San Luis Valley in Transition

Out with the Old, In with the New...

(page 2)

The drive to Antonito takes less than a half-hour, but the train was going much slower than us so there was really no hurry.  We passed it before La Jara, and headed on down to the bridge over the Conejos River on the north edge of Antonito.  Ken was there again, and we scrounged around for old boxcar door seals in the ballast while we waited.  They were everywhere-- little rusty strips of metal with numbers stamped in them.

Here's a look at the approaching train.  Fear not; I'm at 200mm telephoto and the train is still several minutes away.  The bridge still has a Rio Grande- Royal Gorge Route herald painted on the left-hand truss face.  It's hard to make out at this distance, but quite plain if you walk up to it.
Here are several shots of the train as it approaches and crosses the bridge.  I thought that five units and six cars looked ridiculous, but three locomotives and one car beat that by a long shot...
Nearly there...
On the bridge now...
See what I mean about it being a short train?  Now, if only the good light had been on the Grande units...

(Mind you, I have nothing against the Cotton Belt; just a lot more *for* the D&RGW.  Sue me...)

The perlite and scoria operations are just beyond the south edge of town.  Scoria is loaded on a siding north of the perlite plant, by a simple mobile conveyor loader.  Scoria, by the way, is simply volcanic rock-- used for decorative landscaping, among other things.  Perlite is a silicous mineral used in construction, horticultural, and industrial applications (see here for more information).

 Here we see scoria loading into open hoppers, as the train passes by on the east side.
The crew cleared the south switch of the small holding yard by the scoria loadout, and backed the whole "train" onto the siding.
As the power clears the main, we can clearly see the perlite plant, operated by Harborlite Corporation..
 Now the power is switching the perlite plant.  We had moved to a vacant field to the east of the plant to watch.  The locomotives are the dark silhouette in the center.
 Here's another look at the storage elevators at the Harborlite plant.
 After gathering up the outbound covered hoppers of perlite, the train (with the Rio Grande units on the point now) moved back toward the scoria loadout to collect a few more cars.
 The head end passes by an unused conveyor loader...
 ... and the eighteen loaded cars trundle past.
 Here the crew prepare to hook on the five cars of scoria that are today's shipment.
 The San Luis Valley is known for its windy conditions.  Here we see microdunes of volcanic rock, highlighted by lighter-colored windblown sand.  Scoria hoppers in the background.
 On the other side of the track, a worker pushes around scoria with a front-end loader.
 The train is now assembled for the return trip.  Here it passes the old junction with the narrow-gauge line to Chama and points west (now the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic RR).

The hard part about photographing this operation is the light.  Operations typically take place during mid-day, and the track runs nearly north-south, so the sun doesn't illuminate either side of the train particularly well.


This was the end of my slide film.  I went ahead and loaded up with print film for the rest of the shots for this day.

Here's an obligatory shot of the Cumbres & Toltec, with K-37 No. 495 resting near the interchange.  This class of engine was the largest ever to operate on the Rio Grande's narrow gauge system; they were rebuilt from standard-gauge locomotives in the Twenties.


We headed back north, stopping in La Jara to shoot a roll-by.  The light, again, was terrible, although that didn't stop me from burning a roll of film.    Some of the rolling stock photos are here.  It seemed we had to wait forever for the train to arrive, and probably looked a little foolish, kicking around the back lots along the tracks downtown.  On the other hand, I suspect the locals are used to it by now...

Here the train makes its appearance.  It sure was nice to see those two Grandes on the point!
Here the train makes its appearance.  It sure was nice to see those two Grandes on the point!
Nearly broadside now, the train rolls by at a stately 20 mph or thereabouts...
Now past us, the town hall (ex-depot, from the look of it) is visible in front of No. 3121.
Both Rio Grande units are showing their stuff in this look.  I know, I know, they're owned by UP now.  Details...
The whole power suite is now past us.
Ken and his purple jeep are visible in this shot, as the train rumbles past.

That was pretty much it for the day.  We passed the train again on the way north, but didn't stop anymore.  It had been a long day, and we still had a four-hour drive ahead of us.  Back in Alamosa we saw the other two SSW units returning from Monte Vista, but weren't in a position to photograph them.  And this was the last I saw of the D&RGW / SP / UP tenure in the San Luis Valley.

Four months later it was summer, and the sale had finally gone through.  We just happened to be camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park, and were returning home on June 30.  As luck would have it, this was the first day of operation for the new San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad, owned by RailAmerica.  The first day on the job had its share of headaches, evidently, since the locals hadn't departed by noon.  I managed a few shots downtown, and again of the Monte Vista local as it returned.

 Viewed from the south side of the downtown yard, the new power is lined up next to the depot.  There are two paint schemes represented here.  The Monte Vista local is on the right, heading out with a cut of tank cars.
A closer look at HLCX No. 4301, in its maroon-and-blue livery (or is that brown?  I couldn't tell).  It turns out that this unit was originally Rio Grande No. 3065, a GP40-- back on home rails, albeit in camouflage...
The MV local returns later.  This is the first time I'd seen a unit running tail-end-first in the valley.  Evidently they didn't bother to turn the unit on the wye at Sugar Junction.
 A little closer now.  My camera was acting up and underexposing everything on this day, dern it...
Here she is, No. 805.  I hoped that someday they would see fit to paint these locomotives, but it never happened.

And there you have it.  The Alamosa Subdivision, as it came to be called, had been under Rio Grande ownership (and successor corporations) for 126 years.  Its patterns of operation had changed over time, but it was always part of the larger system.  Even into the UP era, Rio Grande equipment was common.  Now that is no more.  The San Luis & Rio Grande interchanges with UP at Walsenburg, handing off traffic to a UP local called out of Pueblo.

However, the sale was more positive than negative, leaving nostalgia to the side.  Never loved by UP, the line has a bright future with its new owners.  Perhaps not long in the future we will see the rails advancing rather than retreating in the San Luis Valley.

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? 2003, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved.