On May 3, 2008, the San Luis & Rio Grande fired up one of their new steam engines for its inaugural revenue run. Number 18, an Alco 2-8-0 built for the Lake Superior & Ishpeming in 1910, has since served on the Grand Canyon Railway and then again last summer on the Mount Hood. The SLRG purchased the engines in late 2007 from Brian Fleming and the Fleming Locomotive Company, and both arrived in Alamosa in late January. 18 was nearly operation-ready, having been freshly rebuilt and run in 2007. Still, the SLRG had some maintenance to do and adjustments to make, and 18 was taken out for her first test run the night before. Saturday’s sold-out Trains Unlimited photo special would mark not only 18’s first revenue run, but also nearly its first run on the railroad of any kind.
The photo freight special was a two-day charter, but what you’ll see here is just the initial run across from Alamosa to Sierra. As I mentioned, it was sold out, and I wasn’t one of the buyers. So I just got a few freeloading shots as it made its way from Alamosa across the San Luis Valley desert to the east. The day didn’t end there, though. Behind the special was not only one, but two eastbound freight loads. I’ve never caught the SLRG running in daylight over La Veta before, so I spent quite a bit of time capturing these two.
As the sun rises in Alamosa, 18 simmers in the yard as it gets a little last-minute attention. As of sunset the night before, the unit hadn’t moved an inch under its own power, but later that evening made a quick trip around the yard as a test.
No, those class lights just won’t do – the crew puts on an older style instead…
Finally, daybreak in the yard itself.
And, the moment we’ve all been waiting for – 18’s crew starts blowing a little steam through the cylinders and out the cocks to get things warmed up. Shortly, they’ll start 18 moving under her own power through the yard.
SLRG 8527 had come in earlier with a cut of cars from the yard and placed them behind 18. Here the engine is backing up to couple on to the photo special’s consist. So starts SLRG 18’s first revenue trip.
Backing towards the west end of the yard with a cut of cars, including the railroad’s new caboose and side-dump ballast cars.
Here’s the SLRG’s new caboose, RPCX 1043. It’s former Southern Pacific caboose SP 1043, purchased from the Golden Gate Railroad Museum in early 2008.
And one of the four ex-Canadian National side-dump cars. Two of these will be in the day’s freight consist.
And the Trains Unlimited special starts with 18 putting on a good show through the west end of the yard.
With the day’s paying clientele onboard, the train leaves the Alamosa depot
Another wider view of the special leaving Alamosa
After a run-by at the bridge, the special headed east across the less-than-scenic San Luis Valley that makes up the first 25 miles or so.
Sort of a classic steam-era scene, but it just doesn’t look quite right with that welded rail under things.
SLRG 18 between Blanca and Fort Garland, as seen from just about the only hill in the area.
After a rather lengthy stop at Fort Garland to inspect the engine and take on water, the special continues eastward out of the high valley and into the mountains around La Veta Pass.
It’s a long shot and there’s a lot of heat distortion in the atmosphere, but here’s a look at the train coming through the repeated curves betwen Fort Garland and Sierra. That’s US Hwy 160 in the background.
A side-on shot just a half mile or so from the last one, with the still snow-covered peaks of Mount Blanca and Mount Lindsey in the background.
Continuing the climb towards Sierra
Coming through the east end of Sierra and putting on a good show for the paying clients.
Just past the east switch, the climb towards La Veta Pass begins in earnest, as evidenced by the upward bend in the rails. This is the last I’ll see of 18, as it will disappear into the mountains with the Trains Unlimited folks for two days of photography.
Following right on the heels of 18 and the photo special was SLRG 8527, the road’s latest diesel, and nine loads of revenue freight bound fo the Walsenburg interchange. This is just west of the road connecting the Forbes Park properties with US 160.
SLRG 8527 was apparently having issues, as it shut down on the crew just east of the road crossing. It wasn’t yet a big deal, though, as the special was still doing run-bys a mile or two above Sierra, and it gave me time to do “creative” stuff like this.
Here’s 8527 holding the main near the west end of Sierra siding.
With the special now several miles ahead, the dispatcher gave 8527 permission to come on up through Sierra.
The radio soon gave us a clear indication that there was yet another train around. Nathan Z had thought he’d heard mention of one earlier, but now we clearly learned that there was a second following freight train. Sure enough, just a bit below West Sierra we found SLRG 459 (the last F40M-2F on the line) and 8542 on the point of another eastboard set of loads.
The crew of the following train brings it slowly up to the West Sierra switch, with 8527 safely between the switches waiting for 18 to move further up the hill.
Finally, with 18 far enough ahead, 8527 makes a good run at the grade at the east Sierra switch – too bad it’ll make it about another 1000 yards before the whole thing comes to a stall because 8527 won’t load beyond (from what I recall on the radio) a few hundred amps.
With 8527 and train stalled, the following crew eases up behind to couple on and push. For the rest of the trip to the top, it’ll effectively be one SLRG train with 459 and 8542 acting as swing helpers.
Too bad there was no way for us to photograph the combined train going up the hill, but the Trains Unlimited Folks should have gotten a rare sight up on the hill.
Nathan Z demonstrates some of the awesome track found in the siding at Sierra. Very seldom used, it has received little or no maintenance for decades.
More great track in the Sierra siding. I’ve just never seen a rail with that much plastic deformation of the head – I really have to wonder where on earth the Rio Grande used this rail before it put it in here. The rail was originally rolled in 1906, by the way.
Looking out the east end of Sierra, the base for where the Rio Grande used to have a water plug for steam engines is readily apparent between the tracks.
For those wondering what happened to sister unit 20, here she is, shoved back in a storage track in Alamosa.
By the time I’d gone back to Alamosa to pick up my car (had ridden with Nathan Z all morning due to a dragging heat shield on my car), gotten a clamp around the dragging bits, and driven back over the pass, the first freight was just approaching the crossing outside La Veta.
A few minutes behind, of course, was the second freight.
SLRG 459 and 8542 passing through La Veta
While this road outside Walsenburg is definitely a better morning shot, I’ve never actually found a train working this part of the line before, so decided I’d include it regardless. That’s West Spanish Peak in the background.
And of course here’s the second freight, taken from a slightly different spot
An overhead view of the train about to pass under US Highway 160, just west of Walsenburg
A very back-lit 8527 works the east end of the La Veta yard. The other crew is working the west end with the second train’s power.
A look at the rear end of 8527 in Walsenburg
With the loads set out and the empties hooked up, the crew is about ready to head back to Alamosa. For reasons I don’t understand, they came over as two separate trains, but were headed back as only one, with a single crew. It might have something to do with drawbar or brake limits on La Veta, as the eastbound pair of trains were all loads. Regardless, this is where I called it a day and headed home.
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.
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.