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Historic coal chute awaits hikers in Illium Valley

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Thursday, May 31, 2018 2:50 PM
The Vance Junction coal chute is part of the historic Rio Grande Southern Railroad. It can be reached via a short hike in the Illium Valley on the northeast side of Lizard Head Pass.

In the Illium Valley, just over Lizard Head Pass, visitors can hike a segment of the Galloping Goose trail to a historic railroad coal station.

The restored Vance Junction coal chute is the only remaining coal storage facility along the historic Rio Grande Southern Railroad.

Built in 1890, the row of eight pocket chutes was designed to dump premeasured amounts of coal quickly into waiting coal cars.

Loading the chutes with coal was very labor intensive. Railcars carrying 10-25 tons of coal would be moved behind the chute structure.

Workers called “coal heavers” loaded the coal into the chutes manually and were paid just 15 cents per ton, according to an information panel.

A stairway leads to the back of the structure, where there is still coal on the ground, and visitors can peer into the chutes.

In 1891, toll road builder Otto Mears launched the Rio Grand Southern Railroad, which operated between Ridgway, Placerville, Telluride, Rico, Dolores and Durango until 1951. The Vance Junction coal chute was part of the Illium Loop section of the RGS line.

Today, the old railroad bed continues as the Galloping Goose Trail system used by cyclists, hikers, equestrians and anglers.

The Galloping Goose was a type of rail bus that carried passengers and mail along the Rio Grand Southern line after it became too expensive to run freight trains. Galloping Goose No. 5 is on display in downtown Dolores.

Beyond the Vance Junction coal chutes, the trail continues along the South Fork San Miguel River, then along the main stem of the San Miguel River.

How to get thereDrive Colorado Highway 145 over Lizard Head Pass. At the Ophir intersection, turn left onto the gravel road (Road 63L) and drop into Illium Valley. Follow the easy dirt road north for 6 miles to the trailhead. From there, it is a 1-mile hike to the Vance Junction coal chute.

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