Passages at Coal Creek Canyon, 1984


Shortly before graduating from college in 1984 I received a Minolta X700 camera from my parents.  Of course I had to try it out, and the best place to do that (in my view) was trackside on the Rio Grande. Living in Boulder at the time made it easy-- yea, mandatory-- to visit Coal Creek canyon, where the Grande's tracks begin their assault on the Front Range.

The railroad had ceased operating its Rio Grande Zephyr the previous spring, and Amtrak was now in its place. The one consolation for the loss of the Zephyr was that the F9 trio was powering the Ski Train, at least for that season.  I was fortunate to photograph it on three occasions, twice using my new camera (the other time using a 110 instamatic-- no further comment required).  Of course, the Rio Grande ran much more than just the Ski Train, and I bagged some of the other offerings as well.

(Note: many of these images have been re-scanned directly from the negatives, so the clarity and color is greatly improved.  - Jim)


First time out with the new toy was in March-- probably the 31st, as best as I can figure.   That Saturday morning was cold, snowing fitfully, and had low overcast.  We drove up to the mouth of the canyon, parked next to the bridge, and climbed up to the top of the hill on the north side of the bridge where we could see trains approaching from the east.  There were several other intrepid (read: crazy) photogs in the area that day.

The very first picture with this camera was of the westbound Amtrak California Zephyr as it approached the bridge over Colo 72.  The CZ was longer back then, since it was combined with the Desert Wind over this portion of the route.
The train has crossed the bridge and is looping around to head for tunnel 1 on the hogback behind us.  Here it's passing through the cut north of the bridge. Today's power is two F40PH locomotives-- No. 265 in Phase II paint, No. 374 in Phase III.  Did I mention how deep the snow was?
Here we can see most of the train as it climbs up toward tunnel 1.  Yes, it was every bit as cold as it looks.  Am I belaboring that point? 


Shortly the westbound Ski Train was heard approaching from the direction of Rocky.  That tenor bark of the 567 diesels in the F9s is a sound not heard today, and was quite distinct from anything else running on the line in 1984.  

The first shot I took was way too distant for the 50mm lens, but you can get a feel for the landscape transited by the railroad.
Finally close enough to see the train somewhat.  The Ski Train is winding through the curves leading into the mouth of the canyon.  Fingers are going rather numb by this time.
... rounding the curve...
... passing through the cut before the bridge...
... crossing the bridge now, and about to go into the cut through the small ridge we're standing on...
Here she is, the queen of the Fleet-- F9 No. 5771 and her sisters.  That's steam generator No. 253 in the middle, the ex-Alco PB unit...
... followed by the combine and eight heavyweight coaches.  Note the snow on the roofs, and the way it has melted along the ribs.
Turning around, we see the head end in all its glory, climbing toward the tunnel.  From this angle, one could think it was the Rio Grande Zephyr of the previous year!


More than half the train appears in the shot, roaring up the 2% grade.
Here the entire train is visible. Those old Ski Train coaches always looked so pretty on a snowy day...  old, but stately, as it were.
A last look as the head end rounds the bend and enters the tunnel.  Now the toes have gone numb. Time to head for the car and a cup of hot chocolate.  Sounds pretty good right about now!

The following weekend, I went back out to catch the returning Ski Train on Sunday afternoon (April 8, if my chronology is correct).  This time I went to the opposite side of the valley, near Blue Mountain crossing.  The weather was considerably warmer, though there were still patches of snow here and there.

On this day the Ski Train was preceded by a unit coal train, the famous CSUX train (Colorado Springs Department of Public Utilities), with its hoppers carrying the distinctive CSDPU surrounded by lightning stripes.  For more information on the CSUX train, click here.  Coal Creek is a great location for getting a good idea of the true size of a mile-long train, since you can see most of it strung out around the looping track.

Here the head end approaches, having already crossed over the bridge.  Look to the right, and you see the middle of the train on the opposite side of the valley.
 Getting a little closer now.  The power consisted of four SD40T-2 tunnel motors, spliced in the middle by an SD45.
Dynamic brakes are howling as the five locomotives attempt to hold back the thousands of tons of coal and steel on the grade.
Here's a representative sample of the "contents" of the train.  These Ortner 5-bay hoppers ran for over 20 years in this service.  Here they are about 5 years old, in the original paint scheme.  They ran in a set of 73 cars at this time.
Here's a nice surprise-- a rear helper consisting of a pair of GP40-2s, hanging onto the caboose for all they're worth.  This would be the West Helper, a set of locomotives kept in Tabernash to help heavy trains up to the west portal of the Moffat Tunnel, and often left on trains to assist with dynamic braking on the descent into Denver.
Here's a good look at the helper.  Notice the red classification lights, indicating that this is the rear end of the train, not the front.  Nos. 3111 and 3117 are looking sharp this day.  A caboose in the 01400 series is just ahead of No. 3117.


Not long after the CSUX receded into the east, the Ski Train came down the hill.  I had hiked up to the cut before the bridge to get a different angle, and was glad I did.

Here it comes, descending the opposite side of the canyon mouth.  Contrast the barren slopes with the snowy blanket in the photos above-- we had been standing on the ridge just ahead of the train in this photo.
The train is now crossing the bridge over Highway 72, just a few seconds away from our perch above the cut in the hill.   That's a highway department facility in the foreground.
Here's what happens when you're not extremely familiar with your camera, get excited, and forget to wind the film after your previous shot!  I had the train all lined up in the cut, ready for the perfectly framed portrait, only to get no action out of the shutter when I hit the release.  Panic!!!  I cranked and shot "from the hip" and got this look.  Actually, it's a nice up-close look at the nose of the unit, and has been quite useful for modeling purposes, so it worked out OK.
Well, now I'm cranking like a fool to get as many shots as I can while the train passes by just a few feet away.  Here's a good look at the power.

The train continues to roll by...


...the tail end comes into view... somebody's getting a nice ride, standing in the rear vestibule...


And here the train rolls on its way back to Denver.   This image is the last one I ever took of the Fs in motion.


I'm pretty certain that this was the final run of the 1984 Ski Train season.  Since that was the last year the F9s were used in this service, these scenes were never to be repeated.  The Fs were used in drag service for a few more months, then were retired and deadlined at Burnham shops in Denver, the last of a line of "covered wagons" that stretched back to 1942.   Now the 5771 and one of the B units are stuffed and mounted at the Colorado Railroad Museum, and it's nice to be able to see them, but somehow it's just not the same.

Now the Ski Train is re-equipped with the much newer Tempo cars, and is much more comfortable than before (from what I'm told-- I never rode the older version).  The Rio Grande has gone the way of mergers, and even the CSUX train has been re-equipped with shiny new silver-and-green cars.   It's not possible to recreate these images anymore.  Times change, that much is certain.  One day the contemporary AC4400s will be the subject of nostalgia!


2004, 2005, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved.