A Mudhen in Makeup

Posted by Justin Franz
on Thursday, October 12, 2017

'Rio Grande Southern' No. 455 near Cumbres Pass. Photo by Justin Franz.
As a cold drizzle comes down in the mountains of Colorado, a shriek whistle in the distance shatters the calm October afternoon. A few minutes later, smoke starts to emerge from the trees and the wet rails that wrap around a rock outcrop are illuminated by an approaching headlight. Soon after, a small 2-8-2 lumbers around the corner with a short train in tow.

While this scene unfolds multiple times a day along the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic, there’s something different about this 2-8-2: The tender reads ‘Rio Grande Southern’ and it’s wearing the number 455 below the cab. For even the newest student of Colorado’s narrow gauge railroads, something about this doesn’t make sense. RGS K-27 No. 455 — built for the Denver & Rio Grande Western and later sold to the hardscrabble short line that once crossed the mountains from Durango to Ridgway — has been gone for more than 60 years.

But thanks to a little silver paint, the RGS has been revived this fall. In September, the railroad repainted D&RGW No. 463 for a Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic photo charter and it has kept the RGS identity through the fall. Some purists might lament the idea of repainting a historic locomotive for a railroad it never operated on — even if No. 463 makes a perfect stand-in for No. 455 — but in many ways a Mudhen in makeup is big part of the history of the C&TS and the Rio Grande narrow gauge.

Since the 1930s, the Rio Grande narrow gauge and its two successors have appeared in more than four dozen films and television productions. Hollywood first discovered the narrow gauge in 1935 when locomotive No. 168 (Now under restoration in Antonito) was used around Santa Fe, N.M., to film scenes for the movie “The Texas Rangers.” After World War II, even more films were shot along the railroad, especially the scenic Silverton Branch, including “A Ticket to Tomahawk,” “Denver & Rio Grande” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” According to Larry Jensen’s book “Hollywood’s Railroads,” from 1948 to 1956 at least one major film was shot around Durango every year.

In the early 1970s, Rio Grande President G.B. Aydelott decided that the narrow gauge, which was down to just the 45 miles from Durango to Silverton, would no longer be available to Hollywood filmmakers. At the time, the railroad said it wanted to focus on the tourist business, but some believe it was just another effort to rid themselves of the three-foot gauge oddity. But movie makers looking for a real narrow gauge train only had to travel a few hours east to Chama, where the C&TS was setting up operations on 64-mile segment of the old narrow gauge main line.

As with any film trying to depict “old west” railroads, big headlights and balloon stacks were the order of the day. While an historian might shudder at the idea of a “modern” K-36 being gussied up with bright paint and inaccurate accessories, the D&RGW, C&TS and D&S were simply doing what the customer ordered. It got to the point in the 1950s and 1960s that using the narrow gauge to film an old west chase scene was almost as common as rounding up stock cars to move cattle.

In many ways, putting a little makeup on an old Mudhen to create images of a long lost railroad is just a continuation of the narrow gauge’s long history of bringing the past to life.

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