by Otto Vondrak
BOOK REVIEW by Otto M. Vondrak
“Last of a Breed – A Rio Grande Finale at Helper, Utah” by Mike Danneman
“Last of a Breed” documents the author’s passion (obsession?) to capture the remaining unpatched Rio Grande units based out of the lonely yard at Helper, Utah in the early 21st century. Since its 1996 acquisition by Union Pacific, it’s hard to find remains of the old Rio Grande identity anywhere. When a set of the last four unpatched former-D&RGW tunnel motors made their home in the old railroad town of Helper, author and Rio Grade fanatic Mike Danneman set out to document “the last of a breed.”
The book’s title could certainly refer to the aging EMD “tunnel motors,” unpatched and wearing their Rio Grande speed-lettering as proudly as they can. Danneman carefully explains the development of the SD40T-2’s, and their eventual integration into the Union Pacific fleet. Helper became an outpost of sorts, where the remaining Rio Grande units could enjoy a short reprieve before some fleet manager in Omaha hunted them down and dragged them away, often never to be seen again. The book’s title could also refer to the town of Helper itself. How many “railroad towns” can you name off the top of your head? How many are still left and base their economy off railroad employment? In many ways, Helper is a throwback to earlier times. Though railroad operations have been greatly scaled back, Helper owes its existence to the Rio Grande. More importantly, though, I tend to believe that the book’s title refers to the railroaders themselves. Throughout the book, Danneman includes quotes and stories from the railroaders of Helper. As we turn each page, we learn that without the complete sum of machines, place, and people, there would be no Helper.
The first chapter describes the history of “The Town Named After a Railroad.” Rails first came to Helper in 1883, and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway quickly built a new town and locomotive facilities on what was the farmstead of pioneer Teancum Pratt. An influx of immigrant workers quickly transformed Helper from a quiet frontier town to a raucous railhead full of saloons, boarding houses, gambling houses, pool halls and brothels. By 1892, the railroad had been standard gauged and became an important division point on the railroad. Building on rich coal reserves, the railroad enjoyed prosperity through the 1920s, until the Great Depression closed many area mines. World War II brought a great influx of traffic, and diesels arrived on the scene in the 1950s. When a new diesel shop opened in Salt Lake City, operations at Helper were scaled back to a single enginehouse. Big changes came as the crew change at Helper was eliminated in 1987, but more importantly, Rio Grande Industries acquired the Southern Pacific in 1988. While the two names remained independent, the Union Pacific acquisition in 1996 would change all that. Traffic through Helper was rerouted and the once rowdy railroad town became a backwater of the sprawling Union Pacific system.
After setting the stage with an informative introduction, we begin to explore the remaining operations based in Helper. One of the unique regular assignments for the remaining Rio Grande units was the “Dirt Train.” This short train hauled contaminated “dirty dirt” in gondolas, tank cars of liquid waste, and flat cars carrying containers of garbage to a landfill in Sunnyside. Located on the remains of a former coal mine branch, the East Carbon Development Corporation facility has been a regular source of traffic since 1992. While the waybills may not have been glamorous, the sight of a brace of Rio Grand units hauling a train through the spectacular mountain and desert scenery more than made up for it.
Next, we spend “Monday Morning at the Depot,” and get acquainted with the seasoned railroaders of Helper. While there is a diverse cast of characters, I think it’s safe to say the main player was senior engineer Mel Baughman. As the author began to make regular trips to Helper, he was welcomed into the special railroading “family.” Author Danneman takes us for a look inside the depot, a peek in the manager’s office, and a visit with the machinists in the enginehouse.
We head back trackside with a visit to “Mounds at Sunrise,” a chapter than chronicles an early morning run of the Dirt Train in October 2004. The details passages transmit every detail of the journey, from the sunrise spilling over the desert floor to the distinctive symphony of EMD’s in the canyon.
Chapter 5 is titled “Mel’s Engines” for the simple fact that if the senior engineer in the district had not bid on the local job, the last of the Rio Grande motors might have met an earlier demise. The author also explains the technical development of the Tunnel Motor and how they fit into present day operations. Numerous detail photos accompany this chapter, making for an interesting study.
“Desert Running” takes us to the arid floor of Utah’s Book Cliffs region and the “hoodoos” (chimney rocks that are exposed after years of erosion). When some people think of the Rio Grande, they imagine trains crossing the desert, with nary a soul in sight. The photos in this chapter showcase the start beauty of the region, and the Tunnel Motors give the impression they are on a fast freight to Denver, when in reality they are taking a short trip up the Sunnyside branch.
