Simply known as the Rio Grande or the D&RG, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad is one of the most famous railroads in the United States. The railroad began as a narrow gauge line that run south from Denver. However, it served largely as a transcontinental bridge line between Salt Lake City, Utah and Denver.
The Rio Grande has a complicated yet interesting history. Just like most of the now-renowned fallen flag railroads, the Rio Grande was built by mergers and acquisitions of smaller railroads. It was initially designed to conquer the Rocky Mountain and connect Denver, Colorado with Salt Lake City, Utah. However, this was only achieved after some years later, since Denver chartered the Denver & Rio Grande Railway to run south to reach El Paso, Texas and Mexico. In 1880, a new direction was taken, and it only reached the south as far as Santa Fe of New Mexico.
D&RG then headed west towards Salt Lake City using the narrow-gauge three-foot track alignment to save construction time and costs. By 1890, the railroad completed an upgraded path to Salt Lake City, which helped it become a highly demanded means of transporting goods over the Rocky Mountain from Denver.
The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad was the exemplar of mountain railroading. It operated the country’s highest mainline rail line, over the 3,120-m Tennessee Pass, and the renowned routes through Royal George and Moffat Tunnel. At this height, it had the biggest operating narrow gauge railroad in North America in 1890. The D&RG, which was recognized for its independence, ran the country’s last private intercity passenger train, the Rio Grande Zephyr.
The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad became a profitable railroad serving as a bridge line hauling goods from and to the Pacific Coast through other railroads. Aside from the famous narrow-gauge lines of the railroad, it earned legendary status with the completion of the renowned 6.21-mi Moffat Tunnel by the Denver & Salt Railway, and the introduction of California Zephyr, a joint passenger train by the Rio Grande, WP and Burlington in 1949. The latter offered passengers to see the stunning views over the main line of the Rio Grande through the Rocky Mountain.
Currently, the Union Pacific Railroad owns and runs most former Rio Grande lines; various branch lines are run as heritage railways by several companies.