The MODERN NARROW GAUGE CIRCLE: Its HERITAGE

The water tank still stands at the foot of Marshall Pass in Sargents, once a helper station
on the Rio Grande's main line to Utah, the northern loop of the Narrow Gauge Circle.


The shrill cry of whistles echoes off the peaks,
cross compounds go ka-thunk, ka-thunk.
The sharp crack of exhausts bouncing up the valleys,
the chuff-chuff-chuffing of heavy freights.

Once these sounds ruled the meadows and hills, floating
across the San Juan, Conejos, Sawatch and San Miguel Peaks.
Above Toltec Gorge and through the black Canyon,
beside the rushing Animas, South Platte, and Clear Creek.

Across the lonesome beauty of Cumbres, Boreas, and Lizard Head,
to Alamosa, Como, Telluride and old Rico.
Through the Alpine Tunnel
and over the loops at Devil’s Gate and Ophir.

It was a time when mining was king,
when even the rugged Rockies
were no match for the men who risked all
on fortune and dreams.

When the narrow gauge served the rich mines
of Leadville, Silverton, Cripple Creek and Creede. When
passengers rode the SAN JUAN, SHAVANO, and “Over the Loop,”
on the South Park, RGS, Rio Grande and C&S.


675 miles southwest
through the San Juan and back.
You could travel the Narrow Gauge Circle,
and never twice over the same track.

And to the north,
yet more narrow gauge.
Through South Park, by the Arkansas,
and from Golden, due west.

Today you can still hear these magical sounds,
they float like ghostly whispers,
mixing with the wind in the aspen and pines,
bringing a reminder of a more glorious time.

For trains still pass through
lonely Osier, flanges still squeal
in the Animas Canyon,
and whistles still waft down to old Georgetown.

The Rockies bear many haunting sounds,
of old mines, lost dreams, and towns gone ghost.
And the still present sound of the narrow gauge,
more haunting than most!



At the start of the 20th century, approximately 675 miles of narrow gauge railroad in southwestern Colorado became famous as the "Narrow Gauge Circle." The southern part of the circle was comprised of the Denver & Rio Grande's "San Juan Extension" westward from its line south of Denver through Antonito and across the Conejos range of the San Juan Mountains via Cumbres Pass, then through Chama, New Mexico, and Durango to reach Silverton in 1882.

To the north, the Grande's "Utah Extension" headed west from Pueblo through Salida and over Marshall Pass through Gunnison into Ogden, Utah in 1883. A 37 mile branch from Montrose ran south to Ouray, a scant 24 miles north of Silverton. Because of the sheer, precipitous cliffs separating the two ends of track, a connection was not feasible, although by 1889 the Silverton Railroad out of Silverton had reached Albany, only six air miles from Ouray.
A HERITAGE PRESERVED
A D&RG train sits on this isolated portion of the Crystal Creek trestle at Cimarron on the D&RG line through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison that formed the northern edge of the original narrow gauge circle; and (below right and left) D&RG 346, which served on both the Rio Grande and Rio Grande Southern as well as connecting lines, operates several times a year at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.


Soon, 1000 mile "Around the Circle" trips from Denver, with a stage ride between Ouray and Silverton, were being advertised by the railroad. Then in 1891 the 171 mile Rio Grande Southern RR was completed connecting with the two Rio Grande lines at Durango and Ridgway (11 miles north of Ouray); and with the joining of Salida and Alamosa with a narrow gauge line in 1890, a passenger could travel throughout southwestern Colorado and back to the starting point, and never pass over the same rails twice. This "Narrow Gauge Circle" lasted until 1949 when the Rio Grande started to abandon its narrow gauge lines.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN.....
Three narrow gauge "feeder" lines ran from Silverton to area mines. The old grade of one of these, the Silverton Northern which between 1896 and 1942 ran for 13 miles up the Animas River Canyon to the mining town of Animas Forks, can still be seen. And the old Denver, South Park & Pacific / Denver, Leadville & Gulf / Colorado & Southern stone roundhouse still stands in old Como at the eastern foot of Boreas Pass in South Park. Before the mining boom faded, plans were in the making for a connection of the Silverton Northern with the Rio Grande's Lake City branch less than 15 air miles over Cinnamon Pass, which would have created another circle of D&RG narrow gauge trackage. And had the C&S line west from Silver Plume been successfully extended on through the Continental Divide to meet up with the C&S line in Leadville running over Boreas Pass, yet another complete circle of tracks would have been formed.

To the north of the Rio Grande system, another circle of 200 miles of narrow gauge rails almost came into existence in the mid-1880s. The Union Pacific's Denver, South Park & Pacific RR out of Denver built over Boreas Pass and through the Blue River Valley into Leadville. The UP's Colorado Central narrow gauge line from Denver to Georgetown also began construction west to Leadville (as the Georgetown, Breckenridge & Leadville RR) with plans to cross the Divide via Loveland Pass and meet the South Park line. Changing economics stopped the completion of this Leadville extension, and so this second "narrow gauge circle" was never formed, but the start of construction west from Georgetown created the famous Georgetown Loop.
A HERITAGE CONTINUED
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic, restored Rio Grande Southern Gallopin Geese, Durango & Silverton, and the recreated Georgetown Loop.





But today, it can be argued that a "Modern Narrow Gauge Circle" exists! Like the original circle formed by two Rio Grande lines and the Rio Grande Southern, this modern "circle" consists of the two remaining sections of original Rio Grande (the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic, the Durango & Silverton) and the tracks of another railroad, the reconstructed Georgetown Loop RR.

And, as there were other narrow gauge branch lines connecting with the historic circle, today authentic Rio Grande Southern, Denver & Rio Grande and other narrow gauge trains still operate at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden and at museums in other states. Today one can enjoy a "circular" trip, visiting each line in turn while taking a journey back in time, experiencing the hissing of steam, the sweet smell of coal smoke, the sound of whistles echoing back and forth off the valley walls, and all the nostalgia and charm of Colorado narrow gauge country.

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Coal Smoke Over the Conejos     Squealing Flanges Along the Animas
Whistles Over Clear Creek     The Mystery of Jukes Tree

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