Remembering Yampa Valley Mail’s final days chugging along Colorado River
May 1, 2017
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When the last Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad train pulled out of the depot in Steamboat Springs running east to Denver on April 8, 1968, it marked the end the era of passenger rail service here.
It was the No. 10 train — often called the "mail train," or Yampa Valley Mail, by locals — that made the last trip on the route that spring day. Its several coach cars were filled again after a long drought.
Local railroad fans from Routt and Moffat counties were not the only people aboard. Railroad buffs from many parts of the country were eager to ride the train's farewell trip, and many Coloradans assembled at each of the stations on the line and at many of the bridges and crossings to wave a final goodbye to the 57-year-old institution that had accelerated the development of the Yampa Valley.
Very few people in the 1960s chose to take the old passenger train to get from Steamboat to Denver. The ride took at least 6 1/2 hours — sometimes much longer because it often ran late.
The Continental Trailways bus line required only four hours; an automobile could get there in three, and Frontier Airlines had just started daily service that required only an hour to reach Stapleton Airport in Denver from Hayden.
With diminishing revenues from passenger service and equally declining freight traffic lost to the trucking industry, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad had tried for years to close down its passenger service to the Yampa Valley.
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After the highway improvement up and over Rabbit Ears Pass in the 1950s, few people elected to spend long hours cooped up in the single coach railroad car with at least 30 scheduled stops and another 20 possible flag stops on the 190-mile route. When the state railroad commission finally allowed the train's discontinuance — coincident with the loss of the U.S. Postal Service mail contract to more competitive truckers — many in the Yampa Valley understood the economic realities but still felt they were losing a historic treasure.
I was unable to join in that last ride's festive celebration, but I had made an annual trip on No. 10 (and on No. 9, its counterpart running west from Denver) during the previous four years.
In 1964, after buying my ticket from Steamboat's last stationmaster, Glen Thorpe, I stood on the depot's platform with a few others travelers as No. 10 rolled in from Craig, with a couple more already aboard.
Craig, the railroad's western terminus, was, at that time, a town larger than Steamboat Springs. We picked up a few more at Oak Creek and Yampa, but by the time we reached the Colorado River at State Bridge, we still had fewer than 15, and when we arrived in Denver we numbered no more than 25 in a coach that contained more than 50 seats. We were riding a tiny train — a locomotive, a baggage car and one coach — and I could easily believe the D&RGW's claim that it was losing $1,000 per day on the Yampa Valley Mail.
On my initial ride on No. 10, I do not remember talking to other passengers, but from the trainmen, I learned much from both professional railroad men well into their 60s, who proudly wore black bill caps embossed with the letters D&SL RR.
We were nearing the divide between the Yampa drainage and the Colorado River when one of those veterans spoke to me. I was traveling alone and staring out the window into Egeria Canyon when I heard a gruff and hearty voice: "Well, young man, how do you like our train?"
Surprised to be so addressed by a railroad official, I replied that I was delighted to be traveling on this historic and scenic route, and I volunteered to him that I was a history teacher. For the next five hours, whenever either of the trainmen was not attending to railroad business or ascertaining whether other passengers liked "our train," I was entertained, by the their talk and their large, well-tended and carefully labeled photograph scrapbooks. Both acted as if they were the proud proprietors of a private company and wished to assure us passengers, their clientele, that our enjoyment was truly their prime concern.
"Our train" stopped for a few minutes in the late morning at the town of Bond, where the former D&SL tracks merged with the D&RGW's main line (the route of the California Zephyr). Some of us passengers had previously ordered, via the train's radio, freshly made sandwiches, which were then brought on board from the railroad's hotel-restaurant at that junction. We then made the short descent into the Colorado River's drainage, which remained the railroad track's bed all the way to the west entrance of the Moffat Tunnel.
The Colorado River Canyon between Bond and Kremmling is well-removed from the automobile road between those two towns and, consequently, difficult to access except by train; for this reason, it is favorite place for fishermen.
The difficulty of reaching the river in that gorge (also known as Gore Canyon) is well known to Colorado anglers. Because it impedes car traffic, the gorge has been much favored by those who know it is, unlike most of the Colorado River, rarely overfished.
For many years, local fishermen, who became well acquainted the D&SL railroad men — engineers, conductors, trainmen — would ask to be let off at the spots they favored and to be left there until the westward train could pick them up an hour later, or until they had spent a full 24 hours, or even until they had walked several miles to the overland road for other possible transport.
Since the east- and west-bound trains passed each other sometime after noon (if they were both on time) near Kremmling, it was an ideal situation but only for the most intrepid. Some of them knew the train system so well they were also able to ride out on a section crew's motor railroad car.
As the 1960s progressed along with the recognition that passenger service would not last much longer, the trainmen allowed for more individual requests in that gorge and in the Fraser River canyon between Granby and Winter Park.
Every traveler on the Yampa Valley Mail — from its original runs in the first decade until its last in the sixth decade of the 20th century — could tell a different story other than the one I write here. Each passenger on that famous journey must often have witnessed and remembered what another passenger, who might have been seated nearby, did not even observe.
And some travelers may have found the old trainmen a grumpy bunch, officious and crabby. Others of us felt lucky to be expertly informed by the love they exhibited about their life's work.
Such were some of the possible experiences on the Yampa Valley Mail, our train, 1909-1968.
John Whittum, with much assistance from Paul Bonnifield and others.