Galloping through history
Dolores rail-bus is a star at annual Railfest
DURANGO — It was easy to imagine that the Galloping Goose No. 5 was smiling as it proudly took passengers for a tour up the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad during last week’s Rail Fest.
The unique rail-bus has endured a sad history of abandonment and neglect, first by the Rio Grande Southern when it cancelled its service in 1952, and for decades afterward when it was left to rust in a Dolores park.
The Dolores Rotary Club had the foresight to save it from the scrap yard, buying it out of receivership for $250 in 1952. Then in 1987, the Galloping Goose Historical Society of Dolores took over the mission.
The Goose #5 was reborn in 1998, thanks to a dedicated contingent of volunteers, mechanics, machinists, and train enthusiasts who have carefully restored this interesting piece of railroad history back to its former glory.
With no rail left in Dolores, the Goose — one of six “Geese” still around — has since been delivered every year by flatbed truck to the Durango line, and also to the Cumbres-Toltec Scenic railroad in New Mexico, to stretch its legs and show off.
Last Friday, Larry Spencer, a Goose society volunteer, motorman and mechanic, got the go-ahead from train depot officials for a 9:30 a.m. departure, and the No. 5 rolled out of the station with 20 eager and smiling passengers on board heading for Cascade.
Running the gauntlet of side streets, alleys, and railroad crossings in downtown Durango, Spencer blew the Goose horn consistently, an appropriate “honking” sound.
“Traffic doesn’t recognize us as much as they do the locomotives,” he told the pilot, a D&SNGRR engineer along for the ride. Neither do some tourists, and there were plenty of quizzical looks and a few smirks as the Goose rolled past.
The Galloping Goose cleans up nice, and has a slightly cumbersome and quaint demeanor to it. The odd rail-bus design can carry 27 passengers on benches, with ample open-air viewing on either side. A straight-six 1947 GMC gasoline engine hums in perfect timing, with no slack.
“Where’s the steering wheel?” joked Kai Tworoger, visiting from Miami Beach. His grandpa Tom stepped off to take a call, explaining he’s on the “train,” and was quickly corrected. “It’s the Galloping Goose, not a train. Get it right, Grandpa!”
With Durango behind it, the Goose smoothly powered up Shalona Hill, without overheating or hitching even once. It was made for this, Spencer explained.
After the silver-mine crash of the 1890s, the advent of truck traffic, and the Crash of 1929, the Rio Grande Southern Railroad faltered economically, struggling to keep up maintenance on key rail-line infrastructure, like bridges.
Expensive and heavy locomotives for passengers, freight and ore were going out of service, but RGS engineers were not ready to give up, and they invented a new economized rail vehicle at the Ridgway shop. The Galloping Goose, nicknamed for its waddling gait on uneven RGS tracks, was easier on bridges and tracks and able to carry light freight, mail, and passengers.
“It could haul 10,000 pounds of freight,” said Lew Matis, a Goose historian and motorman. “The cargo area was later modified in 1950 to take passengers after the mail contract was lost.”
A flock of seven Geese was hatched, with #5 going into service on June 8, 1933.
“The original design was a 1927 Pierce-Arrow limousine; then in 1946 they went to the Wayne Corporation bus body and a surplus WWII engine. The front grill, hood, and radiator are still original Pierce-Arrow,” Spencer said. “They were pretty fancy back then.”
Frequent photo run-bys are a fun feature of a Galloping Goose tour that are not a usual option for regular D&SNGRR train service. At a scenic spot, everyone climbed down, and the Goose backed up a good distance and then rumbled into each camera viewfinder with a backdrop of the Animas River gorge, trestle bridges and mountain peaks.
“I love it,” said 16-year old Clayton Bodine, of Covington, Ind. “It is completely different. I like the old bus style, and will have to explain what it is to my friends back home.”
Tacoma tour a blast
At Rockwood, the two 30-gallon fuel tanks were filled, the brakes were checked and the tour moved on to the Tacoma Power plant.
The hydroelectric power plant built in 1905 is off line right now as repair work is done on the dam on Electra Lake, the plant’s water source. It is currently the oldest hydroelectric plant generating power with its original equipment, although it is now missing a big piece.
In 2006, a malfunction at Tacoma caused a violent breakdown on a generator that has yet to be repaired.
A broken bucket on a water wheel lodged into a critical piece of equipment, causing a vibration that gained momentum and sheared apart one of the three massive generators, sending splintered steel hundreds of feet into the air, shattering windows and walls, and spewing shrapnel into the control room.
Alarms sounded, but no one was at the automated plant when the spectacular breakdown occurred.
Plant specialist Jon Ickes was the first to arrive the following day.
“White smoke was billowing out of the broken windows. I checked the door for heat and then kicked it in. Smoke poured out and you could not see a thing,” he said. “It was still smoldering, the transformers were blown out, and there was pressurized water hitting the ceiling 100 feet up.”
The amazing story got the tour’s attention, so Ickes pointed out dents in the concrete floor made when the weighty steel generator cover blew off. He showed damage to the control panel and scars on the ceiling 100 feet above the blast.
“When I got here, I knew something bad had happened,” he said with casual understatement.
A more modern generator and a Lombard governor are expected to be installed in the near future, said Jeff Wilbanks, also a plant specialist.
He pointed out that Tacoma is “black start” capable, a rarity that allows the plant to fire up up mechanically without electric power, keeping Durango’s essential services running during a blackout.
Nearby, a Rube Golberg-esque mechanical contraption with spinning balls is the earliest form of the electric grid. “The expression ‘balls to the wall’ comes from this unit,” he says.
It is this exact insight into the nuances of history that attracts people to the Galloping Goose rail tour.
“I love the interaction with the characters of the railroad and hearing the history of places like this old plant,” said Stephana Iannetti, of Pittsburgh, Pa. “When we found out that the Goose was going to run up here, we jumped at the chance. I’ve been on a few of these types of tours, and this one is a nice surprise.”
Added Karen Huber, of Austin, Texas, “We saw it in Dolores, met Larry working underneath. He told us it was running here, so we ran and got tickets.”
The group turned around at Cascade Canyon after lunch on the Animas River. By then, all were best friends, soaking in a sunny day on the railroad, reliving the past in a beautiful, cool valley far away from U.S. Highway 550 and tourist-choked, sweltering Durango.
The Goose is barebones, a simple way to travel. No margaritas, no Coors, no dining car, no commode, just scenery rolling by and conversation. The one luxury is an original Montgomery Ward wood stove, installed to keep perishables in the mail from freezing.
On Aug. 15, passengers on the Goose spotted a fire at Baker’s Bridge, likely sparked by the earlier coal-fired locomotive. It was quickly squelched by a D&SR staffer.
“That’s the second fire the Goose helped put out,” Matis said. “On the Cumbres line, we came upon a grass fire and the riders all jumped out and stomped on it until it was out.”
Lynne Feldkamp, of Evergreen, was riding with her son, who participated in a Montessori program at Crow Canyon where he met Matis, a local historian.
“It’s still a small world, and it was great to reconnect with the Dolores museum and Lew. I think I enjoy this more than the train because of the discussions and the many stops. It is a delightful socializing event.”
The Goose never actually ran on the Durango-Silverton line, but it had regular service to Durango, Mancos, Dolores, Rico, Ophir, Telluride and Ridgway from 1931 to 1942. The service was then reduced to Dolores-Ridgway from 1942 to 1952.
The next chance to experience this unique throwback of railroad history will be Sept. 24-29 on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Call (888) 286-2737 or visit its website at www.cumbrestoltec.com and look for the Galloping Goose No. 5.