Denver & Rio Grande Western


Exploring the Farmington Branch

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First, the back story.  To preempt a perceived threat by E.H. Harriman to build a railroad into southwestern Colorado, in 1905 the Rio Grande constructed a standard-gauge branch to between Durango, Colorado and Farmington, New Mexico. This unusual line was isolated since it connected to the narrow-gauge system at Durango. The feared invasion never materialized, so the line was never extended further.  In 1923 the railroad's management decided that this situation didn't make any sense, and rebuilt the line as narrow gauge.

The line follows the Animas River for its entire trip.  This required a fair amount of earth work, five major bridges, and a host of minor ones.

During its service life, the branch hauled agricultural freight-- San Juan County was home to many orchards as well as livestock husbandry.  In its latter years, as the postwar energy boom hit, the narrow gauge was a lifeline for heavy equipment and oilfield supplies.  Many, many carloads of drilling pipe travelled the line.  (A friend of mine in that business tells me that, after the railroad pulled out, prices for drilling supplies increased dramatically...)

It continued to operate as an extension of the D&RGW narrow gauge system until 1968 when the line was abandoned.  It was dismantled during 1969, and most of the right-of-way went back to the adjacent landowners.

(I have another acquaintance who, right after the rails were pulled, rode the entire distance from Farmington to Durango on a dirt bike.  He said that you'd find a certain speed where the bumping from the ties would harmonize and not jar you too badly.  True?  Who knows.)

Fast forward to 2008.  The line has been gone for forty years, and traces are gradually disappearing.  Some parts went immediately-- nary a trace is to be seen in Farmington, for example, unless one looks very closely-- and other parts have been removed or destroyed in the intervening years.  The bridges at Cedar Hill were removed sometime prior to 1981.  {One found its way to Tom Bolack's B Square Ranch in Farmington.}  Parts of the right-of-way were bulldozed in the late 1990s as part of a highway widening project north of Aztec.  Yet, traces can still be found, and I set out to locate them while I still could.

Here's the situation.  North of Aztec the grade is still plainly evident  in most places, except those places that US 550 has absorbed it.  Between Aztec and Farmington, it's a different story, with the grade transiting what are now hay fields; in these places, no trace remains.  Several remarkable bridges still remain along the line.  Getting to them is the challenge!  In most areas, the old alignment is surrounded by or crosses private property.  Trust me, you don't want to violate people's property rights around here.

I will document the portion between Bondad and Durango more fully as time allows.

At the south edge of Durango near the base of Farmington hill, a wooden trestle still stands across the gulch coming down from the east. This curving span was the first major bridge structure on the branch.
Looking south across the span, you can see the curving alignment of the right-of-way. As with many of the bridges on the branch, it no longer connects solidly with the banks.

(The iron structure to the right is not part of this bridge, but is a parallel bridge carrying utilities over the gulch.)

At the base of Bondad hill, the railroad alignment is now occupied by County Road 310, which goes southeast across the Florida river and up the hill towards Ignacio.  First traces of the railroad grade are across the river along the base of the hillside, headed south.  In this view from above, you can see the junction of the Florida with the Animas (Florida is the brown water).  The railroad grade is indicated by the line with arrows.  It's overgrown with brush.

Immediate access to the grade is not possible from 310 due to private property.

A short distance south of the Florida River junction, a side drainage was bridged by a trestle.  This trestle is not visible from the highway northbound, and only briefly southbound (just as you cross the Animas River).
South about a mile on US 550, you can easily see the famous water tank across the river.  It's been deteriorating over the years.  You can get a pretty decent photo from the shoulder of the highway, if you have a telephoto lens.
Another half-mile to the south, a gooseneck of the river forced the line over a complex bridge, with a nice through-truss center section.  It's on private property, so your best bet is a telephoto shot from the highway.

Note the complex segmented design: from the north, we have trestle, then truss, then steel deck plate, then trestle again.

This is a view of the north-side trestle approach, showing the structure of the bents.
 Here are some close-up shots of the bridge.

The truss section, from riverbank level, looking north-northeast...

Here's the south abutment.  The owners have built some kind of party deck on this section of the bridge.  Looks like a great way to spend an evening to me-- the river is beautiful here.
Looking north towards the deck girder section and the truss beyond.
Here is the north pier for the truss segment.  Note how it is split into two columns.  Many details of the bridge's ironwork also show up in good detail here.

Crossing into New Mexico, the alignment closely follows the river on the west bank. As we reach the Cedar Hill area, another series of goosenecks forces the line to cross the river three times in fairly quick succession.  Two of the spans have been removed, but the northernmost bridge is still extant.

This view is from about a half-mile away.  The south end is completely inaccessible except by a private bridge, and I wasn't going to risk that.

Looking at this photo, you can see that the section between the truss and the north bank has been dismantled.

San Juan County road 2125 gets you close to the north end, but the last couple hundred yards are now a private driveway.  This view is the north end of the truss span.  You can see the gap between the truss and the bank.
The middlemost of the three bridges has been removed.  I was unable to get near the site.
The southernmost bridge was located just to the east of the still-standing truss bridge that carried highway traffic in days gone by.  (It too has been superseded, by a pair of modern concrete bridges).  The piers for the railroad bridge still stand in the river.
The north end of the bridge location.  In addition to the concrete pier, you can discern the remnants of a trestle bent near the top of the bank to the left.

