Denver & Rio Grande Western Drop Bottom Gondola 812

Even the fresh paint can’t cover the scars from the past on 812’s “not so good” side. July 2014
Even the fresh paint can’t cover the scars from the past on 812’s “not so good” side. July 2014

Denver & Rio Grande Western drop bottom gondola 812 was built by the National Car Company in 1904 as part of a group of 100 such cars numbered 800-899. At the same time, the Rio Grande took delivery of another 100 drop bottom gondolas, numbered 700-799. The main difference between the two classes of cars was that, when built, the 800 series drop bottom gondolas were equipped with tall racks on their sides and ends to allow them to carry a full load (by weight) of coke. Coke is a processed coal that is used in metal refining and steel furnaces. It is much less dense than coal, thus 25 tons of coke takes up more space than 25 tons of coal.

The drop bottom gondolas featured doors in the floor of the car that could be lowered via levers on the ends of the car, allowing gravity to unload much of the car’s contents. While some hand shoveling still had to be done to get all of the load out of the car, the drop bottom cars were much easier to unload than a standard gondola, where the contents had to shoveled out over the sides.

In 1918, the coke racks were removed from the 800 series cars. In 1926, both the 700 and 800 series cars were rebuilt at the Alamosa shops. During the rebuild, the cars received new steel center and end sills, along with a new mechanism for the drop doors and emerged in their final configuration. The Rio Grande used the drop bottom cars almost exclusively for hauling coal or cinders from the locomotive ash pits in Alamosa, Chama and Durango. (The cinders were often used as ballast along the tracks.) Surviving records from the 1950’s show that 812 was often used to ship coal from mines served by the narrow gauge to the power plant in Alamosa.

D&RGW AX 812 behind the Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado. August, 2004.
D&RGW AX 812 behind the Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado. August, 2004.

In 1961 the Navajo Reservoir project required the relocation of several miles of the Rio Grande’s track around Arboles, Colorado (southeast of Durango) as the line would be flooded once the reservoir was filled. As part of the project, the Bureau of Reclamation hired a contractor to build some eight miles of new railroad that would be above the lake’s waterline. The contractor purchased several high side and drop bottom gondolas from the Rio Grande for use in constructing the new track. Many of the cars were used to spread gravel ballast along the line. 812 was among the cars sold to the contractor for the project.

Once the new line was completed, the contractor returned the cars to the D&RGW, which only grudgingly took them back. As all of the cars had been stricken from the railroad’s roster when they were sold, they were re-entered in the records with an “AX” prefix in front of their number. (AX was a designation that the Rio Grande used for its work equipment.) Thus, 812 became “AX-812”, a number it retains today.

Following the end of narrow gauge freight operations in 1968, AX-812 was one of the cars retained by the D&RGW for use on the Silverton branch. In 1981, the car was sold to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, along with the Silverton Branch. Over the next couple of years, the D&SNG began using some of the long-dormant drop bottom gondolas as ballast cars, even repainting a few and lettering them for the new railroad.

Though not repainted, 812 was one of the cars put to use by the D&SNG in 1982 or so to place ballast on the newly rebuilt Home Ranch siding outside of Durango. While being unloaded at some point, both sets of drop doors on one side of the car were opened at once, causing the opposite side of the car to suddenly weigh 12 tons more than the now empty side. As a result, 812 rolled over onto the loaded side, causing the wall to be bent out and twisting the car’s frame. The car was unloaded, re-railed and placed into storage on some yard tracks behind the Strater Hotel in downtown Durango, where it remained for the next quarter century. During that time, the inside of the car gathered a rather impressive collection of trash from passersby (used automobile tires and well over 100 liquor bottles, among other things).

In August of 2004, the Durango & Silverton held a “yard sale” of surplus railroad cars and parts as part of its then annual Railfest. 812 was one of the cars offered for sale, and I briefly considered purchasing it for conversion into a passenger car for the Georgetown Loop Railroad. 812 was in good mechanical shape, with good wheels and couplers, and the body looked to be in good shape – at least from the street side! A quick walk around the car showed that the other side left a lot to be desired, and it was passed up in favor of some of its less mangled brethren.

In 2009, 812 was once again placed for sale by the D&SNG. The Georgetown Loop purchased the car as a spare parts source. Over the winter of 2012-2013, the Loop harvested the good parts from the car (wheel sets, wheel bearings and couplers), replacing them with the well-worn takeoffs from other cars. Later, the Loop traded me 812 for some good wheelsets that I had. In December 2013, the car was moved to its new home in Kansas.

At present, the car is lettered “DCNGRy AX-812” and is used to store track materials and other random items.

July 2014 finds freshly-painted and lettered AX 812 in Bendena, Kansas. All of the junk in front of the car in this photo now has a happy home inside the car.
July 2014 finds freshly-painted and lettered AX 812 in Bendena, Kansas. All of the junk in front of the car in this photo now has a happy home inside the car.

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