By Chris Lane/photos by the author
It may seem hard to imagine today, but once upon a time, the railroads were firmly in the passenger business. In fact, between the 1870’s and the turn-of-the-century, new railroads often purchased a coach and combine before they ordered any freight cars, and sometimes, even locomotives. This was equally true of the narrow gauge railroads. Built by the skilled craftsman of Billmeyer & Small, St. Charles (ACF) and Jackson & Sharp, these wood cars combined Victorian elegance with sturdy functionality. The new HOn3 open platform coach from Blackstone Models replicates the most numerous of the Rio Grande’s narrow gauge fleet with impressive fidelity and attention to detail.
The Denver & Rio Grande followed form and bought passenger equipment as soon as they bought their first locomotive, the Montezuma in 1871. As they built south and then west to reach the booming mining camps, the railroad went on a buying and building spree in 1880 and 1882 purchasing or constructing mail-baggage cars, baggage cars, express cars, combines, coach-mail cars, parlor cars, business cars and 59 coaches.
The coaches were all built by the Jackson and Sharp Company of Wilmington, Delaware. They were 38’-5” in length and weighed 23,500lbs. The cars were somewhat different as built than their later appearance. They came from the factory with a great deal of ornate pinstriping on the body and trucks and featured an earlier style of roof common to that period referred to as a “duckbill” roof. Car No. 311 on the Durango and Silverton and No. 307 at the Colorado Railroad Museum still have this roof configuration. They had end windows and 13 single-pane side windows. These windows were rather squat and resulted in an enormous letterboard. These windows are commonly referenced as “early arch” with a small radius arch in each corner of the upper window. Equipped with Buntin seats (a brand name for a reversible or “walkover” seat) the cars originally seated 46 passengers. The cars were assigned a two digit number from 39 to 97 and many of the cars also were named. A renumbering 1886 moved the cars into the 263-321 number series. It is interesting to note that a number of cars had already been wrecked or retired by 1887 and their numbers were assigned to new 39’-8” cars built that year by Jackson & Sharp.
The D&RGW had pretty much standardized a 5-foot wheelbase, composite (wood and steel strapping) truck for the passenger cars by 1881. The wheel diameter was 30 inches, with a select few cars riding on 28” wheels. Except for a change in wheel diameter to 26 inches in the 1920’s, the surviving cars continue to ride on these trucks today.
Over time, the appearance of the cars gradually changed. Most of the cars had received square, double pane windows by the 1920’s and had lost their end windows. One side window on the right hand (stove) end of the cars was blanked off in 1900’s to reduce window breakage and heat loss. Some of the cars lost their as-built arched end door and opening as they were shopped. The 1887 order of Jackson & Sharp cars came with the “bullnose” roof, and the most of the cars in the 263-321 series were rebuilt with the bullnose style also. Equipping the cars with water coolers reduced the seating capacity by one, and coaches 279, 286-287, 300, 302, 307 and 318 had partitions installed to divide the car into a smoker and a “ladies’ apartment.”
In 1924, the fleet was rebuilt. All the cars were equipped with 26” wheels and the car bodies and platforms were lowered to reduce rocking and derailments. As part of the rocking prevention, the truck bolsters were equipped with outriggers and the car bodies with side roller bearings. Finally, the underframes were strengthened. These changes worked well as some of the surviving cars are approaching 140 years of active, continuous passenger service.
One final modernization radically changed the appearance of one car in this class and affected several others. In 1937, the D&RGW rebuilt coaches for the San Juan and Shavano with steam heat, electric lights and air signals, closed vestibules and reclining seats. 8 cars were needed but since only 7 of the 1887 Jackson & Sharp order were still on the roster, No. 319 was also rebuilt. As cars assigned to the Santa Fe branch (aka the Chili Line) were pulled by the San Juan from Alamosa to Antonito, cars 284, 306 and 320 were also equipped with steam heat lines, electric lights and air signals, but they retained their oil lamps for use on the Chili Line. Because they could be cut into the train, these cars were occasionally used in San Juan service.
Speaking of the Chili Line, 284, 285, 306 and 320 also sported bay windows for use by the conductor on that line in the 1930’s and 40’s. These were located on both sides of the cars and gave these cars a distinctive look.
The cars wore a number of paint schemes while in service on the D&RGW. Before 1912, they were a rich maroon color with imitation gold leaf lettering and striping, mineral brown roof, black ironwork and “standard” brown trucks. In 1912, the lettering was changed to pure gold leaf and the striping eliminated. One of the USRA mandates from WWI was for railroads to use either coach green or Pullman green on their passenger equipment, and the Rio Grande went with the Pullman green color on the body, clerestory and trucks, with black roof and ironwork and the pure gold leaf lettering in 1918. The gold leaf lettering was changed to yellow paint in 1925.
In the 1930’s there were at least ten of these cars that were painted red with “D&RGW” stenciled below the windows like MoW equipment. The two theories are that these were cars pulled from storage and used to transport the Civilian Conservation Corps workers on the system, and the paint kept them from being mixed in with cars used in regular passenger or that they were already in standby service with the MoW fleet. Hence the lettering and the red paint, which was the standard MoW color on the Rio Grande until they changed to gray in the 1940’s. It is entirely possible that both are true to an extent. The AFEs for the red paint exist at the Colorado Railroad Museum for some of the cars, but none seem to detail the reason behind the change.
No. 307, preserved at the Colorado Railroad Museum, shows the original “early arch” windows and unrebuilt appearance of the Jackson & Sharp cars.
In 1950 Nos 280, 306 and 320 were painted “Rio Grande” yellow (a vibrant orange-yellow) on the body and clerestory. The roof and trucks were painted silver, the ironwork and letterboard were black and the lettering was done in the Rio Grande Gold. They also sported two black stripes below the window. You can see this scheme in the photo of No. 320. In 1955, coach No. 284 was painted with a slightly modified scheme along with several of the closed vestibule coaches. The modified scheme had one wide black stripe below the windows and the trucks and underbody were painted black. In 1963, this scheme was modified one final time and the Rio Grande Gold clerestory was changed to silver to match the rest of the roof. This is the familiar “Silverton” scheme carried by the equipment from the early 1960’s through to the present day Durango & Silverton trains. It is interesting that while some fans pooh-pooh this scheme as “touristy,” the equipment has worn this scheme longer than any of the previous ones. While everyone loves the classic Pullman green or even the red, you could certainly make the case that the Rio Grande Gold is the classic paint scheme for these cars.
It is my understanding that Blackstone dispatched research teams to measure and document all the remaining prototype cars in Durango on the Durango & Silverton, the Colorado Railroad Museum and the Huckleberry Railroad in Flint, Michigan. This careful research has yielded a fine model that is an extremely accurate representation of the prototype cars.
The Blackstone model is a replica of the post-1924 bullnose roof cars. More specifically, they are exacting replicas of the cars of the model’s car number. Each of the existing prototype cars have slight detail variations that Blackstone has replicated for those specific cars. For instance, cars assigned to the Chili Line (Nos 284, 306 and 320) have conduit on the roof for the electric lights, but No. 280 does not. Each car has the proper arched or straight end door, one of the two styles of queen posts, correct roof vent arrangement and so on. The cars conform to all known dimensions and to Al Kamm’s drawings in Slim Gauge Cars – Second Edition. In all, these models are exceedingly accurate representations of the prototype.
All the models come equipped with Kadee 714 couplers, metal wheels and the cars weigh 1.7ozs. They handle 18” radius with ease and the trucks are both well detailed and extremely free-rolling. The cars also come with electric pickups that can be installed at the option of modeler for interior lighting. You can also get a SoundTraxx Accessory Lighting Decoder P.N. 810136 which is specifically designed to drop into the car. The pickups provide a smooth, flicker-free electrical connection, with a slight expense of additional drag on the rolling qualities.
In addition to all the car specific details, all the cars come with full brake rigging and air brake piping, molded end railings, wire grabs and full interiors including seats, stoves, restrooms and water cooler.
The finish is excellent and on par with what we’ve come to expect from Blackstone. The lettering is consistent with the styles seen in photographs and looks to be a fine opaque rendition of the “Deluxe Gold” yellow paint. The Pullman Green is a particularly pleasing version and the Rio Grande Gold on No. 320 appears to be a good match for the 1950’s paint.
The Jackson & Sharp coaches are another fine model offering from Blackstone. Even with a “standard” narrow gauge car, Blackstone is to be commended for adding all the car-specific details in addition to capturing so many of the details seen throughout the car fleet. If your HOn3 railroad needs to add or expand its passenger car service, these models from Blackstone are for you.
210 Rock Point Dr.
Durango, CO 81301-7744
B350106 – No Number Pullman Green, unlettered 2nd release: $97.95 MSRP
B350108 – No 285 Pullman Green: $97.95 MSRP
B350109 – No 304 Pullman Green: $97.95 MSRP
B350110 – Nos 287, 305, 309 D&RG Passenger Car Red 3-pack: $280.00 MSRP
B350111 – No Number Passenger Car Red unlettered: $97.95 MSRP
B350112 – Nos 284, 306, 320 “Chili Line” 3-pack: $280.00 MSRP