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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.