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  • Santa Rides the Narrow Gauge Rails at Christmas

    “The Best Time of the Year When I Was Young”

    By Don Heimburger
    Photos from the collection of the author

    Stories abound of large snowfalls on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that affect railroads. Happenings of all sorts on railroads during the Christmas season – good and bad, but mostly good – have been passed down from railroader to railroader throughout the decades.

    On the Third Division of the narrow gauge Denver & Rio Grande Western in Colorado, was the town of Salida, where tracks were built starting in 1880 between Gunnison City over 10,856-foot-high Marshall Pass.

    There is also a Christmas story to tell about this little railroad town during the 1940s and 1950s.

    Salida’s Christmas Train

    Salida, a fisherman’s paradise in the spring and summer seasons, was also a big railroad town, with a roundhouse, turntable and extensive yards, and many railroad employees came from that town. Two things I remember about Salida: When D&RGW Baldwin K-36 #485 fell into the turntable pit at Salida, the locomotive was scrapped. As well, in 1937, the D&RGW unveiled the Shavano passenger train that ran between Salida and Gunnison.

    For years in Salida on a Saturday morning, close to Christmas starting in 1948, according to the local newspaper, The Mountain Mail, the D&RGW ran a Santa Claus Train featuring a highly decorated caboose with Christmas trees secured to the roof or cupola. The caboose also featured a large wreath that extended all across the side of the caboose, as well as over the cupola window.

    The words “Merry Xmas” were stenciled in white on the caboose side, and sometimes an elk’s head and antlers adorned the caboose as well. Tinsel and other decorations added to the caboose’s festive look.

    The caboose was pulled to Poncha Junction where a local “Santa” climbed aboard, after which the train was pulled to a main street crossing by a steam locomotive, where the old gent would disembark to hand out candy canes and treats to children.

    The town’s youngsters were told Santa’s reindeer landed on Marshall Pass (where there was enough snow for his sleigh). Following the treats, Santa led the kids to the local theater to enjoy a children’s holiday movie. The town also held a Christmas lighting festival, sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

    In the evening, the railroad town of Salida enjoyed a Christmas story program that involved both children and adults, and the local high school Octet provided the vocals.

    Residents Recall Santa Train

    “I remember those days well,” says Mary Jane Cicero, a Salida resident. “Everybody would sit by the radio waiting for the announcement the train was on its way, and then we would walk to the corner of First and G streets to meet Santa.”

    In 1950, Santa arrived in a caboose pulled by #268, and pulled to a stop at First and G streets where a crowd of about 1,500 greeted it. The train ran as late as December of 1959, but there is no mention of the train in the local paper after that date.

    “The holidays were more toward family and less commercially oriented then,” says resident Cyriol Granzella, who was interviewed by The Mountain Mail. “To my recollection, it was the best time of the year when I was young.”

    As it was with many of us.

    Small railroads, snow, Christmas, and Santa all helped play a big role in children's memories in tiny towns 50 and 60 years ago.

    -30-

    For more information, contact Don Heimburger at don@heimburgerhouse.net.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Don Heimburger

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