History: Grant sought to complete train restoration project


Locomotive 491 has made its final stop at the Colorado Railroad Museum after spending 34 years chugging along the “ribbon of iron” around the Rio Grande route.

With the help of a grant from the state historical fund, this Colorado built steam engine could be preserved and restored to its original condition by the Colorado Railroad Museum’s mechanical staff who is elated to have her.

“This is a testament to the Rio Grande and the men who worked for the Rio Grande because it was the only large narrow gauge locomotive, well, really the only narrow gauge locomotive built in Colorado by the Rio Grande,” Mike Spera, master mechanic said.

“This engine is truly a Colorado original.”

Locomotive 491 is one of eight remaining narrow gauge engines in the K37 class that were transformed from the C-41 class; the ambitious result of Denver mechanical engineers like P.C. Withrowe of D&RGW Burnham Shops and George R. Ballard, president of General Iron-Sterns Roger. Both men wanted to put Colorado on the map for engine manufacturing, an undertaking headed by the rust belt which included states like Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania. But through the cooperation of Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, AMSCO Foundries, and the Dorr Company, C-41’s were summoned to Denver by the Office of Master Mechanic in 1927 to begin their reconstructions into the K37 classes.

By September of 1928, Locomotive 491 rolled out of the Denver Burnham Shops as Denver & Rio Grande Western, weighing in at 307,250 pounds. She was used around the Rio Grande routes, and retired in 1962 where she logged a total of 182,649 miles.

She sat on the dead lines in Alamosa until she was donated to History Colorado in 1970. In June of this year, History Colorado handed her over to the Colorado Railroad Museum in the hopes that she will be restored to her original condition.

The museum is requesting $24,000 to $30,000 from the state historical fund, a program of History Colorado, in order to remove asbestos, give the cab a makeover, replace boiler jackets and re-paint.

“History Colorado does not deaccession (remove) many pieces in their collection.” Donald Tallman, executive director said. “So for us to receive that was a really wonderful thing. It’s a great asset to the museum and it’s a great asset to the Golden community as well.”

Should the museum receive the necessary funding in order to complete the work to preserve Locomotive 491, Spera estimates it will take three to four months to complete the restoration including re-insulation and re-jacketing. By the summer of 2014, Locomotive 491 could be ready for official display.

“These guys didn’t have CAD (computer aided design), they didn’t have all the aides that we have now, they had slide rules and compasses, we have all the drawings from the Rio Grande for this engine and they are all hand drawn on vellum,” Spera said.

At the age of 28, Spera began volunteering at the museum 20 years ago, and with a title like “master mechanic” his expertise in this type of work is quite amazing as he is the youngest master mechanic in the country.

“The thing that trips my trigger is the quality in the way they did things, this was not built in the `throw away generation’ like it is now where everything is disposable,” Spera said. “She was built in September of 1928, she’s still here and in really good mechanical condition.”

The museum is at 17155 West 44th Ave. in Golden. For information, call 303-279-4591.


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