestiniog Railway, Robert Fairlie and the origins of narrow gauge railroading in America

The Welsh Highland Railway
The newest and longest narrow gauge in Wales

The Talyllyn Railway
The world's first "preserved railway"

Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway

Standard Gauge Diversions

Royal Gorge Route

Steam Conquers La Veta Pass

Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

Fun while they lasted

Boxcar Camping -- Wilderness Stay by Steam Train

End of an Eastside tradition
Spirit of Washington dinner train

The Engine is Royal; the Scenery is Magnificent
The Royal Hudson and the Caraboo Prospector


Corkscrew Gulch Turntable

The curse of Alpine

Thoughts on the Glory Days of architecture and interior design

Denver's Ghost Buildings

Denver Union Station Renewal

Who were those nabobs, the ones San Francisco's Nob Hill was named for?

Is there grammar to interior design?

Steam up the rotary!

Once common snow fighting machines were seldom seen operating

Story and photos © Glen Brewer

What sight in railroading could be more exciting than a rotary special? One or more steam locomotives heading out with a rotary plow, all under steam, to defend against Mother Nature's latest work to thwart the ongoing struggle in maintaining the flow of interstate commerce? Cold damp air always emphasizes the drama of steam in action. Clouds of steam and coal smoke, the arch of the snow discharge and frequent whistle blasts echoing in mountain canyons add to this effect. Exciting, to be sure, but frequently seen, no. Even photographs of such occasions are rare, because those who don’t have to brave a major blizzard or its after effects were usually still snug in their beds.

But what if a railroad advertised such an event in advance and sold tickets? That is exactly what the relatively new Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad did for a February 1976 occasion. Of course, Chama and Cumbres Pass winters are well known to be unpredictable. The Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow gauge railroaders knew this well. For many years, ever since the railroad was built over 10,015 foot Cumbres Pass, there was relatively little snow, but some years the blizzards were unrelenting. Scheduling the trip in advance was a risk -- a risk not only for actually having snow to plow, but also a risk for travelers trying to reach the remote area in northern New Mexico under possibly extreme conditions.

Still, it was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. At the time, I was living and working in Dallas where snows seldom blow, but I longed for the excitement of a real, steamy, winter experience. It was destined to be a rare treat.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, the rotary snow-plow was invented by Canadians. Dr. J. W. Elliott, a dentist, patented the first rotary snow plow in 1869, but little came of this design. Orange Jull patented an improvement on the original in 1884. The Leslie Brothers, Edward and Sam, bought the rights, further developed the design and tested the first operational plow in the winter of 1883-84. Soon after, rotaries went into production.

The C&TS is fortunate to have two of the D&RGW’s four narrow gauge rotaries. OM is the older; it was built in 1889 by the Cooke Locomotive and Machine Works of Paterson, New Jersey (licensee to the Leslie's), and still has its original saturated steam boiler. In later years, the Rio Grande kept OM in Chama, New Mexico and OY in Alamosa, Colorado. Since the OY was newer, built by Alco (Cooke was one of several companies merged into Alco) in 1923, and superheated, it was the first choice when winters got rough over Cumbres Pass. Some years, both plows were needed, however. Still, despite its age, OM has logged relatively few service hours.

Saturday, February 14, 1976 was a day for steaming up, getting ready for the next day’s trip, and, of course, photography. When I arrived in the yard, cameras in tow, Engine 483 and Rotary OM were side-by-side in front of the roundhouse raising steam with the assistance of stack blowers.

Dawn broke on Sunday, February 15, 1976 with thoroughly appropriate weather: it was cold and snowing. Our train was made up consisting of OM, Engine 487, Engine 483, a gondola, two outfit cars and a caboose. I rode in the gondola, and was soon thoroughly convinced that I would end up with severe frostbite of the feet despite the new boots I bought especially for this trip. Actually though, most of the time I was on the ground, traipsing through the snow. Our train only went as far as the Rio Chama Bridge before we climbed down to forge ahead for our first photo opportunity.

Afterward, we climbed back aboard for a short journey to “The Narrows”. Here we unloaded again, and beat a fresh path through the deepening snow. By this point the snow was knee deep, sometimes deeper, and with a delicate crust that usually, but not always, gave way under foot. In one place the snow completely hid a barbed wire fence.

I found my fellow passengers to be a remarkably polite group. Everywhere I went, I always seemed to hear the always gracious words, “after you.” A few people had wisely brought along snowshoes or cross country skis. We took some pictures as the train plowed ahead, and then it stopped while we huffed and puffed up the line to set up again.

Above The Narrows we could see chasers and their parked vehicles on the road to Cumbres Pass. These people had, for the most part, paid for a pass, and may have had some good photographic opportunities at this location, but not on ahead where the railroad diverged toward Lobato Trestle.

Several of us had set up well away from the track which was on our right. A man to my left had a big camera bag full of equipment open at his feet and had his camera mounted on a tripod. Another fellow had climbed up a telegraph or utility pole for a unique vantage. All was going well as the plow train advanced until the rotary engineer unexpectedly widened on his throttle. Snow in both small and sometimes quite large chunks bombarded us and in fact knocked several of us over. The man on the pole was no longer up there and the man with the camera bag had to dig for it and then try to empty it of snow.

We advanced to the Lobato Trestle where we crossed and waited. Engine 487 and OM detached from the train and crossed, but that was as far as our train went. We backed slowly to Chama. By the time we reached town, the sun broke through the clouds making for some startlingly different pictures.

Words and pictures simply can’t describe the actual experience. The cold chill air, the gloom of the storm and the snow in the face were all important contributions. The sounds of three hard working engines with the associated eruptions of steam and smoke, the smell of coal smoke and valve oil, and the constant whistle communication by three distinctly different whistles, the high arch of the rotary’s snow discharge, and the sight of OM shaking and rattling its wooden body with the effort made for a truly raucous delight -- really a sensory overload. Even the sound of the wheels clicking across the joints in the muffling snow on our return to Chama was memorable. All these things were very much a part of the overall experience. I had such a good time that, two years later, I returned to see Rotary OY in action.

Part two of my rotary adventures
A rotary under the sun

Rio Grande's last epic winter challenge

at Cumbres Pass

Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1957

Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1957