The south approach to the bridge is via an extensive fill.  Unfortunately, it doesn't photograph well, but is quite striking to see in person.  You won't get the whole effect from the highway-- stop and walk the old highway bridge to get a proper view.

Just north of the bridge site is an antique store displaying a crossbuck on the roof.  Authentic?  Possibly, though the tracks crossed the road a couple hundred feet east of this structure.  The sign has been on that building as long as I remember, going back to the early 1980's.

Between Cedar Hill and Aztec, the grade is quite visible, and seldom far from the highway. A few places it has been trimmed by road construction or cut for various reasons, but for the most part it still exists.  One can tell that this was originally a standard gauge line, if for no other reason than the extensive dirtwork to keep the line at a consistent grade.

Unfortunately, obvious as the grade is, for some reason it just doesn't photograph well.  Here's a location about halfway to Aztec.  Grade is indicated by the arrows.

As you approach town, the grade becomes intermittent, until it disappears almost entirely within Aztec.  An alley off of Rio Grande Avenue does follow the line.  I need to explore this a little more...

One lingering "sign" is the name of Rio Grande Avenue, a minor street that once paralleled the tracks.

As an aside, the logo on San Juan County vehicles looks suspiciously like a Rio Grande "Main Line Thru the Rockies" herald.  Coincidence?

West of Aztec the alignment is now under Southside River Road for the first mile or so.  Where they diverge, the street suddenly becomes very wiggly...   Here is a view looking down the old grade, now a driveway.
A side view of the divergence-- grade marked by the arrows.  West of Aztec the line stayed on a single tangent for most of the distance to Farmington.  The width of the valley here made this possible, although it required another bridge.
This bridge is the least accessible of all.  It's located roughly three miles west of Aztec.  The elegant arched truss is nearly impossible to see from ground level due to the trees, and is completely surrounded by private property-- hundreds of acres of it.  About the only way to get to it is via boat (on the river!), and I don't recommend this approach.  The water is deceptively fast, and boaters drown in the weirs near here with depressing regularity.  Make sure you know what you're doing.

(I had lived nearby for almost 15 years before I learned this bridge even existed-- and that was because I glimpsed it from a plane.)

Recently, a friend of mine, Bill Woodard, asked for and received permission to visit the bridge and take photographs.  Bill has graciously provided me copies and allowed me to host them here for your enjoyment. The following eight images are Bill's (or his wife's).
Seen from the South from a sandbar in the Animas River, the bridge's ends are hidden in the trees.  From any distance away, this is about all you can ever see.
Standing on the east end of the structure looking west.  Here we can see the magnificent trusswork of the bridge. Note to the left that the trees are now growing through the bridge on this bank. The east end is in the air; formerly a trestle crossed the flats between the abutment and the truss bridge, but this is long gone now.
Viewed from underneath, looking west. You get a feel for the engineering required to suspend the structure in the air above you.
View from the northwest corner, nearly the entire span is visible.
The western end is still connected to the original grade fill.
Standing on the structure looking east. Note that you can see where the ties formerly rested on the ironwork. I assume that the wear of years of use had removed the original paint; I doubt they would have painted it after ties were installed.
Here's the biggest surprise of all: evidently this is not the first bridge to have occupied this location! The worn concrete piers sit well below the current truss bridge, which must have been built as a replacement. The newer bridge footings sit closer to the bank (see next photo).
Second-biggest surprise: the western toes of the truss rest on cribbed timbers, not on concrete or something more substantial as one might expect. Judging by the rot evident on the timbers, this bridge is not going to stand forever...

Through the valley the grade is almost completely obscured.  Some traces can be discerned near the bridge-- if you're a bird, anyway, or have Google Earth.  Seeing it from the ground is another story.

On Farmington's outskirts, there's a small tribute in the form of a little dirt street called Rail Road.  It sits on, or next to, the alignment for maybe a quarter mile.

This gap through the trees once hosted steam-powered trains.  Now it hosts a group of luxury homes.  Of course, back in the train days, this spot would have been five miles outside of the city limits.
One resident still honors the history of the street.  I don't know if the grade signals are local remnants or imported from elsewhere, but they're a nice touch.

Within Farmington, nearly all evidence of a railroad are gone.  I've never seen a city so completely obliterate all signs of such an important part of its heritage.  I am told that there are a couple of buildings constructed by the D&RGW still standing, but haven't been able to identify them.

In 1985/6, I was working at what is now Riley Industrials, on San Juan Blvd.  Inside the east bay of the shop were rails buried in the concrete.  They were 3-foot gauge.  I was told by those who'd been there to see it that the railroad would bring cars in for unloading and even service locomotives there.  (I'd like independent confirmation of the latter!)  The main track actually ran past the front of the building, through what is now the parking lot.  If you ever have occasion to eat at the Red Lobster restaurant, the tracks went right through where the building is now.

(Pull up Mapquest and turn on the aerial photo option-- you can actually follow the alignment through most of town, or guess where it had been.)

At the southwest end of town today, Elm Street follows the old railroad alignment.  At its west end, by San Juan Regional Medical Center, Elm intersects Schwarz, which makes an odd little curve to the south.  This was the location of the east leg of the wye that the railroad used for turning locomotives here.  It also marks the extreme southwest corner of the narrow-gauge system of the Denver and Rio Grande Western.




2008, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved.