Rio Grande Southern 20: An iconic photo, a careful restoration

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, July 8, 2020

There are iconic American steam locomotives that appropriately have national and even worldwide followings. Most are big mainline rigs that exude personality and charisma as they blast down the mainline. But not all of them are giants. This is the story about a narrow gauge engine with a lot of charm. This is the story of a photograph that made it a cult hero. And it’s a story about how life comes full circle in ways that make you feel like an unseen hand must be guiding things somewhere. 


The subject in question is Rio Grande Southern 4-6-0 No. 20, a long-time resident of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. Fourteen years ago a donor made the museum an offer that nobody in his or her right mind could — or would refuse — a major donation to restore the 1899 Schenectady product that had not run since 1951. Yes, I said, 1951 — 69 years ago. 


The restoration was complex, complicated, and filled with ethical dilemmas that would test any industrial historian or conscientious restoration shop foreman. More on this later. Right now you need to know that No. 20 was completed last week, steamed up, and moved around the museum. The Ten-Wheeler will debut for the public at the wonderful suburban Denver museum Aug. 1. 


And that leads me to the picture: No. 20, running full blast, engineer leaning out of the cab, her brakeman sitting on the pilot, ever vigilant for landslides that frequently blocked the tracks. It’s dramatic. It’s telling. And it was so compelling that it ran on the February 1942 cover of Trains to launch an 18-page story about the legendary RGS, a down-on-its-luck 3-foot gauge west of Durango and Silverton. The railroad struggled every day to get a train — sometimes with No. 20, and sometimes with a hand-me-down Rio Grande 2-8-2 or both (and sometimes with its famous homemade Galloping Goose motor cars) — across the 162 mile railroad that traversed such colorful Rocky Mountain places as Lizard Head, Ophir, and Ridgway. 


The picture also fronted an October 1969 story about the lure of the Colorado narrow gauge by the same man who took the photo (and who wrote the 1942 feature), William Moedinger Jr., a Pennsylvanian, a Pullman conductor, and one of the founders of the modern Strasburg tourist railroad. I saw it as a kid and fell in love with both the engine and the photo — so much so that in 2008 when we compiled Trains’ 100 greatest railroad photos for a special issue — I made damn sure it was among the chosen few. 


So, last week when word came from Colorado Railroad Museum’s Jeff Taylor (who took the photo of the completed No. 20), Dusty Thomson, and Paul Hammond with the good news that No. 20 had successful transitioned from stuffed and mounted to the living, it was cause for celebration. It also prompted me to contact my friend, Linn Moedinger. In a bit of serendipity, Linn is the son of the late William Moedinger, and Linn was the Strasburg’s President and Chief Mechanical Officer, who lovingly did major work to return No. 20. Father recorded No. 20 and brought the engine fame. Son restored the locomotive. 


First, the picture. “It was a series of pictures,” Linn says. “No. 20 was doubleheading with (former Rio Grande K-27) No. 455. There was a picture on a trestle. There’s a picture of the brakeman picking rocks off the tracks, and in the next picture, the brakeman has hopped back on the pilot.” Amazingly, the photo that became the icon of the RGS for so many of us was made by accident: William Moedinger had run to the top of a cut to photograph the train, lost his footing and slid down hill to trackside, and that’s when the two images were made one right after the other with his Kodak folding camera, shooting approximately 2 1/4 by 3 1/4 negatives.


The images epitomize the RGS, Linn says: “They symbolize the improbability of the RGS. The East Broad Top was like a miniature Pennsylvania Railroad. Everything ran like clockwork. With Colorado and the Rio Grande Southern, it was absolutely amazing that this thing even ran.”


Linn was true to No. 20 when it arrived at Strasburg. He took extra care to save as much of the original fabric as possible as he tackled the boiler, frame, and tender. The No. 20 that you will see at Golden is not a replica. It’s the No. 20 that plied the RGS for 36 years, mismatched side rods and all, dents and dings, every hard-earned crease. That was important to telling the story of the RGS and its struggle for survival. He took extra care with the boiler and frame, carefully replacing only what was necessary. 


I photographed No. 20 in the Strasburg back shop in 2008 when work was in progress. The photos show just what a mess the locomotive was mechanically. I also went back in 2017 and photographed the boiler and drivers as the package neared completion. They show just how much the Strasburg crew did to bring No. 20 back to life. The finished No. 20 returned to Golden last year and CRRM folks have been finishing the work. And now they’re done. 


So, as No. 20 runs again, narrow gauge and steam fans everywhere can rejoice. They’ll recall William Moedinger’s now legendary image, and they’ll appreciate Linn Moedinger’s craftsmanship in reviving this iconic Colorado locomotive. Bill saved a moment in time for us. Linn has given time back to us so we can appreciate what his dad experienced. I am thankful to them both for what they’ve done.


One last thing … Don’t we all just want to imagine what it must have been like to have been the brakeman, riding the pilot of No. 20, working as hard as she can — a little locomotive in the vast Rockies on track to forever. 

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