100 Years Ago Today: Blizzards and Lizards

Montrose Daily Press, March 4, 1919

M. H. Loeffler was a tailor and prominent Grand Junction Elk member who was known not only for his custom suits, but also for promoting and selling the Hynes Level Measure, which was the first instrument of its kind that could measure the angle of a person’s shoulders.

Hynes Level Measures as sold by Loeffler

Anyway, he was riding the not-mentioned-by-name Rio Grande Southern Railroad in today’s article. The RGS was a narrow gauge railway built between 1890-1893 by the legendary “Pathfinder of the San Juans”, Otto Mears.

The railroad navigated through the steep, majestic San Juan mountain range in southwestern Colorado in order to connect the mining towns of Ridgway and Durango. It featured several hundred-foot long stretches of trestle bridges in order to pass through such dramatic mountain terrain, which also meant it was expensive to build and maintain.

Lizard Head Pass on the Rio Grande Southern Railroad Line

Soon after it was completed, the RGS suffered from the Silver Panic of 1893 when the area’s mines closed en masse. The railroad would continue to struggle financially through the Great Depression, but it managed to survive until 1953 by pivoting from expensive steam locomotives to the odd-looking hybrid railcar called the Galloping Goose, which ran from 1931 – 1952.

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Galloping Goose with Lizard Head Rock in Background

The fleet of seven Galloping Goose railcars had motorized bus bodies fitted with cow catchers up front, and they featured a passenger car in the back. Originally painted black and green, all seven were painted silver in 1935 and remained so until their end. The Galloping Goose railcars were all built in manufacturing plants in Ridgway, and they carried mail between the small San Juan towns in addition to becoming popular tourist rides as well. Today you can find Galloping Goose railcars #2, #6, and #7 at the Colorado Railroad Museum, railcar #4 in Telluride, CO, railcar #5 in Dolores, CO, and railcar #3 at Knott’s Berry Farm in California.

Colorado Experience episode on the Galloping Goose railcars

Now let’s head back to the year 1919, where our friend Loeffler is on a steam-powered train on the Rio Grande Southern, heading over the iconic Lizard Head Pass when the train he’s on runs into a natural phenomenon that today’s weekend travelers on I-70 may have seen pummel their route: a huge avalanche.

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Avalanche covers I-70 near Copper Mountain on March 3, 2019

Another reason why the RGS was so expensive to maintain is that any winter service required a constant battle against snow. Loeffler says that 20-30 feet of snow has piled up near Windy Point, which is located just north of the iconic Ophir Loop. That snow total seems like a stretch, but ok.

If he came from Lizard Head Pass in the south, traveling north to Montrose, then that means his train also passed through the notoriously avalanche-prone Ames Slide area, where I’d fully believe that 20-30 feet of snow could have piled up. Regardless, I can only imagine the anxiety of traveling by rail through so much snow.

Blue Line is the Rio Grande Southern Line near Ophir
Rio Grande Southern being dug out from massive snowfall

Today, you can drive over Lizard Head Pass on CO-146 and see the titular Lizard Head Rock spire, which was once featured at the center of the Rio Grande Southern seal. In 1911, a huge rockfall occurred on Lizard Head Rock which took out the larger, taller spire and left the smaller spire as the most prominent feature, which it still is today. Albert Ellingwood, storied mountaineer, recorded the first known ascent of Lizard Head Rock in 1921. Read his trip report here.

Rio Grande Southern Railroad logo featuring the iconic Lizard Head Rock
Image result for lizard head before after rock fall
Lizard Head today
Rio Grande Southern Railroad on Lizard Head Pass

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