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RyPN Editorials August 4, 1998
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Thoughts on Preservation
Recreating the San Juan

This will be the first in what we hope will be a regular feature on the Railway Preservation News website: commentary on what has happened, is happening, and should be happening in the field of railway preservation. We know everyone has opinions, and welcome your thoughtful input for these pages.

Without a doubt, the Rio Grande's narrow gauge lines have captured our attention and imagination more than just about any other railroad. One need only look at the number of D&RGW books, magazine articles, websites, models, paintings and so on to confirm this. Fortunately, the railroad and preservationists cooperated to save the Silverton and Cumbres lines from destruction, so we need not sob in our beer over old photos to know what used to be there - we can still go ride on them.

Photo by Ross Grenard.
The Rio Grande's narrow gauge San Juan Express passenger train was the only all-weather reliable source of transportation in southwestern Colorado and northwest New Mexico for many decades. Upgraded in the 1930s, it looked like this until its demise in 1951. Happily, the locomotive, rolling stock and track in this 1949 photo by Ross Grenard all still exist, though not all in the same location. Is there enough interest to recreate this scene accurately again? Photo by Ross Grenard.

Like most tourist operations, however, things have just sort of "evolved" over the years on both railroads, and they're only somewhat like they used to be inthe old days, when the narrow gauge was a common carrier, and the likes of Lucius Beebe, Otto Perry, Richard Kindig, and umpteen other photographers lensed them. The D&RGW, after finally giving up on its long attempt to abandon and even give away the Silverton line, began "improving" the property in the 1960s. While this seemingly streamlined operations at the time, it also resulted in the destruction of the coal chute, water tank, carshop, part of the roundhouse, yard tracks, the Rio Grande Southern bridge and numerous other pieces of the Durango rail yard's historic fabric. To its credit, the successor Durango & Silverton rebuilt the roundhouse after the big fire, and made it even bigger; it's now 14 stalls instead of ten, and has a recently-opened museum inside. The D&S provides a wonderful train ride today, but the historic, gritty old Durango yard we remember from the 1950s is no more.

Photo by Otto Perry.
When the late Otto Perry lensed 4-6-0 No. 168 at Alamosa in June of 1923, the Rio Grande had only recently added "Western" to its name, and southwestern Colorado was still a wild, untamed region, easily reached only by narrow gauge train. No. 168 has sat on display at Colorado Springs since the late-1930s. Despite a thorough refurbishing in the 1980s, it still sits unsheltered, with minimal care. Wouldn't it be better off back in its home territory, restored to limited operation for movie work and other special assignments? Sister No. 169 sits at Alamosa on display, receiving only limited maintenance as well. Photo by Otto Perry.

At Chama, more of a historic nature remains, but early "progress" there in the 1970s saw a new locomotive shop built of typical modern construction, with roll-up doors. Without the heavy involvement of the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic RR group and the two states' historic preservation offices, no doubt much of Chama's historic fabric would have also been lost to reducing maintenance costs in the 28 years since the line was sold to the States of Colorado and New Mexico. Still, however, there have been recent plans to install an innapropriate large turntable and build a new carshop there. Fortunately, savvy heads are lobbying hard to preserve the site as it should be, and people are now listening.

Today, the Silverton line hustles nearly as many trains up and down the Animas Canyon as it did in the boom times of the last century, and the rolling stock has evolved to meet the need. This began in the 1950s, when the railroad removed the plush seats from many of the passenger cars, replacing them with more utilitarian ones from retired Denver trolley busses (which had lasted only five years in service!). To handle the increased business, new but old-looking cars were built during the Bradshaw ownership of the D&S, and older ex-passenger work cars reconverted to their former use.

The C&TS, which received no passenger equipment from the D&RGW, hurriedly converted a string of old boxcars into rolling "palaces" by cutting open the sides and installing molded plastic seats. Eventually, they rebuilt some unneeded steel flatcars into two different types of passenger-like cars, improving the ambiance for riders a bit. Various entrepreneurs have also operated re-created freight trains for photographers, with restored equipment. But the real jewel of the line, the famedSan Juan Express of yesteryear, is gone forever, or is it?

The San Juan, with its green wooden coaches and trailing parlor car, was an institution for decades on the Alamosa - Durango run. In the 1930s, several open-platform coaches dating to the 1880s were rebuilt with vestibules, electric lights, reclining seats, and other luxuries that made the interminably long trip (assuming you just wanted to get from point A to point B, and were not a tourist) less tiring. TheSan Juan ran its last in 1951, and most of the cars were kept at Durango for use on the Silverton train, with a few others sold to Knotts Berry Farm in California. The mail cars were converted to work train service, and placed on freight car trucks. Though modified, the cars still exist to re-create the San Juan, even though the track doesn't go all the way to Durango anymore. Could it be done? Perhaps.

What might be considered a precursor is set to happen on December 5, 1998, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club. On that date, the club will charter a D&S train, which will be painted, lettered and made up as accurately as possible to look like a typical Silverton mixed train of the mid-1950s. The locomotive will be lettered with the "flying" Rio Grande heralds, a few authentically-lettered freight cars will be added, and the passenger cars will remain in their orange-black colors, but with correct Rio Grande lettering. If one were to re-create a latter-daySan Juan on the C&TS, what would be required? Some cars could be traded between Durango and Chama, and given the joint state ownership, might be transported by National Guard/ military reserve units of either/both states. Likewise, some might be transferred between Knotts Berry Farm and the C&TS. Knotts, while having taken good care of the equipment over the years, is just a "make-believe" site, not a real one - it shouldn't matter whether their rolling stock is the real thing or converted flatcars.

Over the years, the San Juan cars have been modified. What would be required to return them to their condition in the train's 1930s-'50s period? What happened to the reclining seats? Probably not all were saved, but perhaps a few still languish in antique shops, barns and basements. If not all the seats can be found, might others from different passenger cans be identical? If not identical, could parts from other seats be used to ease replication of new seats? What other changes have been made to the cars in the intervening decades? Considering that modelers have documented nearly every nut, bolt and board anywhere near the narrow gauge over the years, this seems a do-able reasearch project. It could help bring history back to life in full-size, not just in the basement or backyard in minature form, but really "for real". The San Juan was typically pulled by K-28 class engines - might one be exchanged for a K-36, even if just for a summer or two? The K-36s also served in later years, and would be appropriate as well.

And if a 1940s San Juan could be done again, how about one from the 1910s-20s, with open platform cars, and one of the two existing 4-6-0s that sit unused and rusting in city parks? Wouldn't it be nice to see a period western movie with a locomotive appropriate for the era depicted rather than a K-36 with a phony diamond stack?

Certainly, the narrow gauge will never be exactly the same as those of us who visited it years ago remember, but we can work to help make it so. In recent times, there have even been discussions of bringing in foreign equipment, such as three-foot gauge Columbian 4-8-2s and dome cars, and other rolling stock, but shouldn't we be going the other way - towards authenticity instead of away from it? Isn't that what preserving the past is all about?

So then, what are your thoughts on preservation?