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Old D&RGW freight cars at Tacoma

May 16, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, I appealed to my Canadian Branchline email list for assistance in meeting a key person at the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge operation. Altogether, thirteen individuals came forward. Some wished me well, others offered suggestions and recommendations (make sure I visit the Cumbres & Toltec as well, being principal among them). All were appreciated—thank you.

A special tip of the hat goes to Ed Beaudette of Chama, New Mexico. Ed, a fellow professional engineer (who is second in command at the Cumbres & Toltec, and grew up along the Central Vermont in the 1940s and 1950s) later provided a guided tour of the silent yard at Chama for me and my family (more about that in a future post). In the picture below, Ed is the gentleman to the right, with me and my sons to the left.

Ed, in responding to my request, leapt to the task and introduced me, via email, to Rich Millard, chief conductor at the D&S. That's Rich and me in Durango, below.

As a writer, I have numerous impressions of my real-life experiences upon which to draw, and the visit to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offered many. We enjoyed a shop tour with Rich on the afternoon before we rode the train to Cascade Wye. I’ll perhaps expand more on those experiences too, in a later post. I have hundreds of visuals, in the form of digital photographs and videos, which our four family members took.

As the aforementioned writer, though, I have sat back and reflected upon what I’d like to share with my readers on the D&S. I recognize that narrow gauge fans and modellers are among the most devoted and/or skilled of anyone in the railway fraternity, so I won’t (at least at this stage) be offering any fresh knowledge to them.

But, what would this Canadian railway author like to say after his first visit to the Durango & Silverton?

Most of all, I think of the aforementioned Ed Beaudette and Rich Millard, who played their roles as men of the hour for me and my family. They facilitated our private visit to a railway backshop. I want to thank them for being good guys. There are a lot of good guys who work on steam locomotives in today’s world, and they are but two of them. In another era—two or three generations ago—they also exist (being a narrative nonfiction author, I take artistic license to speak of any past era in the present tense). They are the same men of the steam era who provide a welcome for curious onlookers. Ed and Rich are timeless, in that sense.

My impressions of the Durango & Silverton, like those of all present-day steam encounters, concern the triggers it affords to experiencing the past. Steam locomotives are now as they were in the 1940s and 1950s—the most wonderful of man’s contrivances. In isolation (apart from modern nuisances such as conversion to oil firing, electronic control equipment, and appurtenances such as ditch lights and national flags in place of classification signals), the operating steam locomotive has not changed. It is a living, breathing marvel. Indeed, I am happiest when sensually consumed with the engine itself, when all surrounding distractions of the modern era disappear.

If only, then, were I solely concerned with the locomotive. Alas, I long for the entire era she represents. I want to escape today’s world and travel to my real world—that of the late steam era. I want to turn the clock back in its entirety, not just extract a living element. Those grandest of living elements—the steam locomotives—are merely the most important ingredients in my desired concoction of a trip back in time. Of course, that is why I am the writer I am—it is my (and my readers’) vehicle for that experience. And, the mind cannot distinguish between a real and imaginary encounter, once it has been written on our personal hard drives of brain matter.

Speaking of imagination, I have come to discover that nothing in real life rivals its counterpart in my imagination. I’ll take that a step further—even if I’d visited the Durango & Silverton in 1950, the year Marilyn Monroe’s movie Ticket to Tomahawk occasioned the creation of the Rio Grande yellow paint scheme on the passenger equipment, the experience wouldn’t measure up to one conjured in my mind. For, I would be seeking the world of subjectively framed (cropped) photographs, written impressions, selected viewpoints. All the visual clutter and uninteresting (detracting) details omitted. Like in my series of books and articles that take the reader back to the steam era. As a writer, I frame aspects—perspectives, glimpses—of that era as an artist frames his composition and a photographer controls his viewer’s experience. That’s a key takeaway for me. Even if I’d visited the steam era firsthand at the D&S, I would seek to frame the picture as an artist, a writer. And, in so doing, I would improve upon the real-life experience.

So, my visit to the Durango & Silverton offers, above all, the raw materials for one or more stories. The aspects of the D&S that interested me most were those untouched by human hands of the modern era (this sentiment coincides with that derived from our family’s trip along Old Route 66 from Chicago to Flagstaff). And, after examining my catalogue of memories and digital impressions, what stood out for me most on the D&S was a string of 21 abandoned freight cars at Tacoma, New Mexico, mile 469.9 on the railroad, and a few miles shy of the turnaround point at Cascade. These cars stand on what used to be the team track at that timetable point.

I videotaped and photographed the string of wooden cars, as did my sons Spencer and Duncan. In the days since our visit to the Durango & Silverton, I have “walked” along that consist of derelict freight equipment.

From timetable south to north, they consist of two stock cars, six gondola cars, another pair of stock cars, a flat, another stock, two gondolas, a boxcar, another gondola, another pair of stock cars, and a trio of boxes.

What intrigues me about those freight cars? Hmm. Their possibilities as subjects for scratchbuilt models, although I daresay the narrow gauge guys have had them all commercially produced in every scale countless times.

In another way, they offer a connection to the steam era, like the tumbledown freight shed at Palmerston, Ontario did for me in the 1980s—the same building that furnished the inspiration for my debut article in 1996, which was nominated for the David P. Morgan memorial award. They provoke my curiosity, too, and here the narrow gauge guys can help me out. Why are they there, and for how long? Is there any hope they will be preserved?

In a similar vein to the freight cars on my ride on the Durango & Silverton, I sought out decommissioned water tanks, out-of-service sidings, and remnants of telegraph poles. For me, the presence of telegraph poles in photographs (and Hollywood creations) have come to delineate the genuine steam era from the modern impostor. Of interest, Ed Beaudette says they are reinstalling and restringing a few poles in Chama yard, to complete an authentic visual. He’s a man who understands such details and considers them worthy of attention.

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