The Trip that Started It All


Yes, I have always liked trains.  I had even been through periods of fairly intense model railroading, if you could call it that.  But it was a trip on the Rio Grande Zephyr that ignited my interest in railroading that continues to the present day.

My father worked for IBM in Boulder, and someone from the company planned an excursion to Glenwood Springs aboard the Rio Grande Zephyr, at that time the last remaining non-Amtrak regularly-scheduled passenger train in the US.  I was a junior in college at the time, and my parents invited me along for the trip.  I hadn't been on a train in fifteen years-- and not on this track since first grade (1967) --  so I wasn't going to turn it down.  Mind you, I wasn't any kind of serious railfan, so I didn't know much about the train or its history (or status, for that matter).

So, on November 7th, 1981, we drove down to Denver Union Station for boarding.  As we crossed the old 20th street viaduct, the train's head end came into view, and my heart skipped a beat.  F-units, resplendent in luminous Aspen Gold, with the matching head-end cars and stainless-steel train stretched out behind, were a striking sight at 6:45 in the morning.  This was gonna be great!

It never occurred to me to do anything like take pictures of the train at the platform-- all I had was a lousy 110 instamatic camera anyway.  But I shot plenty of rolls on the trip, and I'd like to share some of the results with you here.  Unfortunately the weather was gray and dark for most of both days, not making for the best photos, but sometimes you get what you get...

For our trip, the train's consist was made up as follows: F9A No. 5771; steam generator car No. 253; the two F9B units; combine No. 1230; diner No. 1116; two dome coaches; the two flattop coaches; two more dome coaches; dome-observation car SILVER SKY; business car WILSON McCARTHY.

  After leaving Union Station, the train headed north through Rio Grande's north yard.  As we hummed up the main, I glimpsed a bunch of Rio Grande locomotives at the service track.  This photo is shot through a Canadian National open auto rack, part of a train that was basically blocking our view.  You can see a yard switcher (SW1000, probably), a high-nose GP9, and a few other units behind them.
After rolling through the suburbs and across the  open space west of the city, the train begins its assault on the Front Range.  Here at west Rocky, we got our first really good look at the front end of the train.   Rounding the curve known as Little 10, you can see F9A No. 5771, along with the steam generator and the two B-units, the combine, and the diner (No. 1116 was subbing for the usual diner, SILVER BANQUET, as I learned later).  Remember, I didn't know any of this at the time.
After rounding the Little 10 and Big 10 curves (around the tongue-shaped mesa), we passed through Clay siding.  From here we could look back down and see whence we came.  We were being followed-- by a manifest freight train, hard on our blocks.  He's probably looking a yellow signal, but once we clear the west end of Clay it would go green.
Above Plainview, right before entering tunnel 2, I took this photo in the general direction of Boulder, where I lived at the time.  About two seconds later we were into the tunnel.
Midway through the tunnel district, rounding the curve at Crescent siding, we had a nice view of Gross Reservoir, a distinctive landmark of the route.
Ever wonder what the inside of a tunnel looks like?  I did.  Here's a flash shot of a tunnel wall (somewhere around Tunnel 19).  Not real inspiring, is it?  It looks to me like it was seeping a little bit of water (dark spot).
Our car is exiting one tunnel as the front end is already into another (probably tunnels 21 and 22, respectively, though I'll have to double-check).  You can see two dome coaches and the substitute diner.
West of Pinecliffe, I moved up into the dome.  This shot looks like we're west of Rollinsville.  The gentleman standing in the aisle was our trainman, who kept up an interesting conversation with the riders in front of me.  He said that he'd bid for the Zephyr every time, even though the pay was lower than on a freight train.
Look carefully and you can see not only the front of the train, but the east portal of the Moffat Tunnel.
Just about to head into the tunnel now.  There was no hesitation-- we just flew right in.  This is before the rebuilding of the fans at the portal.  There were a few fall colors above the tunnel, but I didn't even notice at the time!  My mind was focused on my first trip through the bore.  Uncounted childhood picnics at the tunnel were on my mind as we raced in.

Once on the other side of the divide, the weather was even more gray and dismal, if that were possible.  Most of my photos were underexposed as a result (Dark Day + Tinted Glass = Underexposure).  There's a moodiness that comes through, though, that accentuates the forbidding nature of the route.

After passing through Middle Park, our route took us into the serious canyon country.  Only one, Byers Canyon, has highway access, so the rest were new experiences for me.   I took a couple of backward-looking photos at Gore Canyon.  Believe it or not, the others were even worse photographs than this one!
The canyon walls are high and the sky dim.  The railroad seems to creep tentatively through this isolated region.  You really don't feel very safe or secure-- the canyons feel wild, especially on a day like this.
One of the few decent views of the train in the canyons.  Yes, those are dead leaves on the roof of our car.
Gore has many tunnels, most short.  Here is one such example.  The advantages of the dome car are becoming increasingly apparent.
Several tunnels are visible in this photo.  Unfortunately the negative has gotten rather scratched up over time.
Looking out towards the west end of Gore Canyon...
... and looking down at our companion in the canyon, the Colorado River.
Much later, after reaching Glenwood Springs, we disembarked.  Here the train is pulling away to continue its journey west, with business car WILSON McCARTHY on the tail.  For those familiar with the town, you can see that the pedestrian bridge has not yet been built.
The following day, we waited at the depot for the eastbound RGZ, train No. 18 to take us back to Denver.  Here, F9 No. 5771 leads the train into the depot siding, with bell ringing.  As you can see, it's already fairly late afternoon, and most of our return journey was in the shade, or the darkness.

What an overwhelming experience this trip was.  Overnight I became a train nut.  Perhaps it was because it resonated so much with my first-grade experience riding the Yampa Valley; it certainly meshed with my lifetime admiration of the Rio Grande railroad.  It has led to all kinds of experiences and activities related to that railroad (and rails in general).  The Rio Grande Zephyr has been gone for nearly 23 years as of this writing, and one cannot help but feel a twinge of regret even now.  But as a great man (me) once said:

"Today's thrill  becomes tomorrow's nostalgia."

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2005, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved.