Ride the D&RGW Narrow Gauge Rails with Twentieth Century Railroading Legend, Engineer Steve Connor
In 1965, my father, Dr. Loron N. McGillis and I visited Durango, Colorado. There we rode on the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) to Silverton and back. No longer a freight or ore hauler of any distinction, the narrow gauge steam trains were quaint, yet powerful. During our stopover at Silverton, my father and I photographed the waiting train and visited with its engineer.
In December 2013, while writing about our 1965 excursion, I included an image of our engineer in one of my articles. In the original photo caption, I referred to him as “our unnamed engineer”. When I published his picture, I thought, “Someone must surely know who this man is and will contact me with his name”.
In October 2014, I received an email from Mr. Paul Connor, who is the grandson of our 1965 locomotive engineer, Mr. Steve Connor. Over the course of several emails, I learned more about the Connor name in D&RGW history.
As Paul wrote to me, “I am Steve Connor’s oldest grandson. My father, George Connor worked as a brakeman/conductor for the D&RGW. I spent the first twenty-one years of my career working for the D&RGW and Southern Pacific Railroad. After hiring out at Durango in 1974, I began there as a mechanical laborer/coach cleaner. In 1976, I started as fireman at Durango, and later worked out of Pueblo, Minturn, Alamosa and Grand Junction as a locomotive engineer/fireman. In 1995 I was promoted to Road Foreman of Engines and have held the same job since. After the Union Pacific merger with Southern Pacific, my title became Manager of Operating Practices, working out of Grand Junction.
All told, the Connor family currently has somewhere around one hundred and twenty years of railroading history in western Colorado. I say this because I am not certain of my great grandfather, Richard Connor's hire date. We think he started in the 1800's when the tracks were being laid into Durango.
The youngest of seven siblings, for many years of his career Richard Connor was the section foreman at Hermosa. His oldest brother, Jim, retired as a locomotive engineer at Durango. His brother John was a fireman and was killed in a train wreck in the Animas Canyon in 1921.”
Regarding his grandfather, Paul Connor wrote, “Steve Connor was born in the section house at Hermosa, just north of Durango to Richard and Julia Connor. He hired out around 1923 and retired in 1971 with forty-eight years, but was furloughed for many years during the Great Depression. At times, when they were short of manpower, he made trips on the Rio Grande Southern. As the narrow gauge dried up, he would work at Durango in the summers and work out of Alamosa in the winters. The Alamosa/Durango seniority rosters were combined during those years. I always joked that by the time he was number one in seniority, there would be only one job left on the narrow gauge.
As you might expect, there are a lot of photographs of Steve Connor around but few that are this good. Your father really captured a great deal of his personality and a nice moment in time for me.”
Regarding Steve Connor’s experience, Paul wrote, “The locomotive 478 was my grandfather's favorite of the three used on the Silverton Branch in those years. I am not sure why, but if I had to guess it is because it rode the best, the whistle was not as shrill, and it was then equipped with power reverse (long since removed). Steam engines possess personality in the way they fire, steam, and run. For lack of a better word, I would call them quirks. In the years I worked there, I had no particular favorite of the three. As a fireman or engineer you had to work around each of their personalities.”
Each October 15 for the past three years, I have closed the season while staying at the United Campgrounds of Durango RV Park. In cooperation with the campground, I operate a live webcam that features the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. If a webcam viewer is lucky, they may see the steam train running either north or south through the RV Park.
By October, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad runs only one round-trip train to Silverton each day. During the fall season, the railroad uses mostly their larger 480 Series or K-36 locomotives, so that they can operate a longer single train. By October, it is rare to see a smaller 470 Series or K-28 locomotive, with its lesser tractive power.
Still, if you visit Durango during the summer season, you might have the opportunity to see or ride behind locomotive 478, which was the favorite of twentieth century railroading legend and D&RGW Engineer, the late Steve Connor (d.1974).