Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Old West Railroads That Survived the Years

Old railroad trains are quite a nostalgia trip for many people, especially us older folks. There is that something special we experience as we see those old steam engines in the movies or in any of the railroad museums around the country. Even just gazing at an old abandoned railroad track tends to spark our imagination as to what class of locomotives and what types of rolling stock may have traveled across those old steel rails in times long past.

Were there box cars loaded with varied commodities of freight, or tankers full of crude oil? Maybe there were hoppers loaded with iron ore or coal. Were these old tracks the ones where a prestigious passenger train made its final run? Much of the details can be researched about them. But still, we can let our imagination take us on one of those glamorous journeys anytime we allow it.

But railroads in America are also another way to measure our progress as a nation. From a simple cart on two rails in a mining operation, pushed in and out of those deep dark tunnels by manpower or by beasts of burden, to the huge and awesomely powerful steam locomotives, and then to the modern diesels which produce many thousands of horsepower, and can pull one hundred or more heavily-loaded freight cars, the railroads have been recognized as a major necessity for our expanding and prosperous nation. I can't imagine where we would be today without our railroads, both past and present.

While freight and passenger trains made their appearance in the eastern states prior to the Civil war, I'm going to focus mostly on the early railroads of the western United States.

56 .5 inches (4' 8-1/2") was well established across America as the standard RR gauge (width). It is also called the Stephenson gauge, named after George Stephenson of England, who in 1830 designed that country's first railroad, the the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

However, even after the standard-gauge system was widely employed here in America, there still remained several variations in the width of narrow gauge rails that were laid. This turned out to be one of the logistics problems for the Confederacy during the civil war. I saw a photo one time of a Confederate rail yard that had at least three different gauges of railroad track routed through it.

But out west, especially for logging and mining operations, narrow-gauge railroads were the most cost effective way to go. Narrow-gauge systems required less real estate along side of them for one thing. And the narrow width roadbed could be built using less stone and gravel, and less lumber had to be obtained to make the shorter ties. And the height and width of the steel rails themselves was somewhat less than what was required for the standard-gauge lines, which further aided in the cost advantage of narrow-gauge.

While there were several variations of narrow-gauge track put to use in the western states, the most common gauge used in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Utah and several of the other western states measured in at 3-feet wide. It is likely that the formation of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1870 had something to do with establishing the 3' gauge across the territory because of its extended run from Denver, Colorado to Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad has survived, and is running today under the name of the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge railroad. And it is understandably a very popular tourist attraction. The 45-mile trip between Durango, CO and Silverton, CO offers some exceptional scenery for its passengers.

And also sharing another stretch of the same 100-miles of historic track is the Cumbres and Toltec RR, which is more popular with the hard core railroad fans. While more restricted in operation, the Cumbres and Toltec RR offers a greater assortment of authentic rolling stock than does the Silverton, and the scenery where it travels through is excellent. But the C&T railroad mainly operates as a charter railroad, and is available mostly to members of specific railroad preservation groups, as you will see in one of the videos accompanying this article.

The Alco (American Locomotive Company) K-28, Baldwin K-36 and K-37 locomotives that are still in use by both the Durango & Silverton RR and the Cumbres & Toltec RR today were built in the era of 1903-1925. And as was the case with many narrow-gauge locomotives back then and now, they were as large as their standard-gauge counterparts. Some locomotive manufacturers built units in both of the two more common gauges (3' narrow-gauge and 4' 8-1/2" standard-gauge) to accommodate most all of the major rail lines of their day.

The popularity of the old western scenic railroads with their classic Alco and Baldwin steam locomotives has also prompted a new trend to surface among model railroaders during the past decade or so. They have merged the fine detail that is possible with the larger O-gauge and S-gauge model trains (and scenery) with the space saving advantage of HO-gauge track layouts. This seems to accurately mimic the scale of a narrow-gauge railroad.

Early on, the modelers had to painstakingly modify their O-gauge or S-gauge trains by changing the running gear of their locomotives and the wheel trucks of their rolling stock in order to run on HO-gauge track. But now, model RR manufacturers such as Bachmann and others, offer these units ready-made in what is referred to as On30-gauge. Another video link I've provided shows a good example of the detail and reality that is possible with this new trend in modeling.

For anyone planning a trip out west and who want to enjoy the scenic beauty and nostalgia of these old time western railroads, I have picked out several other lines that still remain:

In Heber City, Utah, you can hop on the old (and slow) 'Heber Creeper' railroad which is pulled up the Provo Canyon grade by a 1907 Baldwin steam locomotive.

Sacramento, California is recognized by rail fans for its California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. The museum is rated as one of the best and most complete of its kind. Its 21 restored locomotives and cars date back to the early 1860s. And In the summer months, visitors can take a scenic steam train ride that runs alongside the Sacramento River.

Virginia City, Nevada offers its visitors a nostalgic experience as they head out to the location where the TV series 'Bonanza' was filmed. An excursion train ride can be taken from there on a Virginia and Truckee (V&T) Railroad train pulled by a steam locomotive that will take you out to an old gold mine and back.

In Williams, Arizona, a portion of the old Grand Canyon Railway was restored in 1989, and apparently runs frequently. But bookings for tickets may be tight. For this railroad and all the others, it would be highly recommended to make a phone call or two before planning your visit.

The Sumpter Valley Railroad, out of Baker City, Oregon, offers scenic tours on weekends and on major holidays. From their photos that I've seen, it looks like a great scenic ride would be provided there.

The Oregon Coast Scenic Railway out of Tillamook, OR also looks like an excellent choice for rail fans.

Out of Ebe, Washington, the Mt. Rainier RR offers scenic tours pulled by either diesel or steam locomotives, whichever are available.

A short 9-mile steam run is offered by the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad out of Chehalis, Washington.

So, if you take a little time with the popular online search engines, you will likely turn up a few more of the other old steam trains still thundering down the rails in the old west.

As you can see, the era of the steam locomotive still remains with us... alive and well, running along the rails, and in our hearts.

Safe Travels,
Gary Miller

Additional Reading

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