Feature Article By Chip Deyerle
It’s late on a spring Saturday morning in May when I chanced to visit one of very few steam locomotive works in the United States. This turned out to be a total surprise, judging from the small farm of Strasburg, Colorado, town east of Denver on I-70. Surrounded by very large farms and ranches, Strasburg is at once a farming/ranching community and a railroad town. Served by Union Pacific, the town was merely a water stop for the Kansas and Pacific steam locomotives, later becoming the Union Pacific Rail Road
This Saturday morning, I am attracted to an old rail coach sitting on a siding behind a grain storage tower near the town’s only rail crossing. It is a forelorn-looking coach and is deteriorating rapidly. This location is immediately behind the KOA Campground where our Family Motor Coach Association (Rocky Mountain Chapter) is holding a weekend rally. While walking our two little dogs, Lexie ( a dachund mini) and Lilly ( a Papillion mix), I am looking across a field about 200 yards to the coach, now a fading burgundy color in the setting sun coach amid waving stands of rye grass in the breeze. It appears to be something similar to a club car, or maybe a short dining car.
Or perhaps it’s an old coach that had been modified with an exhaust vent in the roof perhaps for housing work crews while repairing right of way.
I make a note of the coach and determine to investigate further. Later that Friday evening, Lexie accompanied me out of the KOA and around to grain storage tower and into some deep field grass to take pictures and look for any identifying marks. I did note that on the bottom of the coach, near the center, where five small compartments that apparently held propane bottles typically used for barbeque grills at home.
After taking several pictures, Lexie and I start back by the grainery to the UP crossing and notice yet another odd-looking rail car sitting in a field just across the road near a large quonset building.
This appears to be an old mail car in a state of rapid decay. Yet marked on the other side of the car is printed in large letters, “Tool Car”. Apparently this was a converted mail car retrofitted with machine tools, a tool crib and materials issue point for right of way work trains.
The following morning, Saturday, is a really beautiful morning following a period of heavy rains during the previous two weeks along the Colorado Rockies Front Range with two or more feet of snowfall in the Rocky Mountains. There is a threat of more rain in the afternoon, with hail and possibly a tornado or two. I head out to see the old mail car and to find other treasures to be seen in old Strasburg on Railroad Avenue.
After taking another picture of the mail car, I walk past two industrial–looking buildings. The one in the middle looks very interesting:
None other than the Uhrich Locomotive Works! Now I really need to find out what goes on here, in Strasburg, Colorado. The building on the left is the main machine and tool building of ULCO. The building on the right is a Coke Foundry where molten iron is poured into molds for all kinds of locomotive parts, including locomotive wheels and rail car wheels. For those railroads running steam engines today in the US and Canada, Uhrich Locomotive Works is on speed dial for most of the railroads. Here, they can cast the parts and then they can machine the parts, assemble the parts and produce a real, live steam engine, complete with steam whistle and brass bell.
I am fortunate that while it is Saturday, Mike Kumnick, a machinest at ULCO, is working on a project in the Quonset building. He advises that the building is actually on Union Pacific Property and all visitors must sign in, which I do. Mike shows me a project that he is working on. It is a 15 –Gauge scale model of a Kansas Pacific Caboose. The model he is building will soon be hauling young passengers in true scale model steam engines on the Tiny Town Railroad in Morrison, Colorado, a suburb of Denver metro area.
All the metal parts for this caboose are to scale and the wheels and carriages were all cast here at the Uhrich Locomotive Works, bearing the “Baldwin-Like” bronze plate of the manufacturer. A special type of spruce is used for the sides and matches in scale the wood pattern of Kansas Pacific Railroad. Mike loves his work and has been a machinist for many years with ULCO.
After a tour of the machine shop with Mike, we take a walk outside the Quonset building to look at two passenger rail cars that were built in late 1947. The two cars are called “Slumber Cars.” Mike relates that the cars were for businessmen traveling from Chicago overnight to the industrial rust belt of the upper Midwest. There are 12 slumber bunks, each with a small window, at one end of each coach where a business person could sleep and wake up relatively refreshed at his destination. AMTRAK should take note of this idea.After the tour of the property along Railroad Avenue, I thanked Mike for his time and let him get back to work.
By the way, the first coach that I saw behind our RV Park was waiting to be picked up by a rail museum, but it has been there a while and vandals have actively broken out the windows and tried to strip it of anything they could carry off. It looks like the rail museum could not afford to keep their commitment. There it sits, falling apart.
ULCO –Uhrich Locomotive Company
PO Box 125
Strasburg, CO 80136
Call for an appointment for a tour.