The Galloping Goose Trail is named after an interesting contraption once used for passenger service by the Rio Grande Southern (RGS), the railroad which originally built and operated the right-of-way. This system was conceived during the height of Colorado’s mining boom and constructed one of the state’s many narrow-gauge networks. Many of these little operations were abandoned before World War II; however, the RGS grew quite large, and while it too struggled financially, the railroad managed to survive until the early 1950s. The Rio Grande Southern has drawn much interest over the years because of its fascinating, narrow-gauge operation situated in southwestern Colorado’s extremely rugged, yet quite beautiful backcountry of the San Juan Mountains. There have been several books and stories written about its history, while model layouts, along with a few pieces of preserved rolling stock (locomotives and cars), keep alive its memory.
When the Colorado Silver Boom struck in 1879, several railroads were projected to serve this lucrative industry. Many were never built for a variety of reasons, although the primary culprits were lack of funding and the difficulty in blasting a right-of-way through the San Juans. In addition, many that were struggled to survive after the boom collapsed in the early 1890s. A few gained the financial backing and proved successful enough to lay down more than 100 miles of trackage. Some of the names included the Denver & Rio Grande (later Denver & Rio Grande Western); Denver South Park & Pacific; and the Rio Grande Southern. The RGS was the vision of Otto Mears, who was an accomplished businessman in the local mining industry and had already started construction of the Silverton Railroad, a small system that would eventually extend from Silverton (and a connection with the D&RG) to Ironton/Albany, a distance of about 18 miles.
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The narrow-gauge (3-foot) Rio Grande Southern was incorporated on November 5, 1889, and began construction south from Ridgway (where it connected with the D&RG) on March 19, 1890. Despite the difficulty of laying a grade through the rugged terrain, the RGS had completed 45 miles to Telluride by the end of the year. Construction continued on a relatively swift pace because the railroad was built in sections between Ridgway and Durango. As George Hilton notes in his book “American Narrow Gauge Railroads,” some segments were more difficult than others in an attempt to keep grades at least somewhat manageable. One of the most tortuous segments was at Lizard Head Pass at elevation 10,250 feet. The location’s most impressive engineering feature was the Ophir Loop, between Milepost 43 and 47, which used a tight horseshoe curve and nine different wooden trestles of various sizes to gain elevation to reach Matterhorn; here, grades were as steep as 3.5%. In the process, the line spanned the Lake Fork and Howard Fork of the San Miguel River.
Crews continued working to complete the Rio Grande Southern throughout 1891, and the first train ran the entire 162 miles between Ridgway and Durango on January 2, 1892. The railroad’s only significant branch was the 7 miles from Vance Junction to Telluride; its route roughly resembled a crooked “L.” It snaked its way southward from Ridgway, reaching small mining towns such as Placerville, Telluride, Ophir, and Rico before turning east from Dolores and terminating at Durango. In its first few years of operation, the RGS earned healthy profits from silver and gold ore from the numerous mines located along its system. It also handled other freight such as lumber, coal, livestock, and agriculture as well as passengers, mail, and various less-than-carload movements. Silver, in particular, became a stable source of traffic after the Sherman Silver Act of 1890 made it a profitable precious metal by increasing the amount the government was required to purchase monthly. Unfortunately, the oversupply resulted in the price of silver dropping sharply (and was one cause of the financial Panic of 1893), forcing then-President Grover Cleveland to repeal the act in 1893. This move seriously hurt the Rio Grande Southern, along with other railroads, and it entered receivership on August 2 that year.
The crash also caused Otto Mears to lose control of his railroad, and it would eventually become the property of the Denver & Rio Grande. The RGS struggled financially throughout much of the next half-century it remained in service. The railroad was extremely difficult to operate because of stiff grades, tight curves, and numerous bridges along its route. In addition, winters sometimes nearly shut down the railroad entirely, while flooding was seemingly always a threat. Incredibly, the RGS soldiered on through the 1920s when it continued hauling various ores and other remaining freight. The Great Depression resulted in a second bankruptcy on December 11, 1929. From here on, the company mostly limped along as an unwanted appendage of the then-Denver & Rio Grande Western. Its last bright spot occurred during World War II when the government was interested in the uranium ores and tailings mined in the region.
After the war, the RGS lost many of its remaining mining customers to trucks and was granted permission to suspend operations entirely on December 17, 1951. The unused tracks were later pulled up during the summer of 1952. Despite its closure, the Rio Grande Southern is fondly remembered for its breathtaking scenery with the slogan “Silver San Juan Scenic Line.” The views it afforded were so popular, the railroad often hosted special excursion trips for the public. And then there were the famous “Galloping Geese.” These interesting contraptions were the idea of RGS receiver Victor Miller who wanted to reduce operating costs by replacing passenger trains with a gasoline-powered railcar since by the early 1930s few folks still rode the railroad. They were somewhat similar to self-propelled railcars used on larger, standard-gauged railroads for the same purpose (such as the classic “Doodlebugs”). However, the “Galloping Geese” were custom-built from standard automobile sedans manufactured by either the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company or Buick.
The sedan section carried passengers, while a boxcar-like addition was attached to the rear for mail, express, and any other potential freight that might be available. The cars were painted silver with the stylized “Rio Grande Southern” name on their side. In all, seven units were manufactured between 1931 and 1936, and given #1 through #7. The “Galloping Geese” name derives from the back-and-forth swaying of the cars while traveling down the track as well as the “honking” sound of their horns. Today, six or the original seven are preserved.
Railroad attractions across Colorado include:
Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden
Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow-Gauge Railroad in Cripple Creek
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic in Antonito
Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge in Durango
Forney Museum of Transportation and Platte Valley Trolley in Denver
Fort Collins Municipal Railway in Fort Collins
Galloping Goose Historical Society in Dolores
Georgetown Loop Railroad in Georgetown
Greeley Freight Station Museum in Greeley
Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad in Leadville
Limon Heritage Museum & Railroad Park in Limon
Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig
Pike’s Peak Cog Railway in Manitou
Pueblo Railway Museum in Pueblo
Ridgway Railroad Museum in Ridgway
Rio Grande Scenic in Alamosa
Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Canon City
Tiny Town Railroad in Morrison (scale train rides)
Windsor Museum in Windsor, housed inside the town’s preserved Colorado & Southern depot