Rio Grande Southern No. 20 ready for its star turn

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, July 9, 2020

After a long restoration, the Colorado Railroad Museum's Rio Grande Southern narrow-gauge Ten-Wheeler No. 20 will be formally dedicated August 1. CRM: Paul Hammond
As if the legend of the fabulous Colorado narrow gauge needs further burnishing, we’ll have a new icon to admire come August 1, when the Colorado Railroad Museum dedicates the latest addition to its roster of operating equipment. 

On that Saturday, the museum is scheduled to dedicate former Rio Grande Southern (RGS) 4-6-0 No. 20, the object of a 14-year restoration. As you can see here, the compact Ten-Wheeler is a jewel, likely more gorgeous today than it was when the plant at Schenectady turned her out in 1899, or certainly when it toiled on the RGS. 

The engine was built originally for the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad, a 3-foot-gauge operation that briefly served customers in the Cripple Creek gold mining district west of Pikes Peak, but that railroad went out of business in 1915 and No. 20 was sold to the RGS. It was there, on Otto Mears’ much maligned yet much celebrated railroad, that No. 20 would make its reputation.

Rio Grande Southern merits a brief explanation. Built between 1889 and 1891 to serve silver mines in southwest Colorado, the RGS contended with — one cannot say “conquered” — an extremely rugged terrain in the San Juan Mountains from Durango north to Ridgway, Dolores, and Telluride. The nation’s abandonment of the silver standard hurt the mines and the RGS fell into bankruptcy, to be rescued in 1893 by the infinitely more robust Denver & Rio Grande, acting as a receiver. Historian George H. Drury has noted that RGS “never did repay its construction costs and never paid a dividend to its stockholders.” 

The RGS soldiered on through the first half of the 20th century under D&RG ownership, profiting from a temporary windfall during World War II when it hauled uranium ore for the U.S. government, only to fall back onto hard times, symbolized by its use of the rickety but beloved Galloping Goose motor cars. The railroad finally came to an end on December 27, 1951.

Watching for slides ahead, a brakeman rides the pilot of RGS 20 as it helps another engine lift a freight up the west side of Dallas Divide in 1941. William Moedinger
The RGS was one of railroading’s classic lost causes, but that didn’t keep it from attracting a host of admirers. One of them was author Lucius Beebe, who in his masterpiece Mixed Train Daily waxed feverishly on the RGS: “To assert that the narrow-gage [Beebe’s spelling] Rio Grande Southern is one of the most completely remarkable railroads of the world is only to indulge an advised and considered generality. It is unique in several of its aspects and at all times spectacular beyond the average. It is one of the loneliest railroads anywhere.”

A contrasting assessment was offered by William Moedinger, writing in the October 1969 all-narrow-gauge issue of Trains: “Just getting a train over the road required a rare combination of human endurance, Yankee ingenuity, and the bailing-wire technique. The conductor and the rear brakeman rode the cupola with eyes on the air gauge and brake clubs within easy reach; and the enginemen relied on a functioning brakestand and a prayer.”

Helping make Moedinger’s point was his photograph shown here, showing the head brakeman riding No. 20’s pilot beam, watching for rock slides as his doubleheaded freight train picks its way along the flimsy RGS track climbing the west slope of the Dallas Divide in 1941. 

Which brings us to August 2020 and the “new” No. 20. The 4-6-0 has followed a circuitous route to its current celebrity. After the RGS went out of business, the engine was acquired by the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club and displayed in Alamosa until it was moved to Golden in 1959 upon the creation of the museum. The restoration of No. 20 began in 2006 and included a long stay at the Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania, where the crack shop forces there tackled the engine’s boiler, frame, and running gear. Its various pieces made their way back to Golden last year for final assembly and testing. The museum estimates it has spent $1.5 million on No. 20, thanks in part to a generous lead gift.

Now, No. 20 will lead the life of a teacher, making palpable the glory days of the narrow gauge. Reviving the little Ten-Wheeler has turned into an inadvertently strategic move, says the museum’s Executive Director Paul Hammond.

The famous Ten-Wheeler crosses a trestle near Franklin Junction, just west of Durango, with a nine-car train in June 1946. R. H. Kindig
“The tale of how this locomotive went on to be acquired, secondhand, by a railroad built to serve silver mines is one of the interpretive opportunities we’re looking forward to sharing,” Hammond told me. “The timing is especially delicious: In 2020, the museum will also be completing a two-year master interpretive planning process. The goal is to identify ways to share Colorado’s rich railroad heritage with today’s audiences, something No. 20 will no doubt be well-positioned to illustrate.”

But for the current, confounding pandemic restrictions, I’d be in Golden on August 1 when No. 20 digs its 42-inch driving wheels into the museum’s trackage. It’s bound to be a euphoric day. And for those who can’t make it out there any time soon, Hammond offers this additional tantalizing factoid:

“The museum made a conscious decision to follow FRA standards for No. 20’s restoration, so this is a locomotive that will be able to travel! The one-third mile loop around our grounds — while great at delighting guests who are making a day visit — isn’t exactly scenic or long, so this ability to operate elsewhere may, in the long run, be what sets the locomotive apart.”

No. 20 will never again negotiate the Ophir Trestles, or climb to Lizard Head, but its destiny seems secure. One way or the other, the legend of the “Silver San Juan” lives on, maybe someday on a railroad near you. 

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