Museum of Northwest Colorado: Railroads built tough

Mary Pat Dunn, Museum of Northwest Colorado Registrar
The museum recently acquired the boiler plate from the Mikado engine 402. It's on display in the museum’s current exhibit featuring the 100 year history of the Moffat Road in the Yampa Valley

The museum recently acquired the boiler plate from the Mikado engine 402. It’s on display in the museum’s current exhibit featuring the 100 year history of the Moffat Road in the Yampa Valley

The Moffat Road, as the railroad between Denver and Craig was known, always has been famed for its peculiar challenges that come from the steep grades and the horrific winters. Millionaire founder of the line, David Moffat, lost his entire fortune to the building and upkeep of the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railway. He died while in New York seeking additional funding for the railway, just two years before the first passenger train finally wound its way into Craig in 1913.

Shortly after Moffat’s death, the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railway went into receivership and reorganized into the Denver and Salt Lake Railway. The line continued to struggle with myriad issues that demanded different capabilities of the tough Mallet engines that worked the line. The Front Range sections of the railway required engines that could pull steep 4 percent grades and negotiate the extremely sharp curvatures of the rails on the eastern side of the Rockies. The loads these engines pulled were comparatively light, as the demand for products in the rural northwestern corner of the state was not tremendously heavy in those early years.

The western end of the line, from Tabernash to Craig, was a different story. The rails covered long stretches of fairly straight terrain, and also traversed miles of steep grades on those straight shots. Additionally, the trains heading east frequently carried large tonnages of product over the mountains. The engines transporting the coal and livestock to Denver needed a lot of clout and grit to get those heavy loads up the passes. While the Mallet engines served the front end of the line well, the western side usually required “helper” engines to move the long, heavily loaded consists eastward.

Shortly after its reorganization, the Denver and Salt Lake Railway set out to design a new engine that could meet the unique challenges of the western side of the mountains. In 1915, the first of the “Mikados,” as the new engines were known, was delivered from the Lima, Ohio, factory to the Moffat Road. This 10-wheeler, considered somewhat ungainly in appearance by railroad fans, served the purpose it was intended for and brought more combustive power and higher speed potential to the Yampa Valley end of the line. These tough locomotives served the line well into the 1940s, when most of them ended up in the scrap yards.

The Museum of Northwest Colorado, now featuring the exhibit “The Moffat Road — 100 Years of Rails to the Yampa Valley,” has a wonderful diorama of the 1915 Craig rail yard at the bottom of Yampa Avenue, with the Mikado 402 engine filling its boiler reservoirs at the water tank. The museum recently acquired the boilerplate from the Mikado 402. These heavy brass plates were the equivalent of an engine’s VIN (vehicle identification number) and were attached to the exterior sides of the boiler. The 402’s plate lists its manufacture date as 1915, and the engine identification number as 5102, as well as the place of manufacture, which was Lima, Ohio.

The arrival of the Moffat Road into our region altered the course of our local history, and the tough Mikado engines were an important part of that new era of commerce and transportation. To learn more about the role of the railroad in the valley, visit the museum at 590 Yampa Ave. It is open Mondays through Saturdays with free admission. For more information, call 970-824-6360 or visit

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