Rotary OY Denver & Rio Grande Western
steam rotary snowplows
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Steam rotary snowplow OM, built in 1889 by Cooke Locomotive & Machine Works. It is the oldest Denver & Rio Grande rotary and is preserved today on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

    Like many other mountain railroads in Colorado, the Denver & Rio Grande looked for efficient ways to keep its lines opened throughout the winter. During the 1880's several designs of steam powered snowplows were developped with some success, especially the Leslie type steam rotary snowplow, equipped with a large snow-cutting wheel mounted on an horizontal shaft at the front of the plow and able to blow snow on either side of the track by the mean of a second wheel located behind the snow-cutting wheel. These engines were not self-propelled and had to be pushed by several locomotives, their steam engine was only used to power the plow wheel.

    Leslie type snowplows were invented by a Canadian from Ontario, Orange Jull in 1883. Two other Canadians, the Leslie brothers were associated to the construction of the first prototype, later they bought the snowplow patent from Jull and founded the Leslie Brothers Manufacturing Company to commercialize this type of plow under the name of Leslie Brothers Rotary Steam Snow Shovel. As the Leslie brothers lacked the manufacturing capacities to build their plows in house, they moved to Paterson, New-Jersey, and contracted the patent to Cooke Locomotive & Machine Works to have their snowplows built.

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Close-up view of the front of rotary snowplow OM. The diameter of the snow-cutting wheel is 9' - 2 1/4".

    Jull developped another type of snowplow, the Jull Centrifugal Snow Excavator, which he thought was more efficient. It was equipped with a large, cone-shapped front screw to cut snow. This type of snowplow had some succes on standard gauge tracks on the Union Pacific, but failed against a Leslie snowplow on the Denver, South Park & Pacific difficult mountain narrow gauge line during famous snow clearing trials in 1890.

    In 1889, the Denver & Rio Grande ordered two identical Leslie type snowplows, #1 and 2, delivered by Cooke without tenders and fitted with standard gauge trucks, only their axles were 3ft gauge. These two plows were in fact the same size as the standard gauge snowplows built by Cooke, and actually #1 has been used on the Denver & Rio Grande standard gauge system before 1893. Each of the two plows was paired with a tender from an old Rio Grande retired steam locomotive. In 1907, these two snowplows were renumbered OM and ON, according to the new Rio Grande numbering scheme for MOW equipment.

    Later in 1916 the Rio Grande leased from the Crystal River Railroad another Leslie type snowplow built by Cooke in 1900. This engine became Denver & Rio Grande snowplow OO in 1920. Finally in 1923, the D&RGW bought its last steam rotary snowplow, OY, from American Locomotive Company (Alco), which took over the patent to build Leslie type snowplows from Cooke. OY was delivered with two sets of trucks, a narrow gauge one, normally mounted on the plow, and another standard gauge set, for potential use of OY on D&RGW standard gauge tracks, a possibility which was apparently never used. Its tender was from an old standard gauge D&RGW locomotive.

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Left side view of steam rotary OM in Chama. The snow could be blown to either side of the track by pivoting the snow chute.

    The four Rio Grande rotary snowplows (OM, ON, OO and OY) were stationed accross its system so they could rapidly be brought to the lines most likely to be blocked by snow during winter. Snowplow ON was based in Salida for use on Marshall Pass and Poncha Pass, as well as the Monarch branch, and occasionally on the lines from Gunnison (Baldwin, Floresta and Crested Butte branches). Rotary OO also operated on the lines around Gunnison where it was stationed. OY was based in Alamosa to operate on the East side of Cumbres Pass. Lastly OM, "Old Maude" for its crew, was stationed in Chama for use on the West side of Cumbres Pass.

    Colorado winters were not all bad and with heavy snow falls necessitating the use of rotary snowplows. In fact, most of the time the pilot plows mounted on locomotives were enough to keep the Rio Grande lines opened, and an entire winter could pass without the need of the rotaries to be brought in a single time. Nevertheless, each fall the snowplows were thoroughly overhauled and readied. They were fired up and kept under steam the whole winter, ready for use. When it was out on the line for snow fighting operations, a plow had to be pushed by several locomotives, up to 6 in the old days. When the D&RGW acquired the powerful K-36 and K-37 Mikado at the end of the twenties, 3 of these locomotives were still necessary to efficiently push a rotary in operation. Progress of the plow in snow was slow, about 1-2 mph, depending on the amount of snow to clear.

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Steam rotary snowplow OY, preserved in Chama. It was built by Alco in 1923, is still operational and was used to clear the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad line for the last time in 1997.

    A crew of four was needed to operate a steam rotary snowplow. The pilot stationed at the front of the plow, just behind the snow-cutting wheel, was the only member of the crew to have a good forward view and thus would control the operations of the whole rotary train. He used a steam whisle to communicate with the crews of the pushing locomotives and to coordinate their efforts, he was also in charge of the brakes of the train. Behind him, on the side of the boiler, an engineer controlled the spin of the snow-cutting wheel. The pilot could communicate with him through a bell and coded signals. Lastly, two firemen at the rear of the rotary were not too many to keep the fire up for the boiler. Working on an operating steam rotary snowplow was tough because of the vibrations caused by the spining snow-cutting wheel, the deafening noise of the exhaust and the rough ride of the plow which was devoid of any suspension.

    On some Rio Grande branch lines, the steam rotary snowplows were not used because of axle load restriction on weak bridges (West of Gunnison for instance) or because of the large amount of debris (rocks, trees, ...) found in the snow slides resulting from avalanches (particularly between Durango and Silverton).

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Front view of rotary snowplow OY. Its snow-cutting wheel has a diameter of 9' - 8 1/2".

    Two of the four Rio Grande rotaries (OM and OY) survived today. As for snowplow ON, it was bought by the US Army in 1942 for use in Alaska on the White Pass & Yukon which had been taken over and operated by the US Army Transportation Corps for the needs of the military operations. There, it became WP&YR rotary #3 and stayed in operation until 1947. It was then scrapped on location in 1968 and used as filling material in the Skagway River! Snowplow OO ended up its career in Gunnison in 1955 when the line over Marshall Pass was abandoned.

    Snowplows OM and OY remained in use on the D&RGW until the end of its narrow gauge operations in 1968 (after that, only tourist operations remained on the Durango - Silverton line, where the rotaries were not used). The last operation of OM by the D&RGW dates back to 1957 when it got stuck on Cumbres Pass in a heavy snow storm. OY was last used by the D&RGW in 1962.

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Side view of snowplow OY. It sports the light grey livery applied to D&RGW MOW equipment from the forties. It used an old modified tender from a retired steam locomotive.

    Both snowplows, still operational, were bought by the States of Colorado and New Mexico when the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad was created in 1970 and are now part of the MOW equipment collection of the tourist railroad displayed in Chama. The two rotaries were used several times to clear the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad line and for special trains in winter, first using OM in the seventies, then more recently with OY, for the last time in 1997. Pictures of these special snow clearing events can be found on the excellent website of the professional photographer Steve Brown.




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