Train brought tourists, elephants to Mancos

For decades, the Rio Grande Southern was the lifeblood of the Mancos Valley as it carried tons of cattle, sheep and lumber to various markets. Also important was the tourism trade. Early on, Mesa Verde was one of the highlights for tourists traveling on the RGS.

Years later, while tourists had increased in their numbers to Mesa Verde, they had become a part of the trade for the Rio Grande Southern itself. Special open cars were used to take tourists from Durango to Telluride with a special stop at the summit of Lizard Head Pass so the passengers could disembark and take photos of Lizard Head. The number of passengers per train never reached 100 but it was an up-and-coming moneymaker for the train. No doubt had other things been equal and were paying their share of the costs to keep the train functioning, advertising would have been done to increase the number of tourist passengers.

I remember carnivals coming into town on the train and long before my time the first excursion trip on the RGS was in 1896. To the delight of the passengers, the excursions would stop at Lizard Head Pass, Trout Lake, Ophir and Dallas Divide. Picnics and ball games and even just plain old wildflower gatherings were an excuse to decorate a special train for the events.

In my mind, I seem to recall a circus coming to Mancos but even if it was all before my time, the Otto Floto Show's did come to Mancos on the RGS a number of times using three tourist cars, six flats, four stock cars and a baggage car. It also used an old box car with the roof removed that was called The Elephant Car for an obvious reason.

In 1910, and for a few years later, the Mancos basketball team was the one to beat, and it traveled via the RGS with other train connections to Denver and even into Wyoming. The Mancos Girls Baseball Club was another great team but its heyday came in 1908 a few years earlier.

The RGS had two business cars. They were named "Rico" and "San Juan" and many distinguished persons including William Henry Jackson, the famous photographer, who was hired by Otto Mears to take photos along the line so he could send them back east to influence would-be tourists, and William Jennings Bryan, who used the "San Juan" as one of his campaigning cars as he ran for President.

Prior to World War II, the RGS transported Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers to various locations, one of which was Mesa Verde and is still remembered by a good number of us. In June 1946, the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club used the RGS for a two day excursion that included stopping at Mancos and touring Mesa Verde National Park. Change was in the wind; however, and the demise of the RGS was only a few years away.