In early 2006 the 66-year-old retired nuclear engineer George Niederauer pulled his Ford Explorer into David Passard’s driveway in Van Nuys, California, after driving 800 miles from his home in Durango, Colorado. The house, garage, yard, and outbuildings were crammed with antique locomotive generators, lights, bulbs, and books stockpiled over four decades. Niederauer felt his heart race. Over the past five years he had scoured Internet message boards, local shops, private collections, and railroad museums from Portland, Oregon, to Strasburg, Pennsylvania, in search of replacement parts to restore Locomotive 315, the Denver & Rio Grand Western Railroad’s 111-year-old narrow-gauge steam engine.
For Niederauer, whose goal was to maintain the historical fidelity of 315 right down to its bolts and headlights, Passard’s house was like Ali Baba’s cave. Apart from the box of parts that Passard, a steam power plant engineer and locomotive hobbyist, had put aside for him, Niederauer spied an early 20th-century Alemite grease gun resembling a jackhammer that liquified hard grease pellets and shot them into gaps between the bearings, a tool that had freed turn-of-the-century train workers from the laborious task of hand oiling. Best of all, Niederauer found a glass parabolic mirror for the train’s headlight, which would finally replace the stainless steel salad bowl perched on 315’s smokebox.
Built in 1895 at the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, the 315 had transported passengers, lumber, ore and coal, through World War II, first along Colorado’s Florence & Cripple Creek’s railroad and later on the 64-mile-long D&RGW line.
Niederauer first saw 315 and its 72,000-pound, 160-psi engine in the summer of 2001 as a windowless, roofless shell of rotting wood, surrounded by a wire link fence. A 1955 Warner Brothers film crew had caused the most damage while filming Around the World in 80 Days, tearing the backwall apart, removing essential engine parts, and hacking away at the tender that once held 315’s coal and water supply. Niederauer had come to the park at the behest of his friend Art Sherwood, a member of the fledgling Durango Historical Society, which was already three months into restoring 315. But the four-member club viewed restoration more as a weekend pastime than a focused effort. “Probably most people didn’t think it would go anywhere when we started,” says Niederauer, who soon began pouring his administrative skills into mustering funding, volunteers, and city contracts. By 2003 he had gathered more than half a dozen committed volunteers: “It was the first real evidence that we could take on a project, and it brought us a reputation that allowed us to find more grants.” Fortunately, the dry Colorado climate had kept 315’s boiler in excellent condition even after 58 years of exposure to the elements.
On August 24, 2007, after seven years of hard work, crews and volunteers gathered around 315 in the D&RGW’s roundhouse, to which Durango Historical Society volunteers had hauled it by trailer. Niederauer was standing by the track, observing the engineers and mechanics finish the final testing of the boiler and engine in preparation for the scheduled trip the following morning. “All of the sudden the guys in the shop said they’d tested the steam, and it was high enough. They decided it had to roll.” Niederauer swung up into the cab and rang the brass bell. “As the 315 started out of the pavilion,” he recalls, “there was hardly a dry eye in the place.”