Most of you are relatively familiar with the Rio Grande Southern's fleet of automobile conversions, known eventually as the Galloping Geese. The fantastically successful series of machines started in 1931, when Jack Odenbaugh built RGS 1 from a 1925 Buick Model 45 touring car. The creation was designed to allow the RGS to fulfill its mail delivery contracts without actually having to fire up a steam locomotive and suffer the costs of running a regular train. Originally the backend was an open bed with wooden stake sides, but within two months it was rebuilt as an enclosed, locking box to satisfy the US Postal Service and a cramped seven seat passenger compartment.
The machine was an unqualified success. Since RGS 1 had paid for itself within a month of hitting the rails, construction on an entire fleet of motors commenced immediately. Over the next five years, six more conversions took place, using both Buicks and Pierce-Arrows as starting points. The newer, larger motors quickly took over for RGS 1, since as built, it was an excellent prototype but far too small to sustain regular service. After only two years, RGS 1 was stricken from the roster, but the other six motors continued on in regular service until the end in 1952, albeit with an almost endless number of changes and improvements.
One of the charming things about the Geese is that they were constantly evolving throughout their service lives. Over the years, some of the original Pierce-Arrow bodies were replaced on some units with Wayne bus bodies left over from European WWII service, one of the Buick bodies was replaced by a Pierce-Arrow, the engines were changed out for surplus WWII GMC 361 engines, and in the spring of 1950, some of the rear freight boxes were rebuilt to passenger compartments and upgraded for tourist-hauling service. While almost certainly referred to as Galloping Geese by the locals at an earlier date, it was at this conversion to tourist service that the railroad officially embraced the name and the now-iconic logo.
The truly remarkable thing about the RGS Geese, however, is their longevity. As a testament to their uniqueness and usefulness, at the close of operations all six remaining motors were quickly snapped up by new owners. RGS 2 went to Bob Richardson's collection for the soon-to-be-founded Colorado Railroad Museum. RGS 3 was used in the scrapping of the line and was then purchased by Walter Knott and taken to California. There 3 would work on the park narrow gauge at Knott's Berry Farm alongside other RGS equipment. RGS 4 and 5 were purchased by local civic organizations to be placed in parks along the former route. RGS 4 went to the Telluride Volunteer Fire Department and was placed next to the fire station. RGS 5 was purchased by the Dolores (Colorado) Rotary Club and placed in a city park across from the old depot site. RGS 6 and 7 were used by the Brinkerhoffs for scrapping out the RGS and then retained in the scrap yard in anticipation of future use in scrapping the San Juan Extension.
The road to Goosefest really starts in 1991, with the founding of the Galloping Goose Historical Society in Dolores. In 1997, after recreating the RGS depot in Dolores, they turned their attention to the the full, operating restoration of RGS Goose 5. By 1998, the work was complete, and the Goose rolled onto the rails of the Cumbres and Toltec to carry its first passengers in 45 years.
Quite surprisingly, a goose nearly 70 years gone was the next to return to operations. Using the remains of a 1926 Buick found in Montana, Karl Schaeffer rebuilt RGS 1 as faithfully as possible to its original design. It made its first runs at the Durango and Silverton Railfest in 2000, and lives on today at the Ridgway Railroad Museum.
RGS 2 was one of the first pieces brought to the newly-founded Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden in 1958. Since then, it was maintained in much the same condition as when it arrived. In 1999, restoration work started to return it to an operational state, and it made its debut at the D&S Railfest in 2000 with RGS 1 and RGS 5. The installation of a much-oversized airbrake by the D&S had caused additional damage, and it took until 2007 before the Museum completed repairs and outfitting with a proper brake system.
RGS 3 never technically left service, but Knotts mostly kept it in standby service after the 1953 season. It would return to service periodically when D&RGW 340 needed servicing, but mostly sat around. Knotts replaced the original prime mover with a diesel in 1996, and then later did a full restoration of the passenger box to its 1950s RGS condition in 2004.
RGS 6 and 7, as mentioned previously, were retained by the Brinkerhoff Brothers for potential future use in scrapping other narrow gauge lines in southwestern Colorado. With the relatively certain survival of both the Cumbres and Toltec and the Silverton Branch by 1981, the Brinkeroffs sold both Geese to Bob Shank of Durango, who then later sold them to the Colorado Railroad Museum (via a third party) in 1985. The condition of both was extremely rough, with parts rotted, corroded, or just plan stolen over the years. The Museum started a wholesale restoration on both and they made their mutual debut at the first Goosefest on 8 Nov 2008.
RGS 4 was the last to be restored to service. In 2008, after only routine maintenance for 56 years, the deteriorating state of RGS 4 forced the TVFD to take more drastic measures. The wooden superstructure was rotted to the point that the roof would soon collapse if work wasn't done. So, in May of 2008, Goose 4 was trucked down the road to the Ridgway museum and work started on what was originally to be only a cosmetic restoration. Upon opening up 4, however, the drivetrain was found to be in remarkably good shape and a full operating restoration was authorized. On 20 Aug 2011, RGS 4 moved under its own power for the first time since being parked in 1953, and by a month later the restoration was completed.
Back to present day... The fabled RGS is little more than memories and a cinder-laden bump of dirt across the ground. But six machines that roamed those rails were - for the first time in six decades - all restored to the way they were during their heyday, if not better. As such, Colorado Railroad Museum started planning for a reunion of all six plus the recreation of RGS 1. It would be the first time that all six original Geese would be in the same place since the end came in late 1952. For the weekend of June 15-17, 2012, the Museum's track would be invaded by Geese coming from all corners, including Knotts 3.
It turned out to be a fantastic weekend, although Knotts canceled at the last minute, leaving only six Geese. (One of the guys in attendance was from Knotts - we threatened to give him a grey T-shirt with a "3" on it and make him run around the loop...) The crowds, according to one museum volunteer, were every bit as bad as a Thomas weekend, but I'm glad to see so many people took the opportunity to experience such a historic event. What follows is a series of photos over the course of the three-day event. Enjoy!
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This work is copyright 2011 by Nathan D. Holmes, but licensed under a
Creative Commons License. I encourage others to consider CC or other Open Content-style licensing of their original works.
All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 1D Mark III using either a Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS/USM, Canon 17-40mm f/4L USM, or a Canon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS/USM.