Coal Creek at Dusk

One cool summer evening in July 1986 we went train-hunting at the mouth of Coal Creek Canyon, south of Boulder. At this time the Rio Grande railroad was still an independent entity. Had I known how short-lived that situation would be, I would have shot more film!

We parked at Blue Mountain crossing and followed the track to the west. We expected the eastbound Amtrak train number 6, the California Zephyr, to pass shortly, and it didn’t disappoint.

AMTK California Zephyr Coal Creek Canyon As it descended the opposite side of the canyon, I played with perspective a little– in this shot the train appears the same size as the 135-lb rail on the closer track! During this period the Zephyr was combined with the Desert Wind east of Salt Lake, making for a pretty long train.
AMTK California Zephyr Coal Creek Canyon Soon the train had negotiated the curves across the mouth of the canyon and was approaching us on the south slope.
AMTK316 AMTK358 A pair of F40PH locomotives, standard Amtrak power of the time, had the train in hand. Both wore the Phase III stripes.

AMTK_3 California Zephyr Coal Creek
The cars wore a mixture of paint phases (II and III). Here the coaches are followed by the lounge and diner. Sleepers are to the rear.
AMTK_4 As the tail of the train trundles past, my cousin and his family try (too late) to get out of the shot. Not to worry, though, since now I can razz him about the scruffy beard…
Studying my photos, I have determined the consist, which was as follows:


  • Power (F40PH’s 358 & 316, both painted Heritage 3)
  • Baggage car #1216, fluted, in H3
  • Baggage car, unknown #, smooth-sided, in H3
  • High-level (ex-ATSF) coach/dorm, unknown #, in H3
  • Sleeper, unknown #, in H3
  • Coach, unknown #, in H3
  • Coach, unknown #, in H2
  • Coach, unknown #, in H3
  • Sightseer Lounge, unknown #, in H2
  • Diner, unknown #, in H3
  • Coach, unknown #, in H3
  • Sleeper, unknown #, in H3
  • Coach, unknown #, in H2
  • Sleeper # 32050, in H2

A little more information on Amtrak operations during this period:

East of Salt Lake City, the train was a combination of 3 different trains– the CZ, the Desert Wind (SLC – Los Angeles), and the Pioneer (SLC – Seattle). Some cars from the other two trains ran through to/from Chicago, making for an elongated Zephyr.
Compare photos from the 1980s to contemporary scenes and the difference in train length is obvious.

In my photos above, in all likelihood, all cars behind the diner came off the Pioneer and Desert Wind. Both of those routes were discontinued in 1997.

After Amtrak had gone round the bend, we continued up the line to a point where the tracks pass through a cut just east of the bridge. We had heard a westbound train announce its presence from the direction of Rocky, so we set up to wait for it.

Train No. 101, a westbound hotshot consisting primarily of piggyback trailers, was powered by a quartet of SD40T-2 “tunnel motors”. By now it was dusk and the light was pretty chancy. The front end of the train was filled out with RBL cars carrying Coors beer to customers west of the Rockies. Eight sixty-foot insulated cars… that’s a lotta beer… DRGW101_1 Train 101 Coal Creek Canyon
Number 5348 was the lead unit. Sadly, it was wrecked at Pando on Tennessee Pass, along with sister No. 5370 on Nov. 22, 1994. Even using ASA200 film it was hard not to get motion blur.
drgw101_2 DRGW5348
See what I mean about the dim light? Here’s the trailing unit. I can’t read its number, unfortunately. DRGW101_3 Coal Creek Canyon
As the train wound past us and up the opposite side of the valley, we got a good broadside look at the power climbing the grade toward tunnel 1. As the tail end went past, I saw my very first FRED on a D&RGW train. It caught me off-guard and I didn’t get a shot of it. Cabooses had been phased out in October 1985 on this line, but I hadn’t been in the area train-chasing during that interval. DRGW101_4 Coal Creek Canyon

By now it was getting pretty dark, but we heard yet another train coming up from Denver, so we waited around. Shortly train 103, a long manifest train, rumbled past. It had a lone SD45 shoving on the rear. But this train didn’t completely disappear– it stopped with the tail end hanging out of tunnel 1. I now know that this is the practice when westbound trains enter the siding at Plainview, to keep from fouling the grade crossing for extended periods. Anyway, we ended up walking all the way up the grade to the rear of the train, kinda studying things. We were smart enough not to attempt something stupid like actually climbing up on the helper unit, but we were close enough to feel the heat and smell the oil. Nothing happened, and it being now completely dark we decided to head back to the cars at Blue Mountain. That’s a long hike in the dark, by the way, with a dog and a baby along!

It has been 35 years since that night, yet I can still remember all the sensations and experiences, such as the way the velvety leaves stuck to our socks! The rails are still there, but it’s all Union Pacific now, and tunnel motors are a thing of the past, as is the Rio Grande. Thank God for memory, and for Kodak…

© James R. Griffin. All rights reserved.

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