Beginning in 1880, the Denver and Rio Grande began construction of its mainline west of Denver, Colorado. Unlike most railroads in the United States at the time, the Rio Grande was built to a gauge of only three feet. Building through some of the most formidable terrain in the country, management used narrow gauge to speed construction and conserve costs.
In 1890, the Rio Grande began rebuilding portions of its mainline to standard gauge to make interchanging equipment with neighboring lines more feasable. In 1893, the Sherman Act would drastically change the revenues derived from the mining of silver ore for the worse. These ore mines had been a driving force in the development of many of the narrow gauge lines. With mine revenues falling off, many of the narrow gauge branches would never be widened. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, bankruptcies in smaller lines and subsequent mergers made the Denver and Rio Grande Western the largest narrow gauge empire in North America.
Although they remained slim, the Rio Grande invested in its narrow gauge operations heavily until 1926. Steel bridges, larger steam locomotives, and modern rolling stock made the Colorado operations among the most modern narrow gauge railroads anywhere.
A Long Decline
The Great Depression hit these lines as hard as any others in the 1930s. A natural gas boom brought some prosperity back during and immediately following World War II.
By the 1960s, the lines were still operating with the same equipment purchased forty or more years older. Although much would be rebuilt to extend its life, years had taken their toll. Furthermore, the aging rolling stock had little to haul.
The Rio Grande filed to abandon its narrow gauge operations and was granted the right in 1969. Prior to abandonment, the company had already begun tapping into a growing tourism market. The harsh terrain that made construction so difficult also made it one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Preservation efforts in Colorado and New Mexico mobilized to save as much of the scenic operations as possible.
Legacy and Preservation
Today, the remnants of the Rio Grande's unique narrow gauge lines live on. Colorado remains a hotbed of railroad preservation activity. The bulk of the DRGW narrow gauge track and equipment are preserved at three locations:
- The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, Chama, NM
- The Durango and Silverton Scenic Railroad, Durango, CO
- The Colorado Railroad Museum, Golden, CO
In addition to the tracks and the trains, narrow gauge history has been preserved in numerous volumes of text, photographs, archival materials and models. Colorado narrow gauge has developed a loyal, passionate and prolific fan club worldwide.