Rio Grande Southern Railroad Company (Signed by Otto Mears)
Rio Grande Southern Railroad Company (Signed by Otto Mears)
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Rio Grande Southern Railroad Company
Unissued, circa 1890's
Homer Lee Bank Note Company
10 1/2" (w) by 7 1/4" (h)
Show the exact certificate you will receive
Signed by Otto Mears
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) had built branch lines to the mining towns of Silverton and Ouray, but the San Juan Mountains between Ouray and Silverton were too formidable to allow the building of a railroad directly connecting the two towns. The Silverton Railroad, built north from Silverton, had reached within 8 miles of Ouray, but the remaining stretch through the Uncompahgre Gorge was considered too difficult. A cog railway was briefly considered but was never built.
The Rio Grande Southern (RGS) was founded in 1889 by Otto Mears, and construction began in 1890 from Ridgway (north of Ouray) and Durango (south of Silverton) to go around the most rugged part of the San Juan Mountains and also reach the mining towns of Rico and Telluride. The line was completed only a little time before the Silver Panic of 1893 which resulted in most of the mines closing overnight and the railroad losing most of its traffic. The railroad struggled to survive through the Great Depression, and on March 21, 1953, the last train ran on the RGS. The RGS filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission for abandonment on 24 April 1952.
As the Rio Grande Southern was never a wealthy railroad, its locomotives were all second (or more) hand, mostly from the Denver and Rio Grande/Denver and Rio Grande Western, which owned the RGS during most of its history. Most of the locomotives that came to the road were old and heavily worn, some having been pulled from the scrap line and pressed into RGS service. The road only had one car built new for itself. In later years, most of its freight cars were retired cars from the abandoned Colorado and Southern 3 ft narrow gauge system.
A famed aspect of the RGS was its fleet of Galloping Geese. During the Great Depression it became increasingly expensive to operate trains over the mountain railroad. The RGS devised a rail car from an automobile or bus front end and a box car rear end. Seven Geese were built for the RGS, and all but one survive today. A Goose was built by RGS for the San Cristobal Railroad in 1933. It was returned to the RGS in 1939 and dismantled, with parts going to rebuild Goose #2. The Goose at Knott's Berry Farm still operates in the function it was designed for—to run a cost-effective rail service on days when demand does not require full-size trains (mostly weekdays during Fall, Winter and Spring in this year-round theme park). All six original Geese and the reproduction No. 1 are operational. The last non-operational Goose, No. 4, was restored to operation in August 2011 by the volunteers of the Ridgway Railroad Museum and the Telluride fire department.
Born in Estonia formerly part of Russia of Jewish parentage to a Russian mother and a British father, Otto Mears was orphaned at age 3. He was sent as a boy to the United States to live with relatives who had emigrated there, and sailed to San Francisco at age 11 where he lived on his own as an orphan without relatives.
Mears served in the California Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.
Later Mears worked the gold fields of California before settling in Colorado, where he would make his name. He initially settled in Conejos County in Colorado Territory, but soon moved to Saguache, Colorado, then to the San Juans.
A wheat farmer in Saguache, Mears first built a road over Poncha Pass to gain access to the flour mill at Nathrop, which served the Leadville market. Mears told a story many times in his life that his decision to become a road builder followed an encounter with William Gilpin, former Territorial Governor of Colorado, on Poncha Pass while struggling to bring his flour to market over the poorly built road. He applied to the Colorado legislature for toll road charters for his roads and built the roads in conformations and at grades suitable for railways. His routes over Poncha Pass and Marshall Pass were purchased for road beds by the Denver and Rio Grande railway.
Mears built several railroads during his 91 years, including the Rio Grande Southern Railroad from Durango to Ridgway, the Silverton Railroad, and the Silverton Northern Railroad. Several of his railroads were narrow gauge. From 1888 to 1892, Mears issued special railroad passes to dignitaries and friends to allow them to ride free on any of his lines. Some of these rare passes were made of silver or gold and are now highly prized collectors' items.
In 1876, the state legislature selected Mears as one of Colorado's three presidential electors supporting Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. In the 1880s, Mears was elected to the Colorado legislature. The panic of 1893 reduced the value of his investments. He had to sell much property and lost control of his railroad holdings.
Mears moved to the East Coast and became involved in railroad and manufacturing ventures there. One of his most successful railroads on the east coast was the Chesapeake Beach Railway, which ran between Washington DC and southern Maryland.
The dome of the Colorado State Capitol building was originally covered in copper. After the weather tarnished the copper sheathing, Mears suggested covering the dome with gold. He persuaded the Colorado Mining Association to donate 200 ounces of gold for the project, and by 1908, the dome's first gilding was complete.
Otto Mears died on June 24, 1931, in Pasadena, California.
In 1964, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Mears was known as the "Pathfinder of the San Juans" because of his road and railroad building projects through Colorado's San Juan Mountains in the late 19th century.
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