Communications on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Narrow Gauge Railroad Part I

by Gregory S. Raven

January 2000


The Denver and Rio Grande Western's Fourth Division, universally known as the "Narrow Gauge", was an anachronism well before its abandonment in 1969. This division of the railroad was built in 1880 to tap the resources of southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico. Also called the "San Juan Extension", it was built with rails 3 feet apart.

The San Juan Extension continued in operation with steam locomotives until abandonment in 1969, long after steam technology was replaced on other railroads with diesels. Unusual circumstances caused this mountain railroad to become frozen in time, using equipment and operating practices dating to the late 19th century.

Two small segments of the D&RGW narrow gauge have been preserved almost in their entirety. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad straddles the Colorado and New Mexico border. Here 64 miles of the original narrow gauge mainline are preserved along with century old structures and rolling stock. During the summer passenger trains crowded with tourists experience the railroad almost as it was when abandoned by the D&RGW in December of 1969.

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a branch line that was built to tap the highly mineralized area around Silverton Colorado. This railroad was operated by the D&RGW until the line was sold to a private operation in 1982.

Not seen on the narrow gauge as it is preserved today are the communication facilities and associated operating practices that were essential to running the D&RGW's 4th Division. The purpose of this article is to document this aspect of D&RGW railroad operations before it is lost to history. A second article, in which I received much insightful information and assistance from John Norwood, gives an "as it really was" feeling and adds realism to this story.

From the 1923 "Official Roster No. 11 of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad System and the Rio Grande Southern Railroad Company". The Narrow Gauge was at its zenith when this roster was issued.

Go to Page 2