Strasburg, Colorado: Home of Uhrich Locomotive Works

IMG_0421Part 1 – A Visit to Strasburg, Colorado,

It’s late on a spring Saturday morning in May when I chanced to visit one of a very few steam locomotive works.  This turned out to be a total surprise, judging from the small farm town in eastern Colorado east of Denver on I-70.  Surrounded by very large farms and ranches, Strasburg is at once a farm community and a railroad town. Served by Union Pacific, the town was founded as a water stop for the Kansas and Pacific railroad, later becoming part of the Union Pacific Rail.

This Saturday morning, I am attracted to a single rail coach sitting on a siding behind a grain storage tower near the town’s only rail crossing.  This location is immediately behind the KOA Campground where our Family Motor Coach Association (Rocky Mountain Chapter) was holding a weekend rally.  From about 200 yards, the fading burgundy coach seems to be something like a club car, or maybe a short dining car.

Or perhaps it’s an old coach that was modified with a typical roof vent above a kitchen where work crews eat and sleep while repairing tracks.

 

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An Old Club Car?

I made a note of the coach and determined to investigate further. Later that Friday evening, I took a walk to and around the grain storage tower and into some deep field grass to take pictures and look for any identifying marks on the old car. I did note that on the bottom of the coach, near the center, were five small compartments that apparently held propane bottles similar to what I use for our barbeque grill at home.

After taking a picture or two, I started back by way the grainery to the UP crossing and noticed yet another odd-looking rail car sitting in a field just across the road near a large quonset building.

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Here work crews ate and slept while repairing right of way.

Below 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 is a converted mail car that was retrofitted with machine tools, a tool crib and materials issue point for right of way work trains.

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An old Mail Car converted to a Tool Car

The following morning, Saturday, was a really beautiful morning following a period when it had rained cats and dogs for 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 this morning and to see what other treasures might be waiting 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.  According to the logo outside the center headquarters building are the facilities of the Uhrich Locomotive Works or ULCO! Now I am very curious to find out what goes on here in Strasburg, Colorado, with respect to railroading, especially steam railroading. The building on the left is the main machine and tool building of ULCO.

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Foundry Facility at ULCO

The building on the right is Foundry where molten iron is poured into molds for all kinds for the making of locomotive parts, including wheels and rail car knuckles.  For those railroads running steam engines today in the U.S sand Canada, Uhrich Locomotive Works is on speed dial for many railroads.  Here, they can cast the parts and then they can machine the parts, assembling the parts  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 dedicated employee of 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 railroad caboose.  The model he is building will soon be hauling young passengers in true scale model on the Tiny Town Railroad in Morrison, Colorado, a suburb of Denver metro area.IMG_0412

All the metal parts for this caboose are to scale while 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.

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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 related 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 and wake up relatively refreshed at his/her destination.

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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.

Part Two – Whats behind Uhrich Locomotive Works?

Not very far but to the east of Denver, we follow I-70 to exit 310.  We turn north over I-70 to Strasburg, Colorado, a small farming community and rail siding for the Union Pacific railroad. In the distance, we see rail coaches parked on a siding next to a Quonset building.  Further east, past the only rail crossing in Strasburg, is another rail coach.  It sits on a siding near a grain silo, deteriorating with the help of vandals and brutal Colorado winters.

Crossing the Union Pacific tracks, we turn left on Railroad Avenue, noting a fading silver mail car rusting and deteriorating in a field of grass just behind the lone Quonset Building.  On the other side of Railroad Avenue are three large buildings belonging to the Uhrich Locomotive Works.

In this usually agrarian setting, the old facility doesn’t seem to fit for a little Colorado country town, but does fit the definition of a working “museum”, especially a place dedicated largely to the “days of steam” and the techniques and processes founded in the 19th century, a son of the founder, his father. This is the home of Uhrich Locomotive Works, owned and managed by Marlin Uhrich. Consisting of a full machine shop, a foundry, with lathes, drill presses, and wood working tools of all types and varieties, the shops have been in operation since 1946.

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Marlin Uhrich discusses  parts of a locomotiuve with Mike Kumnick

According to the company brochure, “visitors will have an opportunity to visit an outstanding museum of rural Colorado history, tour one of the few shops in the United States capable of erecting large scale live steam locomotives, ride a 15 inch-gauge “backyard” railroad, enjoy lunch in a shady picnic grove, and view rare railroad movies in an old-town, small town movie theater.”

“A Bit of History”

“The Uhrich Locomotive Works was built by Virgil Uhrich in1945, owner of the Strasburg movie theater. He decided it would be nice to have a 14-1/2-inch gauge, live steam locomotive-so he set up a small foundry and machine shop behind the theatre and proceeded to build one.

By the time Number 1 was finished in 1948, the hobby shop had become the Virgil Uhrich Shop, known throughout the area as the place to go for equipment repair or welding jobs.”

“In 1963, Virgil’s son Marlin joined the business and they moved the shop across the alley for larger quarters and were then known as the Uhrich Locomotive Works (ULCO).  The business now includes machine and fabricating shops, foundry, storage in the original shop building, and a 15 gauge shop railroad.”

“While local folks still think of ULCO as the place to get things fixed, it has become an international business that routinely fills orders from all over the United States, Canada and Mexico. Machined parts and castings for tourist railroads comprise about 40% of ULCO’s business, and the shop can produce railcars and engines in 15 inch to 30 inch gauges.”

“Today, Marlin Uhrich is the general manager of this unique family business, and very much involved, spending several hours a day working on projects in the shop.

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Marlin discusses what’s hot for today with staff.

Marlin Uhrich is the son of the founder, Virgil Uhrich, who passed away in XXXX.  One of three sons of Virgil, Marlin carries on the family business of building 15 gauge steam locomotives and casting parts for use by small steam-driven railroads nationwide.or Marlin, no day is typical. His day starts early when he checks into the ULCO to check progress on “in house” projects and to take calls from customers who are running 15 gauge steam engines. Sometimes, he will get a call for service to one of his favorite customers – Tiny Town and the Tiny Town Rail Road in nearby Morrison, Colorado. Marlin knows that the Tiny Town Rail Road is an all time favorite place for children throughout the Denver Metro area who get to experience a real steam railroad on the 15-gauge tracks surrounding Tiny Town. Time is of the essence or the children may be disappointed about not getting a train ride today.

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Tiny Town Rail Road, Morrison, Colorado

Being a “hands-on” manager and CEO, Marlin works with each employee on completing projects, repairs and maintenance of the shop equipment, ordering materials, and pouring parts prepared in the ULCO Foundry.

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One of the hallmarks of ULCO is building 15 gauge Steam Engines for use in parks and zoos.  Engine #463 is an exact scale model of the real thing, taken from the plans for an American Locomotive, Company (ALCO), a historic builder of steam engines in the last century and built to run on real coal.

 

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                                             Denver Zoo Train Built by ULCO

Marlin’s production crew consists of five veterans from  railroad and industry industry who possess the skills needed to build steam locomotives as well as exactly detailed scale railcars.  Their proficiency in welding , metal work, fabrication, steam boilers, casting precision parts and tools are crucial to the continued success of ULCO in very limited of miniature steam railroad iequipment production.

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When work is completed on engine 463, it will be outfitted with a live steam whistle and a brass engine bell, configured in scale for 15 gauge.

Once Engine 463 is completed in the shop, Marlin and his team will move the new locomotive on a trailer to the test track set up in a rolling field about mile east of Strasburg, the home of the Cherokee Crossing and Eastern Rail Road. In fact, all locomotives, tenders and rail cars go through rigorous quality testing before final delivery to ULCO’s customers.

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The leather belt drive pictured above came from anold Ice Plant near Pueblo, CO

Over the many years of ULCO Locomotive Works, Marlin’s father Virgil, and Marlin were always on the lookout for old railroad machining equipment for the shop, or other tools that could be used in making parts for old steam engines.  Once procured, Marlin and his team assessed repairs needed to get the equipment working again.  This includes lathes, grinding machinery, and other hard-to-find equipment once used by the railroads to produce rail cars and boiler equipment. Reconditioning and refurbishing of shop equipment helps to cut down on overhead costs.

For Marlin, ULCO is a realization of a dream by his father Virgil. He dedicates himself and his shops to carrying on the skills associated with the trades, such as welding, machine tool making, fabrication, manufacturing, forging parts and machining to exacting tolerances.  While Marlin’s father, Virgil, provided these same services in the repair of mechanical farm equipment over the years, his father had a dream of one day owning a railroad.

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Through Marlin, that day arrived some years ago with the creation of the Cherokee Crossing and Eastern Rail Road. Much to the delight of children everywhere, the history of steam railroading has been preserved, but on a smaller scale.

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Engine No. 1 of the Cherokee Crossing and Eastern Rail Road

According to Marlin, the old equipment he has collected over the years was well made and not all of it in the United States.  Railroads pay big money to buy this equipment when it was new and well-maintained.  Marlin continues to ensure that the equipment in his shop is well maintained and ready for use. In some instances, Marlin relies on his machining experience to instruct his employees the old techniques for accuracy and production safety.

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Key parts of a turntable for the Cherokee Cross and Eastern

Railroad future roundhouse.

As busy as a CEO and Chief Engineer can be these days, Marlin makes time to support a local Pioneer Summer Camp held annually in Strasburg for school age children in the community.  This camp, unlike other day camps, provides hands-on instruction on the ways of the pioneers who settled Colorado. That includes the daily chores of raising live stock, tending chickens, putting food on the table, planting crops, harvesting, making and mending cloths, even preparing pioneer style meals.

In addition to farming skills, Marlin exposes the campers to a day on the railroad and what it was like to learn the skills of steam railroading.  As an object  lesson in steam railroading , the boys and girls  get to spend the day learning about steam railroading as well as the skills necessary to  make the train go, the whistle to blow, the tracks to run on, the bridges over the rivers and gullies. Marlin talks about the work of building a railroad and why railroading is so important in the history and to the economy of the U.S. even today.

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According to Marlin’s philosophy ‘If we don’t teach people about the ways of the past today, then many of the old skills will be lost for tomorrow. “