The Denver & Rio Grande Railway (D&RG) was incorporated on October 27, 1870 by General William Jackson Palmer and a board of four directors. The D&RG was to run on 3 foot rail from Denver to El Paso, an estimated 875 miles south, then south to El Paso, westward along the Arkansas River, and continue south the the San Luis Valley of Colorado toward Rio Grande. The first rails were laid out of Denver on July 28, 1871, and reached Colorado Springs by October 21. The 3 foot narrow gauge was chosen due to construction costs being less than the standard rail. The narrow gauge had the hidden benefit that it turned out to be advantageous in the mountain terrain of Colorado and the Rockies.
As the D&RG railroad was feverishly laying track, so was the Aitchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF). The two railroads fought over the same terrain, provoking the 1877 to 1880 war over right of way. Both railroads hired gunslingers and brought politicians, while the courts intervened to bring settlement to the disagreements. The two railroads continued to fight over land through the mountains through the 1880s.
By 1880, D&RG founder William Bell had begun to organize railway construction in Utah, which became the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway in mid-1881. The “Western” (D&RGW) was to work eastward from Provo, Utah to an eventual link with the D&RG in Colorado. This happened near Green River, Utah on March 30, 1883, and by May of that year, the D&RG formally leased its Utah subsidiary as previously planned.
The rapid expansion and continual fighting with the ATSF caused financial hardship on the D&RG. The railroad went into receivership in July 1884, with foreclosure and sale of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway following shortly. The new Denver & Rio Grande Railroad took formal control of property and holdings on July 14, 1886.
The D&RG continued expanding through the late 1800s. The railroad built west from Pueblo, reaching Cañon City in 1874. They built through the Royal Gorge, reaching Salida on May 20, 1880, and was pushed to Leadville later that same year. From Salida, they pushed west over the Continental Divide at the 10,845 foot Marshall Pass and reached Gunnison on August 6, 1881. They continued building west, completing the narrow gauge transcontinental link with the Rio Grande Western Railway in March 1883, thus completing the link from Denver to Salt Lake City.
At the same time, they pushed south towards Santa Fe, New Mexico. They pushed west from Waldenburg, Colorado over La Veta Pass by 1887. They reached Alamosa by 1878, and they pushed south towards Antonito. From there, they headed over the Cumbers Pass, along the Colorado-New Mexico border, reaching Durango, Colorado in August 1881 and continuing north to the rich mining areas around Silverton in July 1882. Parts of this line survive today, including parts of the standard gauge line operated by the San Luis and Rio Grande Railroad, and the narrow gauge Durango-Silverton, both of which are run as tourist lines.
The original Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway built a narrow gauge line from Ogden, Utah via Soldier Summit to Grand Junction, Colorado. The railroad became the Rio Grande Western Railway in 1889 as part of a finance plan to upgrade the line from narrow gauge to standard gauge, and built several branch lines in Utah to reach lucrative coal fields. In 1901, the Denver & Rio Grande merged with the Rio grande Western, consolidating in 1908. The railroad was weakend by speculators, who had used the Rio Grande’s equity to finance the Western Pacific Railroad construction. The United States Railroad Administration (USRA) took over the D&RG during World War I, and in 1918, the D&RG fell into receivership after the bankruptcy of Western Pacific. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGW) was incorporated in 1920, and formally emerged as the new re-organization of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad on July 31, 1921.
The DRGW continued acquisitions and building new track through the early 1900s, and again slipped into bankruptcy in 1935. It emerged in 1947, merging with the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad. This gave them control of the Moffat Road through the Moffat Tunnel, giving Denver a transcontinental link to the west.
The DRGW now possessed a direct route from Denver to Salt Lake City, but UPs more northerly route was much faster and less mountainous. DRGW thus began its “fast freight” trains: short, frequent trains pulled by multiple diesel locomotives. The speed of the diesels and the fact that they could be linked for quicker routes quickly outdated the steam trains on DRGW track.
To combat the UPs fast passenger service, the DRGW formed the California Zephyr with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) and the Western Pacific (WP). CB&Q took the train from Chicago to Denver, DRGW from Denver to Salt Lake City, and the WP heading the Zephyr from Salt Lake City to Oakland, California. Because they could not compete with speed, the California Zephyr offered a more leisurely “rail cruise” with ample vistas of the Rockies. The California Zephyr turned a profit through the late 1950s, but by the mid-1960s, it was only profitable during late spring, summer and fall. Then in 1970, WP pulled out. DRGW still refused to join the Amtrak system, opening the Rio Grande Zephyr between Denver and Salt Lake City until 1983.
In 1988 the company that controlled the DRGW, Rio Grande Industries, purchased the Southern Pacific Railroad, rolling both railroads under the more famous SP name. Along with the SP name, the new railroad used SP philosophies and dropped the “fast freight” that had served the DRGW so well in the mountains. This was mainly due to continually rising coal costs, and by the early 1990s, the Rio Grande/Southern Pacific Railroad had become largely dependent on hauling coal in Colorado and Utah.
After the merger, Rio Grande kept their paint schemes and reporting marks, but some of the SP locomotives got the Rio Grande treatment. The “Bloody Nose” locomotives had the serif font on the sides of the locomotives replaced by Rio Grande’s “speed lettering”.
In 1996, the SP/DRGW was sold to Union Pacific. The last Rio Grande engine in service was retired in 2008, and the Rio Grande faded from existence. Then in 2006, UP unveiled UP 1989, an EMD SD70ACe painted in a stylized version of the DRGW color scheme. Several others have been painted in remembrance of the several railroads UP have acquired. Along with the Rio Grande, there were also Missouri Pacific, Missouri-Kansas-Texas, Chicago and North Western, Southern Pacific, and Western Pacific.