Railroads & Locomotives History Rio Grande’s 2-8-2 Mikado “Sport Model” K-28 locomotives turn 100 years old

Rio Grande’s 2-8-2 Mikado “Sport Model” K-28 locomotives turn 100 years old

By Michael J. Wilson | November 10, 2023

Milestone for Rio Grande’s “Sport Model” steam locomotives

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A steam locomotive partially obscures a mountain canyon, yellow aspens and evergreens frame the engine
Rio Grande’s 2-8-2 Mikado “Sport Model” K-28 locomotives turn 100 years old in 2023. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad marked the occasion with double-headed K-28s on a photographer excursion. Deep within the Animas River Canyon, surrounded by rugged Rocky Mountains, K-28s 473 and 476 are making time to Silverton, Colo., near Whitehead Gulch on Oct. 16, 2023. Michael J. Wilson

As classic as a ’67 Chevrolet Chevelle SS and as smooth as a Rolls Royce, the Rio Grande’s 2-8-2 Mikado “Sport Model” K-28 locomotives turn 100 years old in 2023. Those 100 years have been spent hauling tonnage across some of the most difficult narrow-gauge right of way in the country and perhaps the world.

In October 2023, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&S) hosted a two-day photo excursion with K-28 Nos. 473 and 476 to celebrate the centennial. In honor of the event, No. 476 served as a mid-train helper with No. 473 on the point, recreating a train operating scenario that had not occurred on the High Line since at least the 1950s. The photo charter included runbys on the first day north to Silverton with Nos. 473 and 476 at nine different locations deep within the Animas River Canyon. On the concluding second day, the 473 and 476 operated separate passenger and freight consists, respectively, again displaying operating scenarios once seen on the Silverton branch.

The D&S has three K-28 locomotives: Nos. 473, 476 and 478. The No. 478 has been out of service since 2016 but is slated for restoration over the next 24- to -36 months. She will be converted to an oil-burning locomotive as part of the project.

In all, ten K-28 locomotives were built by Alco (American Locomotive Co.) in 1923 and delivered to Rio Grande at Salida, Colo., in September of that year. The first three locomotives delivered were not in numerical order: Nos. 470, 473 and 474. The 473 made the first run of a K-28 on the Rio Grande on Oct. 2, 1923, from Salida to Sargents over Marshall Pass.

Tall rocky peaks surround a steam train making its way through a tree-filled mountain valley
Nos. 473 and 476 work hard near Elk Park bringing their mixed train into the siding on Oct. 16, 2023. The photo special will await the regular passenger train from Silverton to pass before proceeding further north. Michael J. Wilson

Over the course of their service time on the Rio Grande, the K-28s were used to haul both passenger and freight trains. The three K-28s currently owned by D&S were initially used in freight service from Salida to Gunnison and on the Crested Butte branch. Two other K-28s were sent to Alamosa, Colo., to power the San Juan Express, a passenger train from Alamosa to Durango.

During WWII, and particularly after the Japanese attacked the Aleutian Islands in 1942, the Army feared an invasion of mainland America. As a result, the military requisitioned all ten Rio Grande K-28s for use on the White Pass & Yukon Railway out of Skagway, Alaska. The Rio Grande appealed the order and was able to retain three K-28s for service on the San Juan Express. The three surviving K-28s, Nos. 473, 476, and 478, were the three chosen by the Rio Grande to remain in Colorado. The seven other K-28s obtained by the Army were scrapped after the end of WWII.

For the rest of their service life on the Rio Grande, the remaining K-28 locomotives were the prime motive power for the San Juan Express until that train was discontinued in 1951. Since then, the K-28 locomotives have maintained a very active role as regular power on the Silverton Branch, particularly since the Durango & Silverton’s formation in 1981. While the K-28s may not be as strong as their K-36 and K-37 cousins on paper, the Sport Models have been and remain an integral part of narrow-gauge railroading history.

Dressed in blue overalls, a railroad crew poses in front of a black steam locomotive pulling yellow passenger cars
The Durango & Silverton crew who made the two-day excursion possible poses in front of D&RGW K-28 No. 473 on Oct. 17, 2023, near Elk Park. Thanks to their hard work it was just another day in the 1950s on the Silverton Branch once again. Michael J. Wilson

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