A Tale of Two Gondolas; Part I

It started out simply enough; a chance to preserve a Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow-gauge railcar in a completely original state, essentially untouched since it last ran over Cumbres Pass in a freight train over half a century ago. While D&RGW narrow gauge freight cars are not exactly uncommon, finding one that has not been restored or otherwise modified and does not need to be restored is becoming almost impossible.

It has been 51 years since the Rio Grande ended narrow gauge freight operations and divested itself of most of its fleet of narrow-gauge freight cars. At the end of operations in 1968, the fleet consisted of a thousand or so wooden cars that had originally been built prior to 1910 and had last gone through a major rebuild around 1925. While the cars were maintained over the years, they were all essentially 40+ year old wooden cars that had been outside for all of their life. In the ensuing half century, the surviving cars have all taken one of four paths: some have been modified into new uses (such as being converted into passenger cars for a tourist railroad), some have been restored to a mostly original configuration (the level of restoration varying from paint and minor repairs to a complete rebuild, using only the metal components of the original car), some have been scrapped, and some have sat outside untouched .As such, the only completely original cars would be in the last group, and after over 50 years of no maintenance, most of them have severe rot damage to their structure and are in need of restoration if they are to survive.

Restoration of course changes the car. No matter how good intentioned and careful a restorer is, restoration work changes the car and its fabric. At best, a little bit of their personality is applied to a car as they work on it and a little bit of originality is lost, perhaps something as simple as using screws in place of nails or taking the time to redrill a grab iron mounting hole straight rather than just bending the bolt to fit like the last Rio Grande carman to work on it did. As such, the car emerges as a little bit more of a record of how someone chose to fix it in 2019 rather than a record of how the Alamosa car shop did things during the car’s 60 some odd years as a revenue freightcar.

We are at a point now where cars that have not been modified in any fashion are few and far between and cars from that group that don’t need major restoration in order to survive a few more years are even rarer still, perhaps to the point of being essentially non-existent. If an untouched car could be found that did not need any work, to me it seemed worthy of preserving

Amazingly, a few months ago (May of 2019) an opportunity to take over stewardship of just such a car presented itself in the form of D&RGW highside gondola NO. 1083. For whatever reason, fortune had smiled upon No. 1083 and it is still in amazing shape, with little to no rot damage (even the floor, usually the first part of a gondola to succumb to rot was intact and sound), with a little effort the car couple be preserved as is, as an untouched record of the work of the Alamosa car shops.

Gondola 1083 was one of the hundreds of cars that the Rio Grande sold to a scrapper in Alamosa in 1970. The car was one of many purchased intact from the scrapper by Lindsey Ashby in the early 1970’s for use on the Colorado Central and Georgetown Loop tourist railroads. 1083 was used for storage on the Georgetown Loop and was left essentially untouched. In 2004, the car was one of several moved to a storage site in Parkdale Colorado, where it would stay for the next 13 years. In 2017 Mr. Ashby donated most of the cars at Parkdale to a non-profit entity that moved them to other storage sites near Florence, Colorado and worked to sell and/or donate the cars to other groups.

By May of this year (2019) the entity that owned the cars was informed that they all needed to be moved from the sites in Florence so they became motivated to sell a car or two to finance the move of the others. I contacted the group and asked if they would be willing to sell me No. 1083, they said yes, we agreed upon a price and the deal appeared to be done. The South Park Rail Society was willing to let me store the car in Como, so things were looking good. Plans were being made to move all of the cars from Florence at once, hopefully sometime in July, so there was nothing to do but wait.

So that was the plan and the rationale behind it. Like all good plans of course, it did not survive beyond first contact with the enemy and there was going to be a lot of adapting, improvising and overcoming to be done before it was all over.

Former Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow gauge highside gondola No. 1083 at Parkdale, Colorado in November of 2017.

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