If you follow the narrow gauge railroad tracks in Colorado back far enough, through the twists and turns of mountain passes and the heritage of innovative construction engineering to accommodate, it will lead you directly back to Ffestiniog Railway, Porthmadog, Snowdonia National Park and the Welsh Highland Railway.
“For it was this railroad that the founder of the Denver & Rio Grand Railroad, Gen. William Jackson Palmer, visited in December of 1870, as he was preparing to launch the first major narrow-gauge line in America,” according to an August, 1962, article in the Denver Westerner’s Roundup by Charles Ryland.
According to Pat Ward from Minffordd, Penrhyndeudraeth, an archivist with the Festiniog Railway Company, "The Festiniog Railway Company is the world's oldest independent railway company, established in 1832 by Act of Parliament.”
After Palmer was married to Mary Lincoln (Queen) Mellen on November 8, 1870 in Flushing, New York, where the Mellen family lived at the time, they honeymooned in the British Isles. It was there that Palmer saw the railroading in operation and realized the advantages for use on his own line, with substantial initial savings in manpower and materials. Furthermore, the narrow 3-foot gauge lent itself to mountain construction with the ability to take sharper curves and steeper grades. Thus, Palmer's D & R.G. was built in ‘slim’ gauge, as it was called by some rail engineers of the period. Two narrow gauge remnants remain of Palmer’s former road: the 45-mile Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Rail Road, and the 63-mile Cumbres Toltec Scenic Railroad.
The Ffestinniog was built in 1836 as a slate carrier from the mines to the sea using horses for power. The slate was needed for roofing material, and by 1863, steam power was introduced to keep up with increasing demands.
The gauge was unusual by modern standards (One foot, 11 and 5/8”) and method of power even more so.
“The first locomotives were conventional 0-4-0 but they soon adopted the Farlie Patent 0-4-4-0, which consisted of two engines back-to-back with a stack on each end with two sets of cylinders on four-wheeled bogie trucks. When the D & R. G built over La Veta pass, one of this type of engine, ‘The Mountaineer,’ was purchased from England,” wrote Ryland.
The Ffestiniog history is very much tied to the Spooner family, whose methods and equipment Palmer emulated.
According to the BBC’s Wales page, “In the late 1790s, W. A. Madocks reclaimed land and built an embankment, the Cob, across the estuary of the River Glaslyn at Porthmadog producing a natural harbor. This would transform the slate industry around Blaenau Ffestiniog enabling the construction of a railway to replace the pack animals and farm carts which had carried the slate over rough roads to the River Dwyryd, taken by shallow-bottomed boats to Porthmadog and transferred to sea-going vessels.
“Henry Archer, a businessman from Dublin, joined Sam Holland, a quarry owner at Rhiw, to promote the Festiniog Railway, and James Spooner surveyed and constructed the route. The gauge 23 inches or 597 mm was that used in the quarries,” says archivist Pat Ward.
The line was first worked by horses hauling empty wagons from Porthmadog back up to the quarries, then walking round to ride in dandy carts going down the steep gradient by gravity to the harbor, Ward says.
“James Spooner's son Charles Easton Spooner took control of the railway in 1856 and looked into the use of steam locomotives on a narrow gauge line. In 1863 the first steam locomotives, The Princess and Mountaineer, were built in London and delivered to Porthmadog by rail and horse and cart, entering into service in October. Also in 1863 permission was given to run passenger trains - a first for British narrow gauge. Some of the low four wheeled carriages are still used today on vintage trains,” according to Ward.
Ryland describes a trip on the railroad 50 years ago.
“In July, 1961, it was my good fortune to ride behind two of the Ffestiniog Fairlie engines. The “Taliesin” built in 1885, and the “Merdin Emrys” (Welsh for Earl of Merioneth) built in 1879. Both of these locomotives, and a number of others, were built in the railway’s own shops and foundry. I was also amazed to see the “Prince,” one of the original engines built in 1863. This is probably the oldest locomotive operating regularly,” Ryland wrote in 1962.
“Today the Rheilffordd Ffestiniog is very popular with tourists - and the many volunteers who ensure its survival. The Festiniog Railway Company also operates the Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon) which currently operates from Caernarfon and Rhyd Ddu but which one day will re-open all the way to Porthmadog," according to archivists Pat Ward.