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Frank Barry honors the Colorado narrow gauge

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Frank Barry's new book The Last Winter is an engaging collection of photos and stories from his time living in Chama, N.Mex., in 1963–64.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Denver & Rio Grande Western’s narrow-gauge lines in southwest Colorado and a bit of northern New Mexico drew photographers like hummingbirds to columbines.

And why not? What could be more magical than this Brigadoon-like world of 3-foot-gauge track, wooden cars, and 2-8-2s, surrounded by the majesty of the San Juan Mountains?  

An A-list of shooters descended over the years on Antonito, Chama, Durango, Silverton, and other memorable places on the “Silver San Juan.” You’d recognize the names: Dick Kindig, Otto Perry, Philip R. Hastings, John Gruber, Jim Shaughnessy, Dick Steinheimer, and so many more.

That list would not be complete without including Frank Barry, an insightful photographer whose penetrating black-and-white images just might convey better than anyone else’s the tail end of regular steam freight service on D&RGW. The evidence is in a lovely book called The Last Winter, just out on Barry’s own Fresh Dirt Publications imprint.

It’s a big book in format — the 12x12-inch size allows for generous images — and the printing and paper quality more than make up for the relatively compact 66 pages. The hardcover book is priced at $40 and is available at the photographer’s website, www.frankbarryphotography.com.

In October 1963, before the snows came, Barry photographed the loading of cattle into narrow-gauge stock cars at Chama, a ritual that would soon end. Frank Barry
The book chronicles Barry’s various visits to D&RGW steam territory but, as the title implies, specifically concentrates on the winter of 1963–64 at Chama, where Barry and his wife Barbara holed up for several months while he worked for the Peace Corps. From there they covered virtually all of the narrow gauge between Antonito to the east and Durango to the west. 

Barry’s book has won the endorsement of Scott Lothes, executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art (www.railphoto-art.org), which in the past has showcased the photographer at its annual conference. 

“As a steam photographer, Frank inserted himself deeply into the places, operations, and communities he was covering,” Lothes says. “By living and working in Chama, he got to know the Rio Grande narrow gauge lines far better than the typical photographer who just visited the area for a few days. Frank’s ‘residential’ approach gives his work an intimacy that still resounds nearly six decades later.”

Barry’s motivation was simple: he wanted to catch what he calls “the last long-distance steam locomotive show in the United States.”

The winter's first snow settles on Mikados 488 and 499 at the Chama enginehouse on November 21, 1963. Frank Barry
Frank and Barbara were outlanders, as it were, Easterners who had decamped from Pennsylvania. They were a young couple with a sense of adventure, something that shows up in the book’s engaging text, which includes a lovely essay by Barbara. This was a railfan spouse who earned her stripes! Just listen to her description of getting dragged over to the Chama enginehouse in the dead of winter:

“It was cold, so I didn’t want to go, but he was excited, I thought, it’s an adventure, and put on my coat and boots. We went to the railroad yard and there was this big snow-bedecked engine softly steaming as it settled down from its run. It was magical. I held the shutter open as Frank ran around and fired off flash bulbs and I thought to myself, Now I can see what he sees!

Frank Barry saw a lot, especially when it came to creating sweeping portraits of a majestic landscape challenged by small but powerful steam locomotives. Nearly all the fabled locations on the D&RGW are here: a 2-8-2 lugs stock cars up to Windy Point; a road engine and helper ease a train over Lobato Trestle; an eastbound freight is silhouetted against a blindingly brilliant snowscape at Los Pinos; a 2-8-2 and helper send a cannonade of exhaust smoke skyward as they hug the mountainside between Cresco and Coxo. 

K-37 No. 493 uses its big plow pilot against fresh snow as it battles up Cumbres Pass between Cresco and Coxo on February 21, 1964. Frank Barry
In perhaps my favorite photo in the book — I should say my favorite three photos — a train snakes its way through Toltec Gorge from a perspective showing what must be 40 miles of scenery in the distance. The huge image is actually a blending of three separate photographs into a composite print. Here, Barry truly captures the majesty of the San Juans and has made the good decision to carry it across the full 24x12 inches of a spread.

Barry’s photos have intimate moments, too: the bone-chilling cold of a winter night at the Chama shops as snow begins to blanket resting 2-8-2s awaiting the next morning’s assignments; the loading of cattle into stock cars, a ritual that would last but a few more months; and a view of the photographer himself, tending to that common curse of a railroad photographer in the field — a flat tire. 

Barry is an engaging writer with a fine eye for detail, and he obviously took good notes. In summing up his experiences in and around Chama, he writes: “When I took these photos, the end was near, but I did not know I was in fact recording the very last winter of regular steam operation in severe weather conditions anywhere in North America. I was very lucky to be there.”

Thanks to Frank Barry’s often spectacular, sometimes heartbreaking book, we are, too. 

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