Dennis DAlessandro was looking for information about kit-built airplanes in 2004 when he ran into a friend at a Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad display in the Durango Mall.
The friend, Lewis Dahm, was involved in the restoration of locomotive No. 315 featured in the display. The historic piece of rolling stock, built in 1895 in Philadelphia, is being restored by the Durango Railroad Historical Society.
Lewis asked me to help out because of my engineering background, DAlessandro said last week. I got involved, and within a couple of years, I was working six days a week on the project. I forgot about building an airplane.
Its easy to get caught up in railroad lore and hands-on projects, said George Niederauer, president of the society and leader of the 315 restoration.
A core of seven volunteers, with help from a dozen others started restoring No. 315 in 2001, Niederauer said. We put in literally thousands of hours to get it running under its own steam.
No. 315, which first served on the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad, was bought by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and eventually sent to Durango in the early 1940s to be a yard or switch engine. The engine was used in many movies, including Around the World in 80 Days.
In 1968, the aging engine was donated to the Durango Chamber of Commerce, which transferred ownership to the city of Durango in 2000. The next year, the railroad society began restoring the engine, which was deteriorating, exposed to the elements, in Santa Rita Park where it had sat since 1986.
The society was an offshoot of the San Juan Large Scalers, an outdoor model train club formed in 1994. Club members were unhappy with the appearance of No. 315, particularly the paint scheme and the movie props that make it appear an 1870s locomotive, Niederauer said.
No. 315 was in sad condition, Niederauer said. The first thing we did was to remove all the movie props. Then we had to lift off parts to get down to the boiler to see if it was good enough to use. In fact, it was in very good shape.
All the wood had deteriorated, Niederauer said. The wooden roof, which had caved in, was replaced with one of white ash.
On Aug. 24, 2007, No. 315 moved under its own power, the first time in 58 years.
The work of the Durango Railroad Historical Society attracts iron horse buffs from far and wide.
Dahm got involved with the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, where he has lived since 1978.
One thing leads to another, said Dahm. I could see them rebuilding No. 315 when I traveled through Durango, so I stopped to see if I could help.
A skilled machinist, Dahm has made water gauges for several engines stored in the railroad museum at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot in Durango. Fellow society members recognize his expertise on brake issues as well.
Steam (engines) is an addiction, Dahm said. Its infectious. It gets in your blood, and you cant get rid of it.
Dave Hibl, a retired orthodontist from Montrose, is a relative newcomer to the team.
Lewis Dahm asked me to help troubleshoot some brake problems last summer, Hibl said at the railroad museum last week. I was able-bodied but ignorant.
The last year has been an education in railroad history, said Hibl, who is particularly interested in materials science as it relates to railroads and how the parts of an engine work together.
While maintaining No. 315 in tip-top condition is the railroad societys ongoing project, members also are restoring a number of gondolas to illustrate the styles of freight cars used over the years.
A project related to No. 315 is the construction of a short track from the D&SNG station in Silverton to what was the Silverton Northern Railroad engine house built in 1912. Unoccupied for years, the old engine house will be the winter home of No. 315.