Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Wrinn: Rio Grande Southern 20 and the Long Slow Road To Steam

Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains Magazine recently talked shop about Rio Grande Southern engine 20 and what the expectations are with the restoration. Let's face it: The engine has been in "restoration" since George W. Bush was in office. Will we see it in steam soon? It could happen next year. 

The Colorado Railroad Museum is restoring a legendary Centennial State narrow gauge locomotive to operation. Rio Grande Southern No. 20, a 3-foot gauge 4-6-0 built in 1899 for the Florence & Cripple Creek and last run in 1951 when the RGS shut down, is nearing completion. Schenectady Locomotive Works built the engine, and the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club saved the engine. In 2006, the club transferred ownership to the museum, and a significant donation began a restoration the following year. For 12 years, the engine was under restoration at Pennsylvania’s Strasburg Rail Road, and it returned last June for final assembly. The $1.5 million restoration is one of the most remarkable in the annals of American railway preservation. We checked in with Colorado Railroad Museum Curator of Rolling Stock & Equipment Jeff Taylor earlier this week. Here’s our Q&A with Trains.

Jim's blog continues at Trains.⚒

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Denver's Welcome Mizpah Arch

Before "Blucifer the demon horse" of DIA neighed its welcome (of sorts) to visitors driving in and out of the world's largest airport, there was a public art installation that welcomed Denver's visitors in a singularly unique way that has never been duplicated since. Denver's Welcome Arch, also known as the Mizpah Arch, stood for years a century ago outside Denver's Union Station at 17th and Wynkoop Streets.

Photo: DPL-WHG
Dedicated on Independence Day, July 4, 1906, the arch was "to stand for the ages as an expression of the love, good wishes, and kind feeling of the citizens to the stranger who enters our gates," according to Mayor Robert Speer. On installation, both sides read "WELCOME" in big bold letters. After the dedication, it seemed that folks approaching the station from the city were being welcomed to leave. Rather than leave that parting impression of good riddance, the letters on the city's side of the arch were changed in 1908. Rather than say goodbye or the like, which again could be a dubious parting word, the word selected was "MIZPAH," a salutation in Hebrew taken from Genesis 31:49, which says,
It was also called Mizpah, because he said, “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other...
The idea was to invoke a blessing on those saying goodbye to Denver and a hope of a return.

Photo: DPL-WHG

History of the arch itself is not very plentiful, but Denver's Railroads by Forrest and Albi has a small section from which a lot of this post is based. The arch had a double tracked Denver Tramway line passing through it from the outset. When the second terminal building was obliterated in September 1914 to make room for the current structure, the track was apparently re-routed to the west. The entire arch was supposed to be removed with construction of the center terminal, but it stayed on for 15 more years, and in the 20s was lit with electric lights in keeping with the times.

During its brief existence, the arch was not above being used for commercial use. Of note, the Struby-Estabrook Mercantile Company, before national--let alone international--grocery chains, used the Welcome Arch as a trademark for its line of products. Everything from macaroni to coffee and tea to oats and canned goods rolled out the doors of the mercantile stores with a likeness of the arch on it.

Alas, by 1929, the arch was showing its age. It had not been well maintained, and with the stock market crash that October and the ensuing Great Depression, an overhaul was not in the cards. Charles D. Vail (of Vail Pass), working for the city at the time, wrote that the arch would have to be completely rebuilt if it were to stay in the same spot, and as Vail had seen the future of Colorado in the automobile, the arch was cited as a traffic hazard and a blight on the station. The arch was removed at the city's expense on December 6, 1931.

It has not been completely forgotten, either. I remember my friend Ira, a New Yorker and proud Jew pointing to signs in a newly revitalized LoDo after a Colorado Rockies game emblazoned with Mizpah as a nod to the arch 70 years after its passing. It's a good memory of a friend now long past.⚒

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Beginning of the End for UP 3985

Challenger 3985 charges south with the Circus Train toward Denver September 28, 2010
Photo: John H. Hill
While fans of the Union Pacific come down from the high of their inaugural season of Big Boy 4014, it cannot be all good news coming from Cheyenne, the heart of UP Steam just over the border in Wyoming. UP announced their intention to retire Challenger-type 3985, the other articulated steam locomotive inhabiting the UP Steam shops.

Built in July 1943 by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) and retired by UP in 1962, the 4-6-6-4 Challenger was restored as a volunteer-initiated project back in 1979. Returned to service with UP in April 1981 and converted to oil in 1990, it held the title of world's largest operating steam locomotive until the return of Big Boy 4014 in May 2019, although its last active run was in October 2010.

Why not keep her running? Apart from UP Steam having its hands full with 844 and 4014, the other two big steam engines, 3985 was looking at a long and extensive restoration. According to Kevin P. Keefe, "Such are the consequences of running the wheels off it," since its return to service. Weighing this against the decreased demand, there's just not that much reason to keep her active.

Nonetheless, any time a steamer goes silent, it's a sad day for the railfan. Like Keefe, I feel a need to honor the Challenger. Keefe says,
With all due respect to N&W 2-6-6-4 No. 1218 and its brethren, I can’t see how UP’s 4-6-6-4s cannot be considered the world’s most successful simple articulateds, given their sterling dual-service operational record on UP, not to mention how they begat near-carbon-copies on Clinchfield, D&H, Northern Pacific, and SP&S.
Those near-carbon-copies on Clinchfield? They were delivered to the Rio Grande as their L-97 class, numbered 3800-3805 in May and June 1943. They served until 1947 when the D&RGW sold them to the Clinchfield, renumbering them 670-675.1 The Rio Grande didn't actually want the Challengers, either. They wanted 5 more Baldwin 4-6-6-4s (Class L-105), but the War Production board assigned the Alcos by tacking them on to the Union Pacific's order. The Rio Grande opted not to buy them, instead leasing them from the Defense Plant Corporation. They were, in 1943, the last new steam engines the Rio Grande ever received.2 So, for many born after 1950, the Challenger a way for us to witness, perhaps unwittingly, the Rio Grande's main line steam in the post-war years.

Let us remember perhaps the most important aspect of the Challenger's story: the volunteer initiative to restore it to service. Few at Union Pacific saw the advantages of full restoration except these volunteers. The uses of old steamers was limited to park centerpieces to bolster civic pride. The public perception was that railroads were profit-shy and mired in regulation and bureaucracy. Additionally, eight years earlier, Amtrak had removed the last point of contact of the Union Pacific with the American public. Aside from delaying drivers at grade crossings, there was no reminder to the public of the services the railroad provided to the public. It's not a huge stretch to say that without the volunteers stepping forward, Union Pacific's public image would be far less than it is today.

While an ending, this is not necessarily the utter end for 3985. Challenger will sit in the Cheyenne roundhouse alongside her stablemates for the foreseeable future. It costs very little to preserve a steam locomotive already sheltered from the elements. Perchance it might cost little more if a slow, paced restoration was quietly undertaken? Perhaps in another 20 years, we may see the need for three steam locomotives in the steam program. It's always a possibility, especially if UP continues using steam to power its public relations.⚒

References
1 Locomotives of the Rio Grande by the Colorado Railroad Museum p.59
2 Rio Grande: To the Pacific! by Robert LaMassena p.160

UP Steam #3985 Fact Sheet
Wikipedia