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Big Ten Curve

Rio Grande's Wind Break

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Sunday, January 6, 2002 was a rather nice day in the Denver-Metro area and along the Front Range. Blue Mountain road is located off of Colorado Highway 72, just before Coal Creek Canyon. Driving up to the top of Blue Mountain Road, as logic would suggest, leads you to the top of Blue Mountain! From the top of Blue Mountain, you can look into what seems like forever over the plains.

Just at the base of the mountain, you can see the east end of Clay siding. You can also gaze upon one of the more amazing engineering achievements in railroad: Big Ten Curve.

When the Denver and Salt Lake was building west out of Denver, it was necessary to rise 350+ feet between east Rocky and Coal Creek Canyon. Any direct route was out of the question, because of the grade that would have been involved. The alternative was the construction of Little Ten and Big Ten curves. When running westbound, a train enters Rocky from the east. Rocky is relatively straight until the west end. Trains run west through the siding, the enter a 270 degree turn, turning north, and then west, and then south.

Rocky siding is then left behind, and trains continue to climb moving south. Then, a 90 degree turn move the trains in an eastward direction, moving up toward Big Ten, the trains enter another 270 degree turn, moving the trains south, then west, and then north, and into Clay siding. Both Little Ten and Big Ten are so named because of the radius of their curves. The radius of the track is 10 degrees on each of the curves...hence the name "Big Ten".

Many people wonder about one of the most interesting aspects of Big Ten...the wind break! There are many days out of the year where winds come down off of the mountains of Colorado like, well, a freight train! Winds can easily reach 70 MPH sweeping across Big Ten. On more than one occassion prior to the addition of the windbreak, the winds actually blew the train right off the tracks!

As a resolution to this problem, Rio Grande took about two dozen hoppers and placed them on the inside of the curve at Big Ten. A track was laid and temporarily hooked into the mainline. The cars, filled with cement and dirt, were then dragged onto the track, which was subsequently disconnected from the mainline. The cars were welded to the track and painted an "earthy tone" to blend in with the terrain.

It has been very difficult to identify exactly when the cars were installed, but it seems clear that it was sometime between December 1971 and early 1973. Having talked with some people, they have confirmed that the cars were definitely there by 1973. There was also a story about an eastbound manifest that was heading around Big Ten in November 1971 that had several cars blown off the tracks. The train had several auto racks (high profile!) that the wind must have caught and took right over the edge. It was sometime after that event that the cars were added.

These hoppers actually have journal boxes instead of the modern roller bearings! These were cars that could have truly had a "hot box" that would have generated blue smoke and cause lots of issues...the whole nine yards. Another big question about the cars is exactly what cars they are (or were, I suppose). I was able to identify at least two reporting marks clearly on two separate cars. The numbers were D&RGW 18711 and D&RGW 18532.

Referencing the rolling stock information on, it appears that these cars were from a series of hoppers built in 1952 numbered between 18500 and 18999. Looks like the cars were built by Pressed Steal Car and had a weight of 154,000 lbs. They were primarily used for coal and/or stone (ballast?) service. Even though these cars will almost certainly never roll again, they are probably some of the older cars around out there that you can still see these days!

Today, when the winds are high coming down off the mountains, Union Pacific still issues 10 MPH slow orders to all trains going around Big Ten. Presumably just an extra precaution to make sure another train is not sent down the tracks. With the hoppers serving as a wind break, however, it seems unlikely that another derailment will happen as a result of wind. Certainly the trains that would have the highest risk would be trains with high-profile cars. Trains like Amtrak! The cars on the Zephyr are taller than the average car, and certainly much lighter. No doubt the hoppers will continue to serve their purpose for many years to come!

Hope you enjoyed the tour of Big Ten Curve. Truly another unique aspect that really made the late-great-Rio Grande what it was. Here are three final pictures from Big Ten:





I hope you enjoyed this report and the pictures included therein. If you have any questions, or just a comment about this report, please feel free to Click Here to send a comment to the Webmaster (Kevin). Your comments are always appreciated!

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