Next we get to “The Last of a Breed,” portraits of the railroaders who worked in Helper in recent years. The bulk of this chapter is the result of an informal 2006 interview with senior engineer Mel Baughman. The stories bear the scars of over 40 years of active service, spanning everything from water fights in the yard to working fast freights on the main. It becomes clear that people are the essential part of the railroading equation.
“Gang of Four” relates the life and times of the last four unpatched Rio Grande units teamed up at Helper. By 2002, only seven units remained in their original Rio Grande paint. By 2003, the number had diminished to three… But for that year, fans of the Main Line Through the Rockies could photograph a pure four-unit lashup of their favorite roadname hauling freight across the desert floor.
We pause for “Lunchtime at East Carbon” and visit the Shepherd’s Café in East Carbon. If it was an especially nice day, the crew might head to the Valdez Drive-In instead. We tag along with the crew of the Dirt Train and enjoy a mid-day break in the action.
Not all the action was on the branch to Sunnyside. One May morning in 2004, the Tunnel Motors made a trip over Solider Summit to the lonely siding at Sutro to retrieve some “stinky” garbage cars. It turned out to be the last crossing of Soldier Summit by these three units together.
Sometimes not all goes as planned and you go “On The Ground.” This series of photographs shows the crew at Helper rerailing the errant front truck of DRG&W 5349 on one of the yard lead tracks. Another series of photos shows the crews helping to retrieve a heavy-duty flatcar that had its brakes released and overran the end-of-track.
Next, we take a ride on the “Helper helper” engines as they make their crossing of Soldier Summit. Though the introduction of DPU by Union Pacific has all but eliminated the number of helper assignments, they are still called occasionally. This particular trip on a cold December night in 2004 is marked by stories of railroading in the mountains.
While there were many adventures to Helper producing great photos and memories, the party was almost over for the Action Road. By April of 2003, the number of unpatched units had dwindled to three as Union Pacific began “Cutting Into the Ranks.” In 2004, the fuel facility at Helper was closed, with all fueling done by contractors and trucks. By July 2005, the number of unpatched units was down to two, until 5390 suffered a fired and was retired at the end of August.
“The Last Survivor” of the Rio Grande Tunnel Motor fleet was the 5371. While it was speculated that the unit would be patched or retired on its next inspection, the 5371 soldiered on unaltered. Any uncertainly was erased when a directive was handed down by UP president Jim Young stating the 5371 would not be patched and would remain in service until sidelined by mechanical failure. And so it continued until November 2006, when 5371 departed for Salt Lake.
Turns out the 5371 would get one last hurrah, “Coming Home” in October 2007. A new “5371” had been placed on the cab, covering the old Rio Grande number. With the encouragement of the crew at Helper, the author, a talented painter in his own right, was requested (commanded?) to paint a suitable replacement number! In November 2007, the 5371 emerged with some touched up paint and a fresh “railroad roman” number on the cab.
The reprieve was short-lived. At the end of February 2008, 5371 was retired and called to Cheyenne to join the collection of historic locomotives maintained by Union Pacific. An era had finally come to a close. Not long after, engineer Mel Baughman took his retirement as well. “You can’t go home again.”
I can personally relate to Mike Danneman’s quest to capture the last years of “pure” Rio Grande lashups on home rails. I find I have a little more than a passing interest in the Rio Grande, and perhaps if I was a little more keyed into the scene, I might have ventured to Helper in 2004 to witness the passing of the guard first hand. I felt a connection with the author, and I too tried to document the last years of “New Haven” FL9’s operating on their home rails in Connecticut. In the last years, assignments and operations were catch-as-catch-can. A photographer travelling from any great distance stood as good a chance of being disappointed as he would be rewarded. Never the less, I spent a few productive years photographing classic cab units in their last months of service. I am envious of the friendships that Danneman established during his time in Helper, something I was not able to do in my journeys back East.
“Last of a Breed” is an attractive book printed on heavy glossy paper, with excellent color reproduction. Each photo is bright and vibrant, though a few locations in the desert start to look alike to a sheltered easterner like me after awhile. But who cares! It’s the Rio Grande! There’s a great map right up front to help you get situated with all of the place names (Don’t worry, after a few pages, you’ll feel like a native).
Beautiful images of mountain and desert railroading await. What’s more, the thoughtful portraits and candids of the railroaders at work really draw you into their world. While the primary subject may be Rio Grand Tunnel Motors, the entire work is a look at the rapidly disappearing world of branchline railroading. Weighing in at 240 pages, the book is more than just pretty pictures in the desert, but a complete look at every aspect of operation in Helper. In short, this book will immerse you in the experience of railroading at Helper. It is not one to be missed.
Last of a Breed – A Rio Grande Finale at Helper, Utah
By Mike Danneman
2 Ponies Publishