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Chapter #312: Old Mesquite, NV - Gone For Good - June 19, 2014


On Interstate I-15, Exit 120 leads to the town of Mesquite, Nevada - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Goodbye to Old Mesquite, Nevada - It Was Good To Know You

In 2009, I stopped in Mesquite, Nevada. While heading north out of town, I took photos of several old buildings and signs. A town’s architecture and graphics help reveal its history. A common theme involves a once flourishing business now closed. For example, when Interstate I-40 bypassed Seligman, Arizona, the attractions of Old-66 were barely enough to keep Old Seligman alive. With so little business activity generated after its bypass, Seligman froze in time. Therefore, many old buildings and signs in that town remained in situ.

On West Mesquite Blvd. in Old Mesquite, Nevada Harley's Garage stands frozen in time - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) In 1974, after the completion of Interstate I-15 through Mesquite, most new development came in the form of condominiums. The targeted customers were retired people or second-home owners. Today in North Mesquite, large new retirement complexes tend to focus the eye on human made water features, including a series of water-wasting golf courses. With such environmentally wasteful practices in effect, little if any summer-season water flowing in the Virgin River reaches its outlet at Lake Mead.

Prior to the construction of Mesquite's sprawling retirement communities, the same area represented only a small portion of a vast network of arroyos. Partially filled with wind-driven sand, the area was an "alluvial plain in the making". Most people do not think about “upstream” in the desert. Such terms matter only when a major flood hits such a dry area. When thunderstorms linger on nearby Mount Mormon, resulting floods carry enormous flows down those arroyos filled with sand. During, or shortly after an deluge upstream, watercourses shift, overwhelming their banks and inundating previously dry areas.

The Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, as seen in summer flood on July 26, 2013 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In the case of the recent condominium development in North Mesquite, everything will probably be OK. However, if we live to see the thousand-year flood, let alone the ten thousand-year flood, all of that could change. If either of those events happens, the ancient erosion field and slide zone that is North Mesquite shall not stand. In terms of proximate risk to property owners, safety and security may depend on one’s sense of time.

Mesquite, Nevada built its reputation on a firm foundation of gambling. Today, viewing it on Google Maps shows us that North Mesquite lies near the foot of a massive paleo flood zone. It does not take a trained geologist to see that ancient debris flows swept “downstream”, temporarily interrupting the Virgin River as it swept across the river and far up on the opposite bank. These desert sands appear to be the terminal deposition of ancient North Mesquite debris flows. It is there, on the east bank that buff colored desert sand intermingles with the dark, volcanic alluvium descending from Virgin Peak and Mount Bangs.

The prophetic word, "NO" is all that was left on the wall of the old Oasis Hotel Casino Resort when I took this picture in 2013 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Today, such a flood would have to cross Interstate I-15 and West Mesquite Blvd., inundating most of Old Mesquite. In that scenario, all of Mesquite would remain in peril. The good news is that the ten thousand-year flood only comes every 10,000 years, or so they say. So what are the real odds? If enough people ask, the Casa Blanca Resort and Casino in Mesquite might make book on that question. I now remember my father’s sage advice, which was, “Never build anything in a flood plain”.

Although it lies only ninety miles from Las Vegas, Mesquite has closer ties to St. George, Utah, forty miles north on I-15. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both Las Vegas and Mesquite were Mormon settlements. They were among a string of towns that grew up along the Old Spanish Trail, leading to Los Angeles. A common denominator among Mormon settlers and their current day counterparts is industriousness. If there is a potential for land development, the business community in Mesquite will soon take advantage of it.

Days before its demise, the old Oasis Hotel Resort Casino pole sign said its last farewell - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The years 2008 and 2009 represented the depths of the recent recession in Mesquite. Since then, there has been a steady, if slow economic recovery. New condominiums and businesses now present themselves, but current economic activity does not approach the breakneck pace of the early 2000’s. Now enthralled again by new development potential, protection of Mesquite’s historical buildings, signage and its highway heritage languish.

To be fair, most destruction or neglect of historical buildings and signage in Mesquite happens on private property. Even so, it appears that neither the city nor its business community sees value in saving the town’s historical qualities. For posterity, I shall document three examples of Old Mesquite at its finest.

When they tore it down, owners of the old Oasis Resort Casino in Mesquite, Nevada attempted to recycle as much of the building materials as possible - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In 2013, the long defunct Oasis Hotel Casino and Resort disappeared from West Mesquite Boulevard. Around that time, the historical Oasis pole sign disappeared from its prior location near Interstate I-15. New visitors to Mesquite will never know that there once stood the biggest, fanciest and most successful casino resort in town. Other than an aging RV Park now operated by the Casa Blanca Resort Casino and an annex of hotel rooms now converted to timeshares, the Oasis is no more.

Farther east on West Mesquite Blvd. is what remains of Harley’s Garage. In 2009, a sign on the locked front door thanked customers for Harley’s sixty-two years in business. From Harley's graphical pole sign, which almost overhangs the highway; we know that Harley’s Garage once sold radiators and specialized in Ford automobiles. The aging Ford sign, which resides just above an image of a Ford Model-T style radiator, now turns to rust and eventually to dust. The classic “Ford” script, once painted brilliant red on blue, now appears as rust-red on pale blue. At its present rate of decay, full deterioration is only a few years away.

By 2009, Harley's Garage in Mesquite, Nevada had said goodbye to its loyal clientele of sixty-two years - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)I picture travelers on old U.S. Highway 91 in 1945, experiencing a breakdown near Mesquite, Nevada. No matter how the motorist arrived in Mesquite, Harley’s Garage was ready to replace or repair overstressed radiators, batteries or brakes. Now-outdated internet business listings indicate that Harley's once had a AAA towing franchise. With Las Vegas and St. George scores of miles away across a desert wasteland, we can imagine what a godsend Harley’s Garage and radiator repair shop must have been.

Historically, Mesquite was a ranching and farming community. Despite two historic floods that destroyed the economic vitality of Old Mesquite, several generations of Mesquiters continued to grow crops in the floodplain of the Virgin River. For their part, ranchers in nearby Bunkerville grazed their cattle on a once verdant, open range. Since Old Mesquite’s settlers banded together for sustenance and protection, they required a place to buy, sell and trade their produce and cattle.

The old hand-painted Ford Sign tops the tower at Harley's Garage, Mesquite, Nevada - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On West Mesquite Blvd. stands a contemporary Ranch Market building. Despite looking relatively new and prosperous, by 2009 the Ranch Market stood closed for good. Looking inside, I could see display cases and shopping carts gathering dust behind the glass. Out back, on the same over-sized lot was an old pole barn, weathering and deteriorating in the sun. Later, I learned that the pole barn had once been the original Mesquite Ranch Market.

With a few rough sawn boards still clinging to the its roof, I tried to determine the age of the barn. “The better part of a century”, I thought. A long abandoned electrical service clung to one  of its corners. There were broken remnants of an overhead trolley, which once moved hay bales in and out of a now missing hayloft. With no remaining siding, doors, roof shingles or hayloft, only the cross-bracing of its beams keeps the pole barn from its inevitable destruction. In the past five years, an adjacent and a once mighty cottonwood tree has crumbled closer to the ground. With such rapid deterioration, how much longer the original Mesquite Ranch Market will stand is anyone's guess.

As seen in 2014, the old pole barn in Mesquite, Nevada that once was a thriving Ranch Market deteriorates into the desert sands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The desert environment, with its heat, sun and wind can destroy almost any human made object. Repainting and replacement are constant activities for thriving businesses in a desert economy. Keep it neat, keep it clean and tourists will stop. Let it go and the desert will soon remove the gloss of civilization. There stands North Mesquite, gleaming in the reflected light of its mini-lakes and golf courses. On the other side of town, more often than not, the desert is winning its inevitable, entropic race.

It is here that I say, so long to Old Mesquite. It was good to know you.

 

 


By James McGillis at 04:29 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #311: I-15 North - Mojave Desert Tour - June 5, 2014


An Army Reserve Humvee stops for fuel in Barstow, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

From Barstow to Mesquite - A Mojave Desert Adventure

In May 2014, I departed Casa Carrie in Simi Valley, California, heading for Mesquite, Nevada. While my ultimate destination was Moab, Utah, Mesquite stood half way along my route. To complete my trip to Moab in only two days, I planned to travel 375 miles each day. When towing a travel trailer, that distance approaches my outside limit for daily travel.

Near Fort Irwin, California, three Army Reservists enjoy a rest break before beginning their training - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After merging on to Interstate I-15 North, my trip to Moab would continue on Interstate I-15 and I-70 almost all the way. Although the archaic speed laws in California require large trucks and autos towing trailers to proceed at no more that fifty-five miles per hour, I find it safer to travel on the Interstate at between sixty and sixty-five mails per hour. Why California does not synchronize the speed between towed vehicles and other traffic is an open question. For as long as I can remember, California has stuck to its slowpoke truck and trailer speed limits. Throughout the Four Corners region, trucks, trailers and autos all have the same speed limits.

On Interstate I-5 North, the high desert cities of Victorville, Barstow and Baker In 2010, gas in Victorville was less than $3.00 per gallon - Click for larger image - (http://jamesmcgilis.com)offer slight relief from the boredom of transiting across the Mojave Desert. In order to save on fuel costs, I usually stop at the Love’s Travel Center in Barstow. Upon arrival, I found a convoy of two U.S. Army Reserve Humvees and a larger transport truck stopped for refueling. In speaking with three of the team members, I discovered that they were traveling to nearby Fort Irwin for two weeks of Reserve training exercises.

On a previous trip to Moab, I had seen a surplus early model Humvee stripped down and converted to off-road use. With no armor at all, the older model Humvees became potential deathtraps during Iraq War combat. The current model Humvees that I saw in Barstow featured heavy steel-plate exteriors,
In 1955, the price of gas on Old Route 66 near Barstow was lower still - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)blast-resistant doors and steel armor built into their undercarriages. With no front-end crash protection, and unarmed gun turrets up top, these Army Reserve Humvees looked sleek, but not yet combat ready.

During my fuel stop, I remembered that I was heading for two weeks of fun and adventure in the Four Corners region. For the following two weeks, the reservists would engage in war games and training at the one-thousand square miles of open desert at the nearby National Training Center. With Memorial Day fast approaching, I was happy to have such dedicated and talented individuals training to protect our liberties in the United States and
abroad. After I thanked the Los Alamitos, California based reservists for their service, they headed out.

Heading north from Barstow, I soon passed the turn-off to Fort Irwin. By then my new friends from the Army Reserve were entering the gate at the “fort”. Fort Irwin’s name helps tell the story that in 1846, the U.S. Army created a rock fort at nearby Bitter Creek. From there, the U.S. Army Mormon Battalion and others chased supposedly marauding Apache, Shoshone and fugitive Mission Indians from Mission San Gabriel, near Los Angeles. Although some stole horses, guns and food from travelers along the Old Spanish Trail, most Indians in the Mojave Desert exemplified the notion of nomadic loners, seeking no contact with outsiders.

Solar plasma formation at Ivanpah Valley, California


Soon, I came upon Ivanpah, California. Ivanpah shares an otherwise desolate valley with Primm, Nevada. There I got my first blinding look at the glint and glare from the new Brightsource Solar Thermal Plant in operation. In May of 2012, I had passed that place during construction of the controversial, three unit active-solar power generating station. At that time, the tops of the three receiving towers were dark, as if shrouded in black cloth.

Tourists stop illegally to take pictures on I-15 at Brightsource-Ivanpah, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On this visit, I noted that the top sections of each tower shone with white light seemingly as bright as the sun. Shimmering in the air to one side or the other of each receiving tower was what looked like white mist. In reality, the mist was solar plasma, caused by the concentration of light from many mirrors. As operators need more power, they use computers and electrical actuators to change the angle of up to 356,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door. As a result, operators can redirect the reflected sunlight from a focal point in the desert sky to a receiving area at the top of each tower. Since adjacent air temperatures created by the solar plasma are so high, no one yet knows the long-term effects on the desert environment.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, I read that a number of native birds had perished in the solar flux at Ivanpah. Some experts hypothesize that prolonged focusing of eyes on the solar receiving towers could burn our retinas. I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t that be illegal?” One thing is for sure; you will no longer The Brightsource solar thermal plant at Ivanpah Valley, California is probably the first and last of its type to be built in the U.S. - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)see a Desert Tortoise basking in Ivanpah Valley’s desert sun. After 15,000 years of human cohabitation with the Desert Tortoise, politicians decided that the terrapins must go elsewhere, all in the name of “renewable energy”. Using the double-speak of Mega Solar; they had to “destroy the desert in order to renew it”.

As my rig descended the grade into the Ivanpah Valley, I kept my speed below sixty miles per hour. Thinking that I might get a good photo of the towers, I lowered the side window on my vehicle. Although the ambient temperature that day was about 90 °F (32 °C), heat radiating from the solar thermal generators was palpable on my skin. The feeling reminded me of the rays that emanate from a parabolic electric heater. With its vast array of mirrors and three thermal collecting towers, I discovered that Brightsource Primm had a “heat island” effect far greater than even its massive size suggested. The good news is that without the previously available multi-How much power from Brightsource-Ivanpah goes to power the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel?billion dollar loan guarantees and tax rebates, no further solar thermal generating plants like Brightsource Primm will see the light of day.

After that surreal experience, I proceeded past the lure of Primm’s several casinos, driving north toward Las Vegas, Nevada. My goal was to reach Mesquite Nevada, ninety miles north of Las Vegas before dark. With that in mind, my visit to Las Vegas would consist of a “drive by” on I-15 North. After almost two decades of expansion in Las Vegas, I-15 has reached the limits of its right-of-way. With six or eight lanes in each direction at the southern end of The Strip, the road and its connectors can carry a tremendous volume of traffic. Ironically, when a driver reaches North Las Vegas, there is usually a traffic snarl. There, highway planners provided too few lanes to handle the through-traffic heading out of Las Vegas to the north, east and west.

The Luxor Hotel Las Vegas glows in the reflection of afternoon sunlight - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Near the southern end of The Strip, the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel is visible from the I-15 freeway. In a ghostly repeat of what I had just seen at Ivanpah, the Luxor’s thirty-story tall pyramid reflected golden hues of sunlight off its mirrored glass surface. Originally built in the early 1990s, the Luxor received a makeover in 2008. In a classic case of Old Energy thinking, MGM Resorts International failed to take advantage of New Energy. Rather than retrofitting the Luxor pyramid with photovoltaic solar panels, they opted for the “golden glow” effect of solar reflective glass. With business as usual in Las Vegas, appearances trumped energy efficiency and common sense. I wondered how much electrical energy from Brightsource Ivanpah might be powering air conditioners at the Luxor.
This Ford Ranger SUV is outfitted as a Nevada Highway Patrol, State Trooper vehicle, as seen near U.S. Highway 93, north of Las Vegas - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
About twenty miles north of Las Vegas, I exited I-15 North at U.S. Highway 93, also called the Great Basin Highway. If the Ivanpah Valley is California’s version of the new Industrial Desert, the area north of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and south of the Moapa River Indian Reservation is a no man’s land dedicated to the Old Industrial Desert. Despite hosting a large photovoltaic panel array to the west, an open pit mine adjacent to I-15 and the natural gas fired Harry Allen Generating Station dominate the landscape. Adding environmental insult to injury, a nearby chemical loading depot disperses clouds of white powder and dust across that desolate valley.

Interstate I-15 Exit 112 leads to Bunkerville, south of Mesquite, Nevada - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)A truck stop in the desert attracts all kinds of people and vehicles. Other than the convenience of yet another Love’s Travel Center, I would not consider stopping in such a ravaged environment. From a person who converted his pickup truck to look like a can of Monster Energy Drink to a severely overloaded Nissan Titan pickup, I stood agape at the unusual scene.

Prior to my departure, I spotted a Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) vehicle exiting the parking lot. Other than some low-slung lights on its roof and official markings on its sides, the vehicle looked like any contemporary Ford Ranger SUV. In order to identify the occupant as clearly as possible, the words “Highway Patrol” and “State Trooper” blazed across the front fenders and doors of the dark blue vehicle. In a nod to mobile communications, “Dial *NHP
occupied each rear quarter panel.

Reputed to be the original bunker at Bunkerville, Nevada - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Back again on I-15 North, I steeled my eyes and made myself ready to stare down any ersatz militiamen I might soon encounter along the highway. Before reaching my destination in Mesquite, I had to transit the area held by gun-toting folks who see rancher Cliven Bundy as their hero. In the aptly named “Bunkerville”, militiamen stand guard over an overgrazed desert where rancher Bundy refuses to pay decades’ worth of cattle grazing fees to the federal government. Apparently, it is lost on his para militarist protectors that if we all paid our fair share of fees and taxes, we could create a sustainable environment and have lower taxes for all.

 

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Plush Kokopelli dives for cover at Bunkerville, Nevada


In 2011, the Oasis Hotel Casino Resort welcomed MoabLive.com to Mesquite on their highway sign - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After taking the off ramp to Bunkerville, I lost my way trying to find the place. Given my stand on gun violence, perhaps it is best that I did not meet up with any trigger-happy men dressed in camouflage gear. On my foray into that unfamiliar world, I did find the original Bunkerville bunker. As one might expect, it was a windowless shack with heavy wooden doors. Approaching the bunker cautiously, I called out, “Cliven, Cliven… are you there?” Alas, no one answered.

After my visit to virtual Bunkerville, I proceeded to Mesquite and to the  “Oasis Resort Hotel and CasinoRV Park . Only a few years ago, the Oasis Resort had welcomed my arrival with a huge “Welcome MoabLive.com” on their lighted message board. By May 2014, the resort hotel, casino and even the lighted In 2013, the Oasis Hotel Casino Resort met its demise under a wrecking ball - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)tower sign were gone. From my previous visits, I knew that Mesquite has an ongoing reputation for destroying its highway heritage.

I can understand demolishing an obsolete casino, but removing the venerable landmark that was the Oasis sign is just plain dumb. Would Las Vegas tear down its classic 1960’s “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign? In Mesquite’s zeal to become a thoroughly sanitized city in the desert, it has consistently destroyed its once quaint highway history. After viewing the destruction, all I could say was, “Good luck, Mesquite, Nevada”.


By James McGillis at 02:15 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #299: Durango, CO - Engine #478 - 1965 - December 29, 2013


Dr. L.N. (Duke) McGillis at the controls of the old Denver & Rio Grande Engine No. 478 in the year 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Ride the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad from Durango to Silverton, Colorado in 1965 (Part 2)

In August of 1965, my father (Dr. L.N. McGillis) and I visited Durango, Colorado. One of the highlights of our visit was a ride on the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) from Durango to Silverton, forty-five miles north. At the time of our visit, the Durango to Silverton line was already 83 years old. By the 1960s, steam locomotives had largely disappeared from the main railroad lines throughout the U.S.

The Author (Jim McGillis) looks back toward the camera as Engine No. 478 pulls a hill on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge line in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Today, over forty-eight years later, a few heritage lines like the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad continue to roll. What makes the Durango & Silverton line interesting to me is how little it has changed since its inception the 1880s. Although heavier tracks now support the larger K-36 “480 Series” locomotives both those and the original K-28 “470 Series” locomotives began service in the early 1920s.

Built to roll on tracks that measured a mere 3 ft. between their rail heads, the 470 Series engines were purpose-built for the narrow gauge. The larger, 480 Series engines started life at standard gauge, measuring 4 ft. 8 1⁄2 in. from wheel flange to wheel flange. In 1965, old rails, which weighed about 45 lb. per yard, lay stacked alongside the tracks in many places. In preparation for the heavier 480 Series engines entering into service on the line, crews installed new tracks weighing up to 90 lb. per yard.

With a rock outcropping overhead, the Denver & Rio Grande Engine No. 478 rounds a curve at the summit of a climb on the was from Durango to Silverton in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In preparation for our 1965 excursion, my father and I had visited the Durango Depot early in the morning. With our film cameras in hand, we had snapped pictures of the first section, powered by Engine No. 476 as it departed Durango for Silverton. Soon, it was time for us to board the second section, led by Engine No. 478. In those days, the tender cars of both engines featured a stylized “Rio Grande” logo. Reflecting a change of ownership in the early 1980s, the same trains today feature the “Durango & Silverton” name.

Although Engine No. 478 sported a traditional black and silver paint scheme, the ten passenger cars in our train were painted bright orange, with black trim and silver roofs. At that time, each passenger car still featured a rooftop chimney. In earlier days, the chimneys vented coal-fired stoves, which heated the cars during the colder months. Although most of the passenger cars on the line today retain their traditional livery, the stovepipes are now gone.

After we departed the Durango Depot, the steam whistle sounded each time the train approached another grade crossing. With no less than eight grade crossings in town, the engineer and fireman were busy watching for cross traffic and letting the steam whistle wail. After making its way across the Animas River Bridge north of town, the train began its slow ascent through the picturesque Upper Animas Valley.

Leaving behind a huge cloud of coal smoke, the D&RGW narrow gauge train pulls up the Animas River Canyon in August 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Unlike current diesel locomotives, steam engines use a constant flow of water to recharge their boilers. At the old Hermosa Depot, we stopped to fill the water tank on the tender car. Once we were moving again, the 2-8-2 Mikado began a more serious climb into the former San Juan mining district. In the 1880s, passenger and freight service to the numerous mines was the original impetus for laying tracks up the series of steep grades. Built in less than two years, construction required the blasting of solid rock from the canyon walls. Construction crews shuttled the resulting rubble to create a riverside bench for tracks laid along the lower sections of the line. Despite periodic flooding along the Animas River, the rubble rock staved off the floods and supported the tracks. Over one hundred thirty years after railroad tracks first linked Durango and Silverton, the route remains essentially unchanged.

Clinging precariously to the wall of the Upper Animas River Canyon, an early twentieth century silver mine offered a nostalgic view in 1965 of what must have been a dangerous profession in its day - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In the early twentieth century, when regional gold and silver mining collapsed, various abandoned mines remained, some hanging precariously on the canyon walls. Built with wood from nearby forests, many were unpainted and thus exposed to the elements. In 1965, we were amazed to see how many of the old mines remained in the Animas River Canyon. In the 1960s, they were a picturesque reminder of an earlier day. In the 1960s, professional photographers hiked up into the canyon and meticulously photographed every remnant of that short lived but industrious time in Southeastern Colorado. Many of the photographs found their way into wall calendars of the era. While researching this article, I was sorry to find that none of those earlier mine photos has survived on the internet.

In order to personalize our photographs of the journey, I hiked from one end of the train to the other. Whenever we would go around a dramatic curve, I would lean out from a platform or a window. At that time, no one told us to keep our heads, hands and arms inside the train. By the time we finished our trip, we had many images of me looking back toward the camera, or rounding a curve and one as we pulled into the Silverton Depot.

Like "The Little Engine That Could", D&RGW Engine No. 478 continues up the Animas River Canyon toward Silverton, Colorado - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As first time passengers on the Durango & Silverton line, we did not realize how long it would take to complete the trip. Including time for several water stops along the way, the train took three and one half hours to travel the forty-five mile route. That meant we averaged just less than thirteen miles per hour. As exciting and interesting as the experience was, we were happy to arrive in Silverton in time for a late lunch.

Until its peak in the early 1900s, Silverton had serviced the needs of miners from throughout the high country. By the 1960s, Silverton was living off its legacy as a former mining and commercial center. Many buildings were empty and falling into disrepair. Land and property in the remote town was selling at an all-time low. Only a few restaurants and old time hotels supported the town. When I visited again in 2007, I met a white haired old man who had bought property in Silverton in the 1970’s. As modest as the man was, the list of properties he then owned in town was worth in the millions of dollars.

Looking every bit the professional that he was, Engineer Steve Conner held court in the cab of Engine No. 478 at Silverton, Colorado in 1965 - Click for larger image (htp://jamesmcgillis.com)In the 1960s, passengers could wait in line for a chance to visit with the engineer in the cab of the locomotive. When it was his turn, my father climbed into the cab of Engine No. 478 and took a seat in the fireman’s location. In the picture that I took of him that day, looking forward and down the track, he looked every bit like a professional railroad engineer.

Although the steam engine was huge, the area between the cab and the tender was not spacious. There was barely room for the fireman to take a scoop of coal, step on the lever that opened the firebox door and toss the fuel in. Like a pizza oven, the idea was to minimize the frequency and duration of door openings, thus keeping the firebox hot at all times.

Kodak Ecktachrome image of Engine No. 478 at rest in Silverton Colorado - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)While waiting in Silverton for our return trip to Durango, we had time to inspect all of the running gear on the huge engine. Dripping hot water and emitting small jets of steam were the twin air-brake compressors that hung low and wide near the front of the engine. Using a system originally devised by George Westinghouse in 1868, steam from the boiler would occasionally cycle into each compressor. There, a steam driven piston would pump air into a reservoir. Within the Westinghouse air-brake system, low pressure in the brake lines activated the brakes. With the train parked on level ground at Silverton, the occasional cycling of the air brake compressor was the only sound that the engine made. When it was time to depart, the Head Brakeman used a valve within the cab to increase pressure in the lines, thus releasing the air-brakes along the full length of the train.

Black & White photography adds a nostalgic touch to Engine No. 478 in Silverton, Colorado in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After a couple of hours in Silverton, a blast from the steam whistle indicated that it was almost time to depart for Durango. In those days, the train parked head-in at the station throughout the visit. Upon departure, workers threw manual switches along the tracks, thus allowing the engineer to back the train on to a wye track. Once safely on the wye, other switches were thrown, thus allowing the train to proceed down canyon toward Durango. Over time, these procedures have changed. Now, while the passengers are enjoying lunch in Silverton, the trains back on to the wye, pull forward briefly and then backs into the Silverton station. When it is time to go, the engine is facing in the correct direction for travel.

Departing Silverton Station in 1965, the author (Jim McGillis) watches as the train backs on to a wye track before changing directions and  then heading down-canyon toward Durango - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)When the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad began service between Durango and Silverton, the train was far faster than the wagon road previously used. Today, that is no longer the case. Although the route of U.S. Highway 550 (the Million Dollar Highway) between the two towns is three miles longer than the rail line, it takes only an hour to make the trip by automobile. With a three and one half hour train trip back to Durango, the final hour of travel can become tedious. Passengers now have the option of taking a motor coach in one direction and the train the other direction. Also today, passengers can opt for more luxurious seating, beverage service and snacks in one of several parlor cars.

Thunder clouds build as the Denver & Rio Grande Durango & Silverton steam train heads back to Durango in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Any way you go, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is piece of American history that travels through some spectacular scenery. Several times in its history, the railroad almost went broke. With its current popularity, the line now boasts up to three trains per day during the peak summer season. With that revenue stream, I expect to see the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad prosper for many years to come.

This Part Two of a two-part article. To read Part One, Click HERE.

 


By James McGillis at 03:00 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #298: Durango, CO - Engine #476 - 1965 - December 4, 2013


The author, Jim McGillis inspects Engine No. 475 at the Durango, Colorado Depot in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Ride the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad from Durango to Silverton, Colorado in 1965 (Part One)

On August 12, 1965, my father, Dr. L.N. (Duke) McGillis and I arrived in Durango, Colorado. At the time, we were midway through a Grand Circle Tour of the Four Corners region. Early that evening, we saw news reports that much of South Los Angeles was in flames. On our black & white motel TV screen, “The Watts Riots” were playing out live. Each evening, for the next several days, we watched our native Los Angeles represent racial, political and economic unrest in America. The contrast between the TV images and our idyllic sojourn to Durango was obvious.

In 1881, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had organized the town of Durango for business, not for pleasure. In fact, Durango, Colorado was named after Durango, Mexico, one thousand miles to the south. In keeping with the exuberance of the times, the company planned a rail link that would one day connect the two Durango towns. As with so many Steam Age plans, that route never came to pass. The southern branch line never extended beyond Farmington, New Mexico, fifty miles to the south. In Durango's heyday, tracks ran south to Farmington, New Mexico, east to Alamosa, and west to Mancos and Dolores, Colorado.

Durango, Colorado Depot in 1965 - Engine No. 476 at full steam - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The original purpose of the railroad hub at Durango was to serve the San Juan mining district. For seventy-five years, ore trains, smelting and the transportation of refined metals dominated the Durango economy. Although both gold and silver mining played out by the turn of twentieth century, as late as World War II uranium was still the hot
mineral in town. In several of our 1965 Durango Depot photos, a large white mountain sits in the background. The old American Smelter tailings pile, along with its attendant chimney was still a dangerous reminder of the uranium business in Durango.

Until the early twentieth century, the Rio Grand Railroad and horse trails were the only ways to reach Durango. In fact, the first automobiles to enter Durango did so by train. Ringed by high mountains, watered by a perpetual stream, Durango fits nicely into the green and verdant Animas River Valley. From its beginning, Durango ranked as the dominant commercial and transportation center within the Four Corners region. Despite its strategic location, Durango did experience trouble. In the 1950s, as rail transportation and mining crashed, only the tourist trade kept Durango alive. During the 1960s, the population of Durango slipped from 10,530 to 10,333.

By the time of our 1965 visit, there were three “must see” attractions in and around Durango. Thirty-six miles to the west on U.S. Highway 160 was Mesa Verde National Park. Stretching north, the “The Million Dollar Highway” (U.S. Highway 550) connected Durango and Silverton, Colorado. Third and most interesting to me was the narrow gauge railroad that also linked Durango and Silverton.

Often called simply the “Rio Grande”, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) was then a company in transition. By 1968, Durango lost both its eastern and southern rail connections. Only the Durango & Silverton line remained operational. With little ore to transport and the Million Dollar Highway replacing its passenger service, the precursor to today’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad struggled to survive.

With a blast of steam up the chimney, Engine 476 moves out of Durango Depot in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After visiting Mesa Verde and driving the Million Dollar Highway, there was only one thing left for us to do in Durango. On our third day there, we traveled on the steam train from Durango to Silverton, and then back again. In those days, there was no motor coach alternative. Today, passengers can take the bus from Durango to Silverton and then ride the train back to town. Alternatively, they can ride the train up to Silverton and then return by bus. Stalwarts and diehards ride the train in both directions..

Although we had reservations on the second train that day, we arrived early to see Engine 476 preparing to pull the early train out of the Durango Depot. Pulling a line of mismatched passenger cars, the forty-two-year-old engine continued to serve its original purpose, which was to pull passenger trains. Until DRGW ended its Durango-Alamosa passenger service in 1968, Engine 476 likely served on both the Silverton and Alamosa lines.

In 1923, the Schenectady Locomotive Works built ten 470 Series (or 2-8-2 K-28) for the Rio Grande Western Railroad. With its 2-8-2 wheel-plan, the 470 Series engines had both a lower center of gravity and higher capacity boilers than is possible with older style 2-8 wheel-plans. Sporting a diamond chimney shroud, the locomotive evoked the style of the Orient. Thoroughly modern when constructed, in 1965 Engine 476 looked every bit the “Mikado” that it was.

The class name "Mikado" originates from a group of Japanese type 9700 2-8-2 locomotives, built by Baldwin Locomotive Works for the Nippon Railway of Japan in 1897. The Gilbert and Sullivan opera "The Mikado" had premiered in 1885, so the name was still on the minds of many in America, where the opera achieved great popularity. Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major-General’s Song”, in “The Pirates of Penzance”, had helped popularize the word “modern”.

In 1965, Denver & Rio Grande West Engine 476 launches at the camera - (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With great optimism about the future, the 1920s represented the epitome of modernity in American Life. As soon as the ten new K-28 engines joined the DRGW fleet, those powerful, compact Mikados became the favored engines for short-haul passenger and freight routes throughout the system. In a nod to the nacient Streamline Moderne style, their forward mounted air-brake systems and their Japanese Mikado-style chimneys fit the modernity of their time.

It is sad to say that somewhere along the line; all three of the Durango & Silverton K-28 engines have lost their classic chimney shrouds. In each of their places now stand a vertical pipe and cylindrical black shroud. In the interest of historical integrity, it would be nice to see the D&SRR add historically correct diamond-stack chimney shrouds to all three remaining 470 Series Mikados. As these utilitarian engines approach their hundredth anniversary, the recreation of an authentic historical style should be a priority.

That day in 1965, as we waited for the early section to leave the Durango Depot, there was tension in the air. Upon arrival, we observed a steady stream of black coal smoke emanating from the chimney of Engine No. 476. Before we arrived that morning, the yard crew had attached the engine to the train. When the engineer finally climbed aboard Engine No. 476, we knew that the action was about to begin. With his Nikon F 35-mm film camera ready, my father stood astride the tracks. Standing behind him and to his left, I held my vintage Mamiya 16-mm film camera at the ready. Not wanting to miss the action, we soon walked across West College Drive and then along the tracks. From our new vantage point, we would see the engine coming toward us, almost head-on.

With its steam whistle blowing photographers off the track, Engine No. 476 departs Durango Depot in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On that day in August 1965, Engine No. 476 appeared historically correct and ready to go. First, the steam powered whistle wailed. As the fireman stoked the firebox, the engineer opened the throttle valve, sending superheated steam into the cylinders, thus driving the pistons and turning the wheels. Another valve sent steam up the blast pipe and out through the chimney. That blast of steam increased the draft across the fire grate. As this powering-up took place, steam and coal smoke shot high into the morning sky. Already “up to steam”, the locomotive soon began to move along the tracks.

In order to capture the scene, my father had positioned himself astride the tracks. Not being as brave as he was, I positioned myself off the tracks, behind him and to his left. In those days, after snapping a picture, the photographer had to advance the film with a thumb-lever. Only after advancing the film could he snap his next picture.

Once the train began to move, it accelerated more rapidly than either of us had expected. To my surprise, my father stood his ground, snapping a photo of the train as it headed straight for him. Somewhere in all of that excitement, he was able to get one more close-up of the approaching engine. For my part, I got one shot of my father astride the tracks and another as he turned and ran. Although he was smiling in my second shot, he also appeared giddy with fear.

To this day, I am not sure how close Engine No. 473 came to my father and me. Being one who has observed the sheer power of a K-28 Mikado steam engine coming toward him on the tracks, I can say that the experience is enough to instill both respect and fear. Once we had calmed down, we sauntered over to the depot. There we boarded our own train, pulled by the venerable K-28 Mikado Engine No. 478.

This Part One of a two-part article. To read Part Two, Click HERE.

 


By James McGillis at 03:30 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link

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