Captured on Camera at Cotopaxi , 1996


About three weeks prior to Southern Pacific's merger with Union Pacific, we made a trip to Cotopaxi, CO, on the Arkansas River west of the Royal Gorge.  The purpose was to shoot trains for CTC Journal's annual "Day in North America" photography event (see my article for more photos and explanation).  I shot slides on the day of the event (August 17, 1996), but loaded with print film on the following day.  That morning I managed to bag a few interesting trains on the line.  Since the line is effectively abandoned now, these operations are all the more interesting.


We were camping at the KOA, which abuts the Arkansas river directly across from Rio Grande's original mainline through the Royal Gorge and beyond.  Unfortunately, there is a dense growth of scrub oak and other trees on the south bank, so I had to scramble down the bank to get a clean photo.  One did not always have a lot of warning of oncoming trains, but I did get pretty good at the "commando" drill.

We were packing up at a leisurely pace on the 18th when I heard a lame-sounding set of horns up the valley.  I took off for the river, camera in tow, thinking that a locomotive with only two working chimes on the horn was one whose maintenance had been deferred as the merger approached.  Could this be a Rio Grande unit?  I fervently hoped so.

Sure enough, as the eastbound train rolled into view, I recognized the distinctive stripes of the Rio Grande.  I knew I'd be burning some film today...
As the train approached, I lamented the rocks and trees on the far bank that blocked the view in places.  Even so, I could tell that this was a lot more than a single Rio Grande locomotive.  In fact, there were three tunnel motors on this train, plus an EMD Leasing SD40-2.  Even in 1996, it had become rare to see so much D&RGW power concentrated in one place.
One of my all-time favorite photos-- the entire head end, reflected in the waters of the river.

(Note: this photo appears in my book)

The lead unit is SD40T-2 No. 5364.  We got a toot and a friendly wave from the engineer.  You better believe he knew what he was running on this day!  The 5364 has managed to survive to this time with minimal modifications-- only the rerail frog was missing.
Second in line was No. 5359.  Like her sister ahead of her, she was in dire need of a bath.  Judging by the open access door on the hood, they must have had some trouble with her on the trip.
I didn't get a shot of the EMD unit.  No auto-winder, you know...
Last in line was No. 5376, cleaner and modified to current Southern Pacific specs, i.e. the horn was relocated and ditch lights were added.
See what I mean about the trees?  Here the train rumbles eastward with its load of coal.  A gorgeous sight.
One last look as the train enters the curve east of the campground.  It was great to see tunnel motors doing what they were designed to do-- take coal out of the mountains.

Not long after this, I heard another eastbounder coming, so I got set up and recorded this set of fairly-new SP AC4400s leading the train.  These locomotives are what supplanted most Rio Grande power from coal trains.   They are about to change ownership to UP, but it turned out that they were kept largely in Colorado and largely in their original paint.  I went for "artsy" on the photo.
The train gets closer now, coasting down the grade at about 35 MPH.  I must confess, I think these locomotives were striking in this livery, especially when new.
There they go, headed for Pueblo and points east.  Only two locomotives were on the train, a testamony to the power of the new units.
A little later, I heard a westbound coming but was too late to get down the riverbank.  Here's what I saw through the trees:
A set of SP tunnel motors bracketing yet another Rio Grande unit!  This is No. 5363.  This was the last Rio Grande power I saw on the line before our departure...

There was more to see along the river than just trains.  For example:

Green acorns in the oak trees...
Berries of some kind growing in the thicket...
The web of an orb-weaver spider...
... and more to do than just photograph trains, such as:
Tossing wild apples in the river for the dogs to retrieve.  The kids loved this, and so did the younger half of the dogs.

I did roll-bys of several other trains from this location over the three days, but frankly many of them start to look the same after a while.  One train from the 17th stood out, though.  It was the fourth westbound I'd seen on that morning, and the first one containing any Rio Grande power.  At 7:42 AM, it came into view from my perch on a rock on the bank of the river.

The train was led by four EMD units, including three tunnel motors.
I rotated the camera vertically to frame the shot with the ponderosa that was leaning out from the bank.  This photo also appears in my book.  The sun had risen enough by this time to cast direct light on the tracks, though the river was still in shadow.
 The lead unit was this Southern Pacific tunnel snoot, No. 8324 (note the elongated nose).  On the drawbar was a newer (and cleaner) GP60.
Our Rio Grande unit, No. 5403, was third in line and facing rearward.  Looking good! 
This was a manifest train, heavy with covered hoppers in CP Rail lettering.  The red ScotchLite lettering really caught the sunlight, I recall.  Here we see the power headed up the canyon, on its way to Tennessee Pass, Grand Junction, and points west.

 I didn't know it then, but it was nearing the end of times when you could see a solid set of EMD standard-cab units on a mainline train.  All of the tunnel motors on this train were retired by UP within just a few years.


We haven't been back to this campground since then.  The rail line across the river is quiet now, since UP discontinued service over Tennessee Pass, and the last online customers in Leadville folded their tent.  Only the occasional special movement travels the line this far now.  Tunnel motors are almost a thing of the past now.  I am very glad I got these images while I still could!


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