Pile Driver OB

Saturday, June 10, 2009 on the C&TS

484 pushes D&RGW pile driver OB into place on the Cumbres siding.

Back in 1891, the Denver & Rio Grande built a small narrow gauge steam-driven pile driver numbered 0363. With the railroad upgrading its vast but hastily built narrow gauge network (totalling 965 miles by that year), clearly a machine to drive heavy bridge timbers would be in high demand. It’s the only narrow gauge pile driver to survive from the Rio Grande, having been sold to the Cumbres & Toltec back in 1970 with much of the rest of the surviving MoW equipment. Some 118 years later – neglecting changes from a 1920 rebuild – we know that same pile driver today as D&RGW OB.

Starting in 1999, a group of Friends members here in Colorado Springs undertook a nine year restoration effort to bring OB back from its inoperable, derelict state. Success was met during the summer of 2008, when OB became operational for the first time in decades on a Friends special from Chama to Cumbres. Early in the 2009 season, the Friends announced another Maintenance-of-Way special, again starring OB. Given that I’d missed the 2008 special on account of some work trip, I was determined not to miss this one.

Even before the trip started, OB was acting up. Having been stored in Antonito, the railroad needed to haul it over to Chama for the charter. Apparently the move took place around 14-Jun-2009. Reports on the Narrow Gauge Discussion Forum indicate that crews started having problems with one of the wheel bearings heating up around milepost 304 (near Sublette). So, apparently they’d move it a few miles, let it cool, move it a few more miles, cool, ad naseum until they reached Cumbres. Thus, instead of getting to haul it up the hill from Chama, it would just be waiting for us in the hole at the top of the hill.

The big day – Saturday, 10-Jun-2009 – came, dawning overcast, cool, and wet. It rained on us most of the way up the hill, but fortunately during the run-bys, the weather held it down to a drizzle or slightly more. The true downpours always seemed to happen while we were en route between stops. We did about four run-bys on the way up the hill – Lobato, Cresco, the old third crossing, and then on the backside of the curve beyond Coxo. There wasn’t much light, but the weather made for great steam effects and who can really complain about a whole train of maintenance gear?

While we were all happily gorging ourselves on one of Stephen Flowers’ awesome lunches inside the Cumbres section house, the Friends OB crew and the C&TS train crew were outside trying to make OB behave. They’d positioned it, lashed it to the rail with chains, and connected the steam line to 484 to power the whole works. Everything was set and ready to go, but when the steam was turned on, it blew out a valve gasket in OB’s controls. The crew tried replacing it with some other gasket media they had, but it just blew again. So much for pile driving – or actually fruit-smashing – that day. As the clouds opened up with more rain and the temperature plummetted into the 30s, the crew took down everything and rebuilt the consist for the return trip.

As the old saying goes, if you don’t like the weather out here, wait an hour. About an hour out of Cumbres we stopped at Lobato for a westbound run-by. The rain had stopped, the fog lifted, and the sun was periodically breaking through the clouds. We did the trestle shot, and then walked down to shoot the train in Lobato siding. By the time 484 and train were safely in the hole, the clouds were breaking up and we had intermittant sunlight.

No matter what Conductor Alan Loomis thinks, Murphy and his law really run the photo lines. Beautiful sunlight held out at Lobato until just seconds before the regularly scheduled westbound arrived. Just as 488 came over the trestle, a cloud stepped in to completely drop the foreground into darkness until after the meet was over. Still, when was the last time anybody else got a shot of a meet between an extra and a regular at Lobato? And just to show you how random things can be, by the time we were back in Chama, the clouds were mostly gone from the sky and the temperature was recovering nicely. Just another day in Colorado railroading…

As a followup, the OB guys did eventually get their machine to behave. During the middle part of October, they decided to try it again at the Colorado Railroad Museum, but this time with real wooden piles. While I was there – and I guess I’m just cursed – they didn’t actually drive anything, but at least I got to see OB powered up and lifting its driving weight up and down. During the next day and the following weekend, they managed to put a few in the ground without issue. So one of these days, I swear I’m actually going to see OB drop the hammer on something. It just hasn’t happened yet.

Epilogue – OB at CRRM on Saturday, Oct 10, 2009

After the June OB trip featured in this photo essay, pile driver OB was moved from the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic up to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, CO. Given that the initial trip turned out to be mostly a bust, I hoped they’d get the problems fixed up and I’d get to see it in action at long last. Well, the first time I’d heard it was supposed to operate at the museum, it didn’t. So I went back for another attempt on Saturday, 10-Oct-2009. Again, precipitation, clouds, and cold were on the menu, so I was only hoping that my curse around OB wouldn’t hold true again. Plus, at least I’d get the chance to see OB hooked up to D&RGW 346.

I can honestly say that the curse was partially broken – the boom went up on its own and the giant driving weight moved. Due to the cold, it was sticking a bit, and not actually moving well enough to drive anything, but at least OB was operating under its own power. Later that afternoon and the following day (after I was gone, of course), the OB crew managed to drive a series of piles to create a short trestle extension to the track it was on. One of these days I’ll actually catch OB doing its thing, I swear…


Creative Commons License

This work is copyright 2020 by Nathan D. Holmes, but all text and images are licensed and reusable under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Basically you’re welcome to use any of this as long as it’s not for commercial purposes, you credit me as the source, and you share any derivative works under the same license. I’d encourage others to consider similar licenses for their works.

All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 40D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM, Sigma 18-50mm, or a Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS/USM.