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Dallas Divide
Vance Jct.
Trout Lake
Lizard Head

Creede Branch
Cumbres Pass
R. G. Southern
Silverton Branch
Farmington Branch




Rio Grande Southern
Durango to Ridgway

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The Rio Grande Southern was one of the most spectacular narrow gauge railroads in the world. It provided heavy transportation service for the west side of the San Juan mountains and traveled through spectacular scenery that, prior to the railroad, was only accessible by the most determined traveler using horses, wagons, or even basic foot power.

It was Otto Mears dream to connect the mining towns of Rico, Ophir, and Telluride with the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) railroad lines. He already had several toll roads in the area and demand for something better was strong. In 1888, Mears had his number one man, Chief Engineer Charles Gibbs, perform the first surveys for the route. 

Next, in 1889, Mears and his sometimes partner Fred Walsen, incorporated the Rio Grande Southern Railroad Company (RGS), with the intent of creating two connections to the D&RG. First, starting in the north at a new junction that would eventually become Ridgway, build tracks to Telluride, and second a southern route from Durango to Rico. Along the way these routes would provide service to other mining districts, lumber operations, farming and general freight demands. 

The first construction began at Durango and went a little over five miles west to the coal mining operation at Porter. Shay locomotive 269 was purchased from Lima and worked the tracks to the mine. D&RG facilities at Durango were used by the RGS. Much of the Porter coal was shipped to Mears Silverton railroads via the D&RG.

Ridgway First District yard and service facilities along with the tracks to Telluride were built in 1890. Gaining access to the Telluride mining districts was number one priority for Mears and he even pushed construction during the severe winter months. The line required considerable engineering skill with sharp curves, high trestles and steep grades. Dallas Divide, about 13 miles west of Ridgway,  was the highest point on the tracks to Telluride at elevation 8,989. After traveling around the base of Hayden Peak, the line turned back to the north along the San Miguel River valley and on to Telluride . 

The following year, with Telluride going strong, revenues were put back into the construction of a line south along Howard Fork to Ophir and then over Lizard Head Pass to Rico. The most difficult portion of this route was the fantastic Ophir Loop. This big switchback in the track required three high trestles on the lower section and another four on the upper "High Line." 

Meanwhile, construction continued on the southern half from Durango to Dolores and then Rico. The north and south efforts were brought together just south of Rico in 1891 forming a continuous line between Durango and Ridgway, some 162 miles long.

The next two years were good times for Mears and the RGS. Of course with the good comes the bad. The Silver Panic of 1893 hurt the RGS severely and forced the railroad into court receivership. Otto Mears lost control of his brain child and he would never again be involved in the RGS. Riding to the rescue came the D&RG. They took control of the RGS from the courts. Under the guidance of its big brother, the RGS managed, barely, to stay out of bankruptcy through the depression and kept going until the 1950's.

When the Rio Grande railroads were standardized in the late 1880's, they were left with a tremendous surplus of narrow gauge equipment. The RGS purchased a large number of locomotives and some 900 cars. Some of this equipment had seen its better days and did not operate long, if at all, on the RGS. Instead it became various forms of discarded, but not forgotten, parts and bodies that found itself rusting away at many locations along the line.

During its operations the RGS had a reputation of survival on a shoestring and maybe even bailing wire if it was available. Not only did it live with tracks that just managed to stay anchored to the side of the mountain in good weather, it had to keep its fleet of locomotives running by combining parts from various engines or any other pieces that might be laying in the yards along the way. In fact the workmen at Ridgway were highly acclaimed for their skill in keeping the line running on a minimal budget.

During the 1930's and beyond, demand for the railroad was wavering. Many times only a couple of passengers or less wanted a ride on the train. The crews at Ridgway decided to build their own lightweight form of transportation instead of using the more costly steam locomotives for such small runs. In a show of their ingenuity and resourcefulness, the crews put train wheels on a large gasoline powered tour bus and sent it putt-putting down the tracks. This vehicle was a hit and they eventually made seven more models out of various forms of bus and automobile bodies and parts. In RGS fashion, a clever name was thought up and the vehicles became known as "The Galloping Geese."




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Vicinity Map


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Area Map


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Relief Map


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Dallas Divide 2001


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View to Telluride 2001


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Spires near Ophir 2001


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Lake Fork San Miguel
 River 2001


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Lizard Head 2001




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