Reviving the legend of the South Park

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Colorado & Southern 2-6-0 No. 73 climbs Kenosha Pass with a westward extra on the former Denver, South Park & Pacific above Webster on May 14, 1938. About 17 miles to the west at Como, part of the DSP&P is being brought back to life. R. H. Kindig photo
Thanks to the magical world of the narrow gauge, Colorado might be the capital of railroading’s romantic lost causes.

One of the most beloved was the Denver, South Park & Pacific, a railroad as quaint as its corporate name was overly ambitious. Organized in 1872 and championed by then Colorado territorial Gov. John Evans (Colorado became a state in 1876), the DSP&P reached southwesterly from Denver, climbing the Platte River canyon to the high plain known as South Park at Como, where it split into separate lines that terminated at Leadville and Gunnison. At its peak, the railroad boasted 341 route-miles.

At first, the South Park was quite profitable, tapping into Colorado’s legendary mineral riches, which at Leadville included lead, gold, silver, iron, bismuth, and manganese. The line to Gunnison crossed the Continental Divide via the 1,800-foot, timber-lined Alpine Tunnel, considered an engineering masterpiece at the time but taken out of service just 30 years later.

The line would change hands twice before it was mostly abandoned. Purchased by Union Pacific in 1880, it was rechristened the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison after an 1889 bankruptcy, but UP later turned it loose and it was subsequently sold out of receivership to Colorado & Southern. The C&S abandoned most of the old DSP&P in 1937 but standard-gauged and kept its westernmost 14 miles, from Leadville to Climax, which survives today as the Leadville, Colorado & Southern tourist line (http://www.leadville-train.com), covered in Spring 2017 Classic Trains

South Park Rail Society volunteers work to reinstall the turntable in front of the stone roundhouse at Como on August 19, 2017. Chip Sherman photo
The memory of the South Park has been kept alive around the old terminal of Como, which by some miracle managed to hang onto its depot, railroad hotel, and, most impressively of all, a six-stall stone roundhouse. It’s a sturdy affair, constructed in 1881 (reportedly by local Italian stonemasons) and graced by beautiful arched doorways into each stall. The roundhouse later was expanded with more wood-frame stalls, but the original stone structure is all that remains.

Now the improbable sound of a C&S whistle can be heard drifting over Como again. On August 15, the South Park Rail Society operated its new locomotive, former Klondike Mine Railways 2-6-2 No. 4, in a special ceremony by the depot, the first time a steam locomotive had run in these parts since 1937.

The 3-foot-gauge Mogul, a wood-burner, was built in 1912 by Baldwin and kicked around on a number of short lines and tourist railroads — including several years during and after World War II on the White Pass & Yukon — before it ended up in Como.

Former Klondike Mines 2-6-2 No. 4 operates on a short stretch of track at Como. In the background to the right of the engine is the old hotel, another extraordinary DSP&P survivor. Chip Sherman photo
The Society (http://www.southparkrail.com) plans to make steam a regular thing at Como, operating along a short section of track and storing the 2-6-2 in the roundhouse, which has been owned by Chuck and Kathy Brantigan since 2001. They bought it from Bill Kazel, who had made substantial repairs to the building in the 1990s.

The plans for windswept old Como are exciting, especially if you dig a little bit into the rich if brief history of the South Park. No less an eminence than Lucius Beebe once declared it “beyond doubt the best-loved and best-remembered narrow gauge in the record.”

The South Park’s faithful included Al Kalmbach, who rode the railroad in the years running up to his founding of Trains magazine in 1940. In a comprehensive feature about the DSP&P in the November 1943 issue, he even ran a photo he took from the cab of a South Park locomotive son the last day of operation in 1937.

Al had no trouble ticking off why the South Park was a fascinating property, listing, in no particular order:

Trains magazine founder Al Kalmbach took this photo from a C&S engine near the end of narrow-gauge operations on the old South Park. The dual-gauge trackage suggests the location is between Leadville and Climax. A. C. Kalmbach photo
• The fact that at one point the DSP&P crossed the Continental Divide three times, twice on the twisting line to Leadville and, for a time, via the Alpine Tunnel to Gunnison.

• The South Park “fish trains,” which stopped for trout fishermen in the Platte Canyon upon personal flag signals (and had accommodations on board for the fish).

• The rugged 4.49 percent grade to 11,494-foot Boreas Pass, which required so much helper service that the railroad often racked up twice as many as engine miles as train miles, hardly a profitable operating statistic.

• The railroad’s overnight Pullman service from Denver, which split at Como with separate sections for Leadville and Gunnison.

That sleeper service, rare in the world of the narrow gauge, certainly caught Beebe’s attention. In his book Hear the Train Blow (E. P. Dutton, 1952), he describes how “picturesque characters rode the night cars, playing poker in their diminutive drawing rooms for fantastic stakes and downing the best bourbon with champagne chasers as the little trains pushed resolutely into midnight blizzards on the roof of the world and edged cautiously around hairpin curves above precipices which dropped sheer thousands of feet at the ties’ ends.” Understated by Beebe, as always.

The happenings at Como and my refresher in DSP&P history sent me looking for photos in the Kalmbach Publishing Co. library. There isn’t much, given the antiquity of the original South Park. Most of the photos are filed under “Colorado & Southern.” But it’s clear from what’s there that a number of intrepid photographers — among them R. H. Kindig, William Moedinger, and Kalmbach — hauled their Speed Graphics up into the mountains in the mid-1930s to catch the railroad’s twilight years.

Less than a year before the end of service, C&S Mogul No. 8 stands at Buffalo with the daily Denver–Leadville train in mid-1936. The 154-mile trip was scheduled for 10 hours 20 minutes. William Moedinger Jr. photo
My favorite photo is by Moedinger, showing a train at the outpost depot of Buffalo, Colo., 48.6 miles east of Como. It’s a delightful snapshot of life on the narrow gauge, showing a small group of passengers boarding as Mogul No. 8 pants patiently, awaiting the highball to head down the Front Range toward Denver.

The photograph proves that, once upon a time, the South Park and its Colorado ilk were nothing more than practical, everyday transportation. For the folks at Buffalo, there was nothing magic about it at all.

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