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The Rio Grande Southern

Three Railroads: the Silverton, the Silverton Northern and the Rio Grande Southern all traverse near-impossible terrain and stand together among the greatest wonders of railroad building in America.

It is astonishing to realize that all three of these railroads, built to service the mining industry of the Rocky Mountains were the culmination of determined dreams and the tenacity of one man.

In 1882 when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad reached the rich mining town of Silverton, its tracks followed a not quite complete circle from Ouray northeast to Denver, south to Pueblo and west to Durango and Silverton. Though dozens of mining towns were still desperately isolated high in the 14,000 foot mountains of the La Platas and the San Juans, the DRG decided against progressing any further.

The creation of toll roads and the freighting enterprise of Otto Mears had made him very wealthy. Although he had no experience building or running a railroad, he saw the need to extend these railroads to provide service to the dozens of mines that were at the time accessible only by pack train. Otto Mears took on the challenge of building railroads where the mighty DRG had refused to go. Using many of the road beds from his existing toll roads, Otto Mears built three railroads in the San Juan country, all of which traversed nearly impossible terrain.The engineering and construction of these railroads: the Silverton Northern, the Silverton Railroad and the Rio Grande Southern stand together among the greatest wonders of railroad building in America. Equally astonishing is the realization that they were due to the ambition and private endeavors of one man.

Because a steam locomotive is propelled by the throbbing, on-and-off-again force of pistons rather than the more uniform power of an electric motor and because the friction of the locomotives’ wheels is limited to what can be obtained between metal and metal, the climb of a steam engine is limited to a 7% grade. Much of Mears’ tracks were built to this very limit. Otto Mears originally intended his first railroad, the Silverton Railroad to leave Silverton following Mineral Creek and to go north all the way to Ouray in order to connect with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad coming from Denver – that would have completed the circle. But the Silverton Railroad never made Ouray because the grades enroute were as much as 19%, the railroad was completed though in 1887, going through Red Mountain Pass to Joker, Corkscrew Gulch and Ironton, and ending at Albany, (old mining towns – now ghost towns found on local four wheel drive maps). In 1893 Mears completed his second railroad, the Silverton Northern which left Silverton and went north through Howardsville to Animas Forks. (Howardsville was named for its first resident, Mr. Howard who offered whiskey to passers-by who would help him hoist logs for his log cabin), (Animas Forks is now a ghost town and was named for 3 creeks that all come together in this old mining town to form the headwaters of the Animas River which flows through the town of Durango).

Otto Mears’ third and most remarkable railroad, the Rio Grande Southern was built to serve the mines of the La Platas and the San Juans and to complete the circle where the Denver and Rio Grande had stopped, thus completing a giant railroad loop around the state. The tracks of the Rio Grande Southern traveled 172 miles of the most difficult railroad terrain ever conquered in North America. With its completion, no longer were the rich mines of Telluride, Pandora, Placerville, Ophir and Rico isolated from the world. Ridgway was chosen as the northern connecting point to the DRG, Durango as the southern terminus. Named after the first Superintendant, Ridgway sprang up overnight as the northern headquarters for the Rio Grande Southern. Construction was commenced in March of 1890 and proceeded so aggressively that soon there were 3,000 men working along the line which ran South from Ridgway to Placerville, through Ilium with a spur to Telluride, then through Lizard Head, Rico, Dolores, Mancos, Hesperus, Ft. Lewis and through Wildcat Canyon into Durango. Despite the challenges of constructing a railroad amongst such tough elements, Mears’ worst dilemma was the lack of sobriety amongst his laborers. The construction camps were a mile apart and the saloons sprang up beside them. The problem of drunken absenteeism became so severe that in August, 1890 Mears threatened no tracks to Telluride unless San Miguel County quit issuing liquor licenses.

In less than 2 years, amidst a blinding snowstorm in December, 1891, the last stake was driven and the Rio Grande Southern was completed. 172 miles of the toughest tracks ever laid – spanning 130 bridges, the longest being 544 feet, the highest being 95 feet.

The Franklin Junction trestle to the left was located 2.8 miles West of Durango at the Wildcat Canyon turnoff on Hwy 160.

The construction expense was immediately justified by its revenues; the Rio Grande Southern operated around the clock. A box car carried 10 tons of ore and as many as 20 freight trains each pulling ten box cars of ore passed through Telluride in a 24 hour period. As the railroad traveled through the maximum precipitation district of Colorado, the Rio Grande Southern had to employ hundreds of men each winter who worked day and night to clear the snow and endless avalanches off the tracks and more men still to remedy the effects of washouts, floods and mud slides during the rest of the year. Despite this ongoing financial hardship and the constant budget strain caused by the economic vicissitudes of the region, Otto Mears’ Rio Grande Southern operated continually for sixty years until 1951. So awesome was the undertaking and existence of this mighty railroad, there is almost a cult following of admirers. Its complete and evolving story is told in a seventeen volume hardback series: The Rio Grande Southern. Of the passengers carried over its breathtaking terrain, one person was born, while a few others died — but most were only scared half to death.


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