Dreams and Historical Preservation

Bonnie Koch

One could say that Bob Richardson founded not only the Colorado Railroad Museum, but the Ridgway Railroad Museum as well.

In the 1950's when the Rio Grande Southern was seeing its demise, Bob discovered several boxes of materials that were headed for the dump. He gathered them up and handed them over to Ridgway resident Smiles C. Dunn with the admonition, "Keep these in a safe place. Some day there will be a museum here to celebrate the contribution of the Rio Grande Southern to southwestern Colorado."

In 1998, almost fifty years later, the Ouray County Historical Society began exploring the possibility of developing a branch to recognize the ranching and railroad history of Ridgway. Ridgway resident Austin Baer attended the initial meetings and was instrumental in eventually establishing an independent railroad museum in Ridgway - fulfilling Bob Richardson's prophecy. Austin became the first Ridgway Railroad Museum Board President.

In the short few years of its existence, the Museum has made significant contributions to the preservation of Colorado Railroad history. With a focus on restoration, education and research their members have developed a valuable resource for anyone from 6 to 96 who is interested in how railroads impacted and changed life on the Western Slope. In 2008 alone, there were 7,084 visitors served by the museum from 46 states and 15 foreign countries. Museum membership consists of people from throughout the U.S. and England - historians, RGS buffs, model railroaders and those who take pride in knowing that Ridgway started life as a railroad town.

Restoration has been at the forefront during our existence. Karl Schaeffer began it with his meticulous re-creation of Jack Odenbaugh’s Motor #1 which in the summer of 2008 was available for visitors to ride, experiencing the joy of stepping back in time 75 years. In 2006 D&RGW Caboose #0575 was moved from the city park in Ouray and brought back to life with historical accuracy. In May of 2008, Galloping Goose #4 was transported from Telluride to Ridgway where it is now going through a multi-year rebuilding that will bring it back to the year 1951.

A railroad museum exists to educate. Our artifacts and materials have provided the background for Museum members to speak frequently in presentations sponsored by the Ouray County Historical Society, the Telluride Historical Society, the Montrose County Historical Society, National Narrow Gauge Conventions, and the Ridgway State Park. Members write bimonthly articles about railroad history for the Ouray County Plaindealer and the Ridgway Sun newspapers as well as the monthly museum newsletter. As of this date, almost 1,000 children in Ouray, San Miguel and Montrose Counties have received instruction either at the museum or through classroom visits. We have developed lessons that work with the state mandated Colorado history unit taught in 3rd or 4th grade and are annual visitors to several schools.

Research and organization of RGS information into a useable database is an ongoing goal of the Museum. Initially, using the materials that Bob Richardson rescued as well as other donations, we began culling facts into researchable topics such as a list of RGS Train Delays, identification of all the RGS engines and telegram communications. One of our biggest projects to date has been the compilation of RGS employees, identifying them by name, position, pay, years of service and where Museum information about them is located. There are presently more than 2,000 individuals identified. The information is available on this website, and at the museum itself.

In the spring of 2008 the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden donated box loads of additional paper resources about the RGS. Materials ranged from Personal Records, to train registers, to cancelled checks, to correspondence about purchases and shipments. Since then, Museum members have spent hundreds of hours going through each box, identifying what is in them, shaking out the dirt, and putting them into new packaging if needed. Information gathered while just perusing the papers has already provided many recent newspaper and Museum newsletter articles. The list of RGS employees has increased dramatically as we discover new personnel regularly or more facts about those previously identified.

Our next goal is to combine our resources so that information is in a quickly obtainable format. Checks need to go together in chronological order. Correspondence needs to be easily identified by year, location on the railroad or author. These valuable documents, some of which are well over 100 years old, need to be stored in a manner that will keep them in good condition for another 100 years. When we get requests asking for copies of materials that relate to a particular person, we need to be able to go to that material with some ease and answer that request. The Museum also responds to inquiries for information from the model railroad community.

Ridgway was where the Rio Grande Southern began its journey up and over Dallas Divide to service the mining communities of Telluride, Ophir, and Rico and on to Durango, providing a link to two sections of the Denver & Rio Grande. Ridgway serviced the engines in its roundhouse and provided the offices to conduct everyday business. It is appropriate that the Ridgway Railroad Museum should also now house some of the historical information that documents the rise and fall of the Rio Grande Southern. In a short eleven years, the Museum has developed a proven track record (no pun intended) that shows that not only does it value railroad preservation, but it capably contributes to it as well.

Ridgway was the starting point of Otto Mear's dream. A Ridgway Railroad Museum was the forethought of Bob Richardson when he left those first boxes for safekeeping. As part of Western Slope history, Ridgway will always be the home of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad. In partnership with the Colorado Railroad Museum, it will also maintain both of those visions for future generations.