A Tale of Two Gondolas Part IV; the Life & Times of D&RGW 768

Denver & Rio Grande Western drop bottom gondola No. 768 was built in 1904 by American Car & Foundry as part of a group of 100 cars intended to haul coal. In its original configuration, the drop doors were operated by long levers on the ends of the car. Beginning in 1924, the Rio Grande rebuilt their drop bottom gondolas (the 100 cars of the 700 series along with 100 similar cars numbered 800 to 899) into a standard configuration that 768 retains today. Records indicate that No. 768 was rebuilt in late 1926. The car remained in service until the end of Rio Grande narrow gauge freight operations in 1968, seeing use across the system hauling coal and cinders.

This 1905 Denver & Rio Grande folio sheet shows how No. 768 looked when it was built.
The D&RGW kept a record car for each car that the railroad owned, this is No. 768’s. Among other things, it shows that he car cost just under $850.00 new in 1904. (Thanks to John Tudek and the Colorado Railroad Museum for the scan of the card.)

In 1970, No. 768 was one of hundreds of narrow-gauge freight cars that the D&RGW sold to a scrapper based in Alamosa, Colorado. Scrapping the cars was a multi-year process and the scrapper sold many of the cars intact to anyone that wished to buy them. In late 1972, No. 768 was purchased from the scrapper by Lindsey Ashby for use on the Georgetown Loop Railroad and moved to Silver Plume, Colorado in the fall of 1973. No. 768 spent the next 31 years on the Georgetown Loop.

D&RGW 768 is seen at the far end of a string of cars in Silver Plume in the early fall of 1973. These five cars were the first equipment moved to the new Georgetown Loop Railroad by Lindsey Ashby, who would operate the line for the Colorado Historical Society through 2004. Just in front of No. 768 is sister car 767. Ron Peck photo.

In 2002, Kenneth Jessen wrote an article for The Colorado Time-Table newspaper detailing the first train operations on the rebuilt Georgetown Loop in 1974. As it turns out, No. 768 played a role in the early operations on the loop and even had the “honor” of being the first car to derail on the newly built track.

From Mr. Jessen’s article – “July 27, 1974 was a significant day in the history of the Georgetown Loop. The first work train consisting of a flatcar (former D&RGW 6302) and two gondolas (former D&RGW drop bottom cars 767 and 768) headed downgrade powered by the GE diesel. The train ran only a few hundred feet to the top of the rock wall over Clear Creek. Ballast was distributed on the newly laid track and tamped in place.

The Seabees modified one of the gondolas to a center dump (No. 767) while the other gondola (no. 768) remained as a standard side dump. Ballast normally consists of crushed rock that drains well and is stable once tamped. All that was available was a mixture of sand and gravel from a nearby state-owned gravel pit. Once dry, it set up like concrete inside the gondolas.  (as a side note, No. 768 still has some of this ballast caught in its frame to this day.) When the doors on the gondolas were opened, almost none of it fell out. This required the ballast to be hand-shoveled through the doors and then shoveled in place. On that day, two work trains ran with the Seabees shoveling out the ballast and the Army distributing it between the ties.

In preparation for the first train on the rebuilt Georgetown Loop on July 27, 1974, a group of Navy Seabees are seen modifying the drop doors on D&RGW drop bottom gondola 767 to dump ballast in the center of the track rather than to the side. (Kenneth Jessen)
A U.S. Army front end loader is shown loading the very first train to operate over the reconstructed Georgetown Loop. The date was July 27, 1974. The train consisted of drop bottom gondolas 767 and 768, followed by flatcar 6302 and was powered by diesel locomotive No. 15. (Kenneth Jessen)
The ballast was pit run and when it dried, it had to be shoveled through the doors. The Seabees are shown doing this job in D&RGW 768, with Don Grace (A civil engineer who helped with the project) on the corner of the car. July 27, 1974. (Kenneth Jessen)

Ballasting went smoothly, but on July 29, the reconstructed Georgetown Loop had its first derailment. A train returning upgrade to Silver Plume went on the ties near the top of the rock wall where the roadbed was the narrowest. The three-car train had uncoupled between the flat and the first gondola (No. 768) breaking the train line. The lead truck on the gondola dropped on the ties leaving the flat on the rails. The flat was pulled back to Silver Plume to pick up a couple of frogs.

D&RGW 768 sits derailed just below Silver Plume on July 27, 1974. The first derailment on the new track was caused by a missing king pin in the car’s center bearing. (Kenneth Jessen)

It appeared that the gondola’s coupler was displaced down and sideways from the coupler on the flat making proper knuckle-to-knuckle contact impossible. Re-railing took a considerable amount of effort and was probably reminiscent of problems encountered a century before. The wheel set had to be shored up and on to the frogs. It was decided to pull the knuckle pins and remove the knuckles. To prevent a runaway, a safety chain was placed between the couplers by threading the knuckle pins through a link in the chain. In addition, two brakemen were posted with a brake clubs on the gondolas. Re-railing required two mighty shoves by the diesel.

The derailment was initially blamed on uneven loading. One side was of the car was still fully loaded with ballast while the other side was empty. This put excessive force on one side of the truck’s bolster bearing and allowed the wheel set to come out from under the car. Much to the disgust of Dan Grace, the same gondola went on the ties again. Everyone was now trained and re-railing took only a few minutes. On the third trip up grade, the alert engineer heard loud flange noise and stopped the train. The truck had come out from under the bolster bearing once again, but had not derailed. The entire end of the car was jacked up, and the real problem turned out to be a missing king pin.”

Forth-five years on from that first train, all of the equipment used on the train is still with us, though none of it is still on the Georgetown Loop. Diesel locomotive No. 15 is now in service on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad as the Chama, Mew Mexico yard switcher, D&RGW flatcar 6302 is now owned by the South Park rail Society and is in Como, Colorado awaiting restoration, D&RGW drop bottom gondola 767 is on display in Pine, Colorado and the subject of this story, D&RGW 768 is in Como.

After that initial adventure on the Georgetown Loop, No. 768 saw some more use on ballast trains as the track was slowly extended over the next few years. By the late 1980’s, No. 768 was being used to store parts and was itself in storage on the Hall Tunnel spur on the Georgetown Loop. In 2004, the car was moved to a new storage location in Parkdale, Colorado as a part of the switch to a new operator on the Georgetown Loop Railroad.

In late 2017, the Parkdale site needed to be vacated and No. 768 was given to a preservation group, along with 10 or so other cars that were at the site. No. 768 was emptied of its load and moved to a new storage site in Florence, Colorado. In July 2019, No. 768 was sold to the author and moved once again to Como, Colorado to become a part of the ongoing project to rebuild the former Denver South Park & Pacific / Colorado & Southern division point there.

Drop bottom gondola D&RGW 768 amongst the tumbling tumble weeds, Parkdale, Colorado, November 2017.

On August 15, 2019, No. 768 received its first paint job since leaving the Rio Grande and on August 16, the car had the honor of being the consist of the first diesel powered train ever to operate in Como. Thankfully, No. 768 chose not to repeat its 1974 performance during its first trip on its new home railroad!

Future plans call for No. 768 to receive a new floor and be used to store water tanks to supply the South Park Rail Society’s steam locomotive during operating days in Como.

Still wearing the remnants of its last Rio Grande paint job (applied at least 60 years prior), D&RGW 768 is seen in Como on August 3, 2019, a week after it was moved from Florence.
The morning of August 16, 2019 finds No. 768 in Como with a fresh coat of paint. The paint, applied the morning of August 15, took its sweet time drying thus the car remains unlettered.
Conductor Christian Chisholm enjoys the still wet paint as he rides D&RGW 768 through the Como yards on August 16, 2019. The train is powered by Plymouth diesel locomotive No. 5, which arrived in Como that morning. No. 5 was the first diesel locomotive ever to operate in Como and this was the first diesel powered train on the line.
No. 768 is placed on the Como turntable on August 16. As the switch on the other end of the track was not yet complete, the turntable was used to place No. 768 on the track it will occupy for the next few months.
No. 768 on display in Como along with D&RGW high side gondola No. 1267, August 16, 2019.
No. 768 showing its new identity as Denver, Leadville & Alma No. 768. Como, September 14, 2019.

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