A True Restoration

Posted by Dave Crosby
on Thursday, September 3, 2020

The phrase “restored” is often misapplied to operating steam locomotives.  As engines are brought back to life - particularly those intended for mainline or heritage excursions – concessions are made to modern operating conditions.  Roller bearings may replace plain bearings, updated brake systems are often installed, antiquated appliances are changed out in favor of more modern counterparts and so on. Reliable operation trumps historical accuracy in many instances, and with good reason.  The goal is to have the most trouble free operation as possible. 

So, for the most part, the few concessions to modern technology are small price to pay for the privilege of experiencing a live, operating steam locomotive. Even a promotional decal applied to the cab or the ever present Igloo water cooler can be easily overlooked for the greater good.  One can accurately describe these locomotives have been rebuilt, rehabilitated or renovated.  But restored?  That’s a different animal altogether.  To “restore” something by definition means to return it to a former condition, place or position.  That’s a lofty goal, and rarely achievable when returning a steam locomotive to operation.

As a result there are precious few truly “restored” steam locomotives operating today and I was privileged to witness the public debut of one such machine a few weeks ago.  Over the first weekend of August I was part of a group of several dozen fortunate enough to experience the return of Rio Grande Southern 20 at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden during the TRAINS “Pop-Up” Photo Charter.  Much has been written, and will continue to be written about this 1899 4-6-0.  There are indeed many stories to tell; its time in service, its 1951 rescue by the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club (for the grand total of $2000) and its $1.5 million dollar, 14 year road to restoration.  For this steam aficionado though, one of the most significant aspects of RGS 20’s revival is its restoration to one particular period in time. 

The engine lead a long hard life, including a significant wreck in 1943. It underwent many alterations to its appearance during a half century in service.  Changes to lettering, whistles, appliances all came and went.  Even the cab and tender would be replaced over time, giving the engine unique characteristics at different points in history.

In the end it was decided that RGS 20 would best represent its physical appearance between 1944 and early 1947.  Countless hours of research were spent under the direction of Jeff Taylor, Curator of Equipment and Rolling Stock at Colorado Railroad Museum, in order to give the locomotive the most accurate appearance possible for that period.  Taylor, a self-described “stickler for accuracy” and his team are justifiably proud of their final product.  Countless details are as faithful to the locomotive as possible. 

One particular example reveals short, yet significant period in the locomotive’s history and is illustrated by the “Defense Supplies Corporation” stenciling on the engine and tender.  This dates to a 1942 Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) loan made to the RGS which saw the DSC take ownership of the line’s equipment as collateral.  After the loan was paid off the stencils were simply painted over as time progressed, with 20 retaining them into 1947.  That recreated stenciling on the tender is even slightly off-level just as the original is depicted in photographs from that era.

You won’t find many modern concessions on this restored locomotive.  There aren’t roller bearings hiding under the old journal covers, no modern mechanical lubrication system, air powered bell or welded tender tank.  You probably won’t see magnets or decals added to the engine as part of a promotion or contest and a period canvas water bag takes the place of a modern plastic water cooler. Even period toolboxes were acquired and placed on the locomotive at locations illustrated by period photographs.

This is a close to a true restoration as a locomotive can get while still being safe and legal to operate.  To this author and countless others, that is what makes the return of RGS 20 even more amazing.

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