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Colorado Narrow Gauge Circle Tour
Part 7: Durango to Ridgway

The Rio Grande Southern Railroad was built in 1890 by Otto Mears to connect mines at Telluride and Placerville with the D&RG at Durango and Ridgway. There are no operating tourist railways on the RGS route and all the tracks have disappeared.

      

There are many artifacts along the route, as well as RGS Motor #5 (one of 7 Galloping Geese) at Dolores and Goose #4 at Telluride. A working replica of Goose #1 resides at the Ridgway Museum. Geese #2, 6, and 7 live at the Colorado Railroad Museum along with 4–6–0 #20 and a number of pieces of rolling stock. Goose #3 is at Knott’s Berry Farm in California. The Galloping Geese added an extra twenty years to the life of the railroad, but in 1952, the Rio Grande Southern abandoned its railroad forever.

The RGS route was steep with 4% grades, lots of trestles, and tight curves. The famous Lizard Head Pass was a monster in winter and a tourist attraction in the summer. You can re-live the RGS by car, ducking into many sideroads to see the relics of its past.

Take some time to tour Mesa Verde and the Anasazi Heritage Museum just a mile or two from Dolores. You won’t believe the sophisticated architecture that the Anasazi possessed more than 1000 years ago.

A little known fact about the RGS is that, as early as 1898, it hauled uranium ore, called carnotite, from Placerville to Ridgway for forwarding to eastern US and Europe. The ore originated from mines west of Placerville and was hauled there by oxen. Soon after, the ore was being refined locally for uranium and vanadium to reduce the tonnage to be shipped.

Madame Marie Curie purchased Placerville ore to obtain radium samples for her experiments. It was her daughter, Dr. Irene Joliet-Curie, who first developed the concept of atomic fission, leading ultimately to the Manhattan Project and Hiroshima. The real value of this ore was the radium at $180,000 per gram compared to $80 per ton for the concentrated ore. Radium was widely used to create luminous dials on aircraft and ships in World War I and on watches for civilians thereafter.

The uranium ore traffic had several boom and bust cycles that severely affected the financial state of the RGS. Finally, the US Government started paving highways to strategic mines in 1945, sealing the doom of the RGS. Ore continued to be trucked to Durango into the 1960’s and uranium mining in western Colorado is still big business today.

It is ironic that turn-of-the-century narrow gauge steam engines heralded the atomic age, only to be smitten by the internal combustion engine and pavement. Photos below are from 1994 unless otherwise noted.

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RGS #1 at Ridgway Railroad Museum, from their postcard.

Websites of Interest
http://rgs.railfan.net/
http://www.nps.gov/meve/
http://www.visitmesaverde.com/

Continue to Part Eight