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Rio Grande Scenic Railroad By Jack M. Turner Photos by John C. Turner

Rocky Mountain Exploration

Part 4: Rio Grande Scenic Railroad
By Jack M. Turner
Photos by John C. Turner

    The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad was next on our itinerary and Sunday July 29, 2012 dawned with anticipation.  Once again we made the five minute journey from the Holiday Inn Express to the Alamosa railway depot which doubles as headquarters for the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad, whose passenger service operates as the Rio Grande Scenic.

    As we drove to the Alamosa depot my thoughts turned back to the 1960s when my childhood was spent in Miami, Florida.  That city was one of America’s winter playgrounds in the days before large theme parks lured tourists to Orlando and vicinity.  Miami was a wonderful place in the ‘60s for a person who loved passenger trains as several trains belonging to the Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Line served the Magic City.  While those silver streamliners were great trains, my attention was captured by the striking City of Miami which ran every-other- day to Chicago.  Its chocolate brown with a wide orange stripe paint scheme caught my fancy along with the fact that the train was operated by the Illinois Central Railroad which gave it an air of uniqueness.  My second ever train ride was aboard The City’s round end club-observation car from downtown Miami to West Palm Beach over the Florida East Coast Railway in 1961. 
    Even when the City of Miami was routed over the Seaboard route between Miami and central Florida due to a labor strike on the FEC, that train remained my favorite and I planned jaunts to West Palm on days in which it operated.  I continued to head straight for the club- observation car until that car finally was cut back to Jacksonville to Chicago only.  Fortunately, about this time a vista dome coach was added and its novelty in south Florida somewhat made up for the loss of the rear view offered by the observation car.

    Illinois Central timetables of the time showed that a sister train, the City of New Orleans, also carried a club-observation car basically identical to the pair of cars that brought up the rear of the City of Miami.  After Amtrak assumed most of the nation’s passenger service in 1971 the Illinois Central passenger car fleet was largely passed over and many of the cars met an unfortunate fate in scrap yards.  There was little way to know which cars had somehow been preserved outside the Amtrak system and, frankly, with my attention turned to college, the IC fleet faded from my thoughts.

    Then in September 1982 plans were announced for the inaugural run of the restored Norfolk & Western steam engine # 611 between Roanoke, VA and Norfolk and return then on to Alexandria, VA.  Bringing up the rear would be former Illinois Central club-observation car “Mardi Gras”, one of two such cars that had regularly run on the tail of the City of New Orleans a decade earlier.  Plans were made, an upgrade fare paid, and I rode in the “Mardi Gras” for much of the weekend.  The interior of the beautiful car reminded me of her two sisters, “Bamboo Grove” and “Paducah” which regularly ran on the end of the City of Miami though their names had been removed by the 1960s.  The exterior of “Mardi Gras” did not evoke memories of the IC as it had been painted N&W tuscan red to match the rest of the excursion train fleet.  Over the years I had a few more encounters with “Mardi Gras” including an Asheville to Hickory, NC excursion in 1987 and a 1992 excursion between Charlotte and Asheville via Saluda Grade. Several years later the car was spotted in the yards of the North Carolina Transportation Museum.  In 2011 word came out that the “Mardi Gras” was being repainted into its IC livery and would operate on the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad in southern Colorado.  This was a major factor that lured me to plan a visit to the Rio Grande Scenic in summer 2012.

“Mardi Gras” is painted in Norfolk & Western colors in this late 2006 scene
    Rio Grande Scenic inaugurated excursion train service between Alamosa and La Veta, Colorado in 2006.  An impressive array of itineraries is today offered by the Rio Grande Scenic as trains originate from both ends of the line in the morning and meet near the mid-point at Fir where many passengers detrain to attend a concert at open air concert grounds in a beautiful mountain setting.  The train that originated in Alamosa then continues to La Veta where passengers have over an hour to shop, dine, or simply enjoy the town before heading back to Alamosa with a stop at Fir to pick up the concert goers.  Meanwhile, the train that originated in La Veta remains at Fir until after the concert then returns its passengers to La Veta.  Thanks to this schedule coordination it also is possible to ride the morning train from La Veta to Fir then transfer to the train from Alamosa for a quicker return to La Veta.

    Our train departs Alamosa promptly at 9:30am and immediately passes the SLRG shops where several vintage passenger cars are under restoration.  Soon we cross the Rio Grande River and head eastward into the arid scrub country that surrounds Alamosa.  We are seated in the rear part of the “Mardi Gras” and I feel a sense of déjà vu since I rode this car in Virginia and North Carolina almost three decades earlier.  There also is a sense of having gone home again as this car is very similar to the club-observation cars on my beloved City of Miami so long ago.  Ironically one of those very cars, the “Paducah” stands in the SLRG shop under renovation.

The Rio Grande Scenic train prepares for its journey to La Veta

Former Illinois Central observation-club car “Mardi Gras” at Alamosa
Rio Grande Scenic general manager Matt Abbey aboard the “Mardi Gras”

Departing Alamosa

The shops where Pullman Rail Journeys equipment is under restoration
    The mood aboard the “Mardi Gras” is festive as the club car layout with comfortable inward facing seats invites conversation.  We learn that the folks seated opposite us hail from Arizona and that another couple came from New Mexico.  This is an annual journey for both as they enjoy the scenery and atmosphere of this train.  At mid-car the bar is tended by “Robin” a pleasant college student who finds her job aboard this train as well as in the company’s reservations office a perfect complement to her studies at Adams State University in Alamosa. 

    She replenishes trays of tasty Mardi Gras cake and other munchies on the bar which stands below a colorful New Orleans style awning.  Opposite the bar a large mirror with the words “Mardi Gras” etched into the glass harkens back to the days when the Illinois Central decorated its train cars to match the route they served.  The forward end of the “Mardi Gras” contains a mixture of table seating and seats for two just as it did during its IC service.  It is here that we find Ed Ellis, President of Iowa Pacific Holdings which owns the Rio Grande Scenic and various other excursion train lines and David Duncan, Vice President of the Pullman Rail Journeys which inaugurated first class service between Chicago and New Orleans beginning in Fall 2012.

The rear of the “Mardi Gras” was our favorite hangout

The forward end of “Mardi Gras”

Looking from the front toward the center of “Mardi Gras”

The bar and mid-car mirror inside the “Mardi Gras”
    A common theme among much of the refurbished passenger fleet of the Rio Grande Scenic and its sister tourist lines owned under the Iowa Pacific umbrella as well as the Pullman Rail Journeys company is the use of the chocolate brown and orange paint scheme.  We learn that Mr. Ellis also had a fondness for all things Illinois Central during his youth in Paducah, KY.  While he could not use the paint job during his time at Amtrak, Mr. Ellis has splashed the eye-catching colors on his vintage railcars. 

    The 61 mile journey to La Veta is led by 2-8-0 steam locomotive # 18, built in 1910  by Alco for the Lake Superior & Ishpeming.  The oil burning locomotive was operated in recent years by the Grand Canyon Railway until its purchase for use on the Rio Grande Scenic.  Behind the engine and its tender is former Southern Railway open excursion car 1056 “Lookout Mountain”, former Southern open window coach 1068, ex-New York Central dining car 448, ex-Southern open window coach 1067, and the “Mardi Gras”.

    An hour out of Alamosa we reach Fort Garland where a brief stop is made.  As will be the case on our late afternoon return, there are a few photographers out to record the passage of the train.  14,365 foot tall Blanca Peak stands off to the left and many of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains loom ahead.  The rail line has climbed approximately 400 feet since Alamosa as Fort Garland stands at 7,936 feet.  By 11:20am the tracks are assaulting a 2 1/2% grade as they travel between mountains separated by scenic valleys.  Mountain scenery dominates the view from observation car windows and it is interesting to look out the rear window as the track winds and climbs dramatically.  Aspens, Douglas firs, and junipers fill the mountainsides and one can only imagine the colorful scene that must await riders on this train during the autumn.  Shortly a 12º curve around Mule Shoe Loop carries the train to a 60 foot elevation gain.  The tracks are but 100 feet apart as we look down at the rails we traversed just a couple of moments earlier. 

The rear view from the observation car passing through a cut

The twisting rail line approaching La Veta Pass

Passengers socialize in the “Mardi Gras”.  Ed Ellis, President of Iowa Pacific Holdings, and David Duncan,  VP of Pullman Railway Journeys  (holding coffee cups) converse while TrainWeb photographer John Turner talks with Mrs. Ellis (at left side of photo).  (Photo by Jack M. Turner)

The steep grade is evident as the train works its way uphill to Fir

This view from the side of the club car shows new Mule Shoe Loop and the line we traversed just moments earlier.   The older line shown in the foreground is part of the original Mule Shoe Loop.


Another view of Mule Shoe Loop
    Just beyond the loop the train pulls to a stop at Fir at 11:40am.  About half of the passengers detrain and make a very short walk to the concert site where Roy Rivers, a John Denver tribute artist will perform many of the legendary singer’s songs.  The concert site is attractive and is set with a beautiful mountain backdrop.  There is a recently constructed depot at Fir and a second track where the diesel-hauled train from La Veta is parked during the concert.  Its consist includes a pair of bilevel commuter coaches and flat end ex-IC observation car “Calumet Club”.  The elevation at Fir is 9,242 feet and it takes a few deep breaths to acclimate to the altitude.

The Alamosa to La Veta train pauses at Fir

The morning La Veta to Fir train (left) and the Alamosa to La Veta train (right) meet at Fir

Passengers detrain at Fir to attend an open air concert

The concert site at Fir

“Mardi Gras” (left) at “Calumet Club” at Fir.  The flat end observation car “Calumet Club” is on the rear of the train that arrived from La Veta.

“Calumet Club”

An open coach from our train stands next to the “Calumet Club”

Passengers mill about next to the “Mardi Gras” at Fir

New York Central dining car # 448

The view of Mule Shoe Loop from the end of the platform at Fir
    The stop at Fir takes just 15 minutes then the railway embarks upon a 3% grade that leads along the edge of mountainsides as we travel downhill toward La Veta.  The tracks constantly wind around curves as there is a 2,200 foot drop in elevation in the 17 miles to La Veta.  A short tunnel follows at 12:15pm then an announcement is made to keep an eye out on the right hand side as a large bear was spotted from the westbound train from La Veta awhile earlier.  The huge bear was still lumbering around a few feet from the tracks to the delight of passengers and crew alike.  At this point we are seated in the dining car enjoying cheeseburgers along with the spectacular vistas.  As the train winds along a shelf on the side of a mountain we note that the view of a broad valley outside the window across the aisle gives the appearance of looking out of a low flying airplane.  The thought crosses my mind that it doesn’t get much better than traveling over a mountain railroad seated in an Illinois Central observation car and eating in a New York Central diner, on a train hauled by a steam engine.

The La Veta-Fir train

A rock cut east of Fir

Continuing eastward through the Sangre de Cristo range

A huge bear spotted east of Fir

The dining car near the end of lunch service

The author enjoys lunchtime in New York Central diner 448

The view across the dining car aisle resembles the view from a low flying airplane

Mountain views continue to dominate approaching La Veta
    We pull into La Veta at 12:59pm and everyone detrains and heads off to browse in the town’s curio shops, grab lunch at one of its eateries, or just relax in the park located near the railway.  Meanwhile # 18 is uncoupled and backs down one leg of a wye where it will be serviced before pulling down the other leg of the wye and coupling up to what had been the rear of the eastbound train.  Thus for the westward run, # 18 would be coupled to the backward running “Mardi Gras”.  This would leave the open air “Lookout Mountain” with its open platform properly pointed on the rear of the train for the return to Alamosa.

“Mardi Gras” wears Illinois Central colors proudly at La Veta, Colorado

Rear view of “Mardi Gras” during the layover in La Veta

This “City of New Orleans” tail sign matches the original

The locomotive is turned and serviced on a wye seen beyond the “Mardi Gras”
    The westbound climb toward La Veta Pass begins at 2:15pm and we enjoy the unobstructed view from the rear platform of the “Lookout Mountain”.  The 3% grade is especially impressive from this vantage point and the sound of the steam engine working hard is clearly audible.  We pull into Fir at 3:25pm and note that the westbound climb took only 5 minutes more than the downhill descent had taken.  The concert goers climb back aboard and we steam west after the 20 minute stop.  Immediately the train glides around Mule Shoe Loop then passes a deer standing in the woods a hundred yards from the tracks. 

The westbound climb begins just west of La Veta

Passengers enjoy the views from ex-Southern Railway excursion car “Lookout Mountain”

John enjoys the seats in the forward end of “Lookout Mountain”

The return trip provides many views of the train rounding curves

The oil burning locomotive pulls the train into a tunnel

Engine # 18 heads the westbound as it meets the eastbound and “Calumet Club”
    We have returned to the “Mardi Gras” and the topics of conversation are the concert experience and the sights some of us saw along the journey to La Veta.  Singer Roy Rivers joins us and regales everyone with a few stories from his life’s journey then he breaks out his guitar for an impromptu concert.  He starts with “City of New Orleans” which certainly is appropriate since we are riding an authentic observation car from that train’s heyday.  Several John Denver hits such as “Rocky Mountain High”, “Calypso”, and “Country Roads” follow and once more we are transported to an earlier era when the observation-club car was the gathering place on American streamliners.  The socializing continues with ample conversation and laughter then Robin delivers a birthday cake to the table where one of the passengers is seated.  Fellow passengers break into a rendition of “Happy Birthday” led by the outgoing Roy Rivers.  The relaxed atmosphere aboard the “Mardi Gras” makes the return trip seem to pass quickly and we are sorry to see it end when we pull into Alamosa at 5:59pm.

Inside the “Mardi Gras” the bar and etched glass mirror give this car an elegant look

Roy Rivers, a John Denver tribute artist, entertains passengers

Singer Roy Rivers
    The route of the Rio Grande Scenic between Alamosa and La Veta was last served by regularly scheduled passenger service in 1951.  The December 1951 Official Guide of the Railways shows Denver & Rio Grande Western train # 15 departing Pueblo at 12:50pm and running south to Walsenburg where it turned westward.  The stops in La Veta at 2:50pm and Fir at 3:49pm were very similar to today’s westbound schedule as was its 5:30pm arrival in Alamosa.  The eastbound run left Alamosa at 7:00am, a bit early for today’s successful tourist operation.  Connecting service to and from Denver was available in 1951 via transfer at Pueblo.

    Today the San Luis & Rio Grande operates tri-weekly freight service between Alamosa and Walsenburg (where it interchanges with Union Pacific) in addition to the passenger train to La Veta.  Lava rock used for landscaping is the main commodity transported in spring and fall while potatoes are carried from late fall to the holidays.  The San Luis & Rio Grande has recently acquired several former Amtrak refrigerator cars for hauling potatoes grown in the San Luis Valley.  Freight service also operates tri-weekly westward past Monte Vista to Sugar Jct. (where it interchanges with the San Luis Central) and occasional passenger trips are run to Monte Vista.    Freight and passenger trains operate south between Alamosa and Antonito where passengers can connect with the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.  Additionally, the railroad operates impressive shop facilities in Alamosa where Pullman Rail Journeys equipment currently is undergoing restoration.

A Rio Grande Scenic F unit parked in the Alamosa yards

Forward view from the coach vestibule on the trip from Antonito to Alamosa

Giant sand dunes seen from the Rio Grande Scenic shuttle train from Antonito to Alamosa
   Visits to Alamosa can easily be coordinated with rides on other Colorado excursion trains such as the Royal Gorge train, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, and the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge train.  Nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park is a worthwhile destination while in Alamosa and there are scenic drives in all directions from this city.  Numerous hotels are available in Alamosa with the Holiday Inn Express our family favorite.  Rio Grande Scenic operations vary by season thus it is wise to check their schedules before booking a trip to the area.

Rio Grande Scenic Railway
Iowa Pacific Holdings
Pullman Rail Journeys
Roy Rivers

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