The sunshine bouncing off the new finish on the boiler of Engine 278 is a testament to the completion of an almost decade-long project to restore a piece of Colorado history. The engine, its tender, boxcar and caboose — which were a part of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad line — have been returned to their perch high in the Cimarron Canyon, 30 miles east of Gunnison.
The National Park Service (NPS) on Tuesday took time to honor the accomplishment — a fulfillment of a longstanding agreement with the City of Montrose.
Restoration planning for the train took place in the months leading up to 2010, when the train was finally rolled onto a flatbed truck and taken to a NPS storage shed near the Cimarron Visitors Center. The restoration was completed two years later in 2012, but the train wasn’t returned to the rebuilt trestle until last October.
The project cost about $1.5 million, according to NPS Superintendent Bruce Noble, and 85 percent of its parts are from the original 140-year-old train.
“It’s such a dramatic display,” said Noble. “When you come around the corner and you look at it, it really takes your breath away.”
The engine was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, Pa., and first rolled through the Black Canyon in 1882. It is the sister engine to Engine 268, which is on display at Gunnison’s Pioneer Museum.
Part-time Pitkin residents Thad and Cindy Goodrich were present for the celebration of the train’s restoration Tuesday. They said they have seen many historic train displays throughout Colorado. What makes Engine 278 unique is that it appears in the original location where it once traveled.
“The last time we were here, we were told the cars were off being restored,” said Thad, while Cindy recalled historical accounts of how the train’s route traveled over bridges now submerged under Blue Mesa Reservoir.
Engine 278 was built to be a “helper” engine, which was needed to negotiate the steep climb up Cerro Summit. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Scenic Line of the World ran freight, livestock and passengers.
Engine 278 traveled not only the main line between Gunnison and Montrose, but also the tracks to Crested Butte. It was retired in 1952, when railway travel gave way to trucking and air travel, and given to the City of Montrose as a gift.
The city leased the engine and other cars to NPS for display, and they were placed upon a trestle at Cimarron in 1974. NPS and the City of Montrose formed a partnership to restore the engine using NPS general funds.
“We really needed to get this done basically because of the agreement,” said Noble. “We made a commitment to take care of these things, and we really needed to live up to it and get this back on public display. I felt an obligation to do that.”
During the ceremony, Montrose City Councilwoman Judy Ann Files offered her memories of the engine’s display during her childhood and her excitement to see it restored for future generations to enjoy. Supervisory Park Ranger Paul Zaenger also spoke, telling stories of the people whose lives surrounded the engine — and the struggles they faced.
“Engine 278 spans some seven generations — generations of thousands of people,” said Zaenger. “We collectively chose to undertake this effort because by its longevity Engine 278 reflects the lives of the people who lived and worked to build their lives in these communities that we live in today and to build a nation.”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at email@example.com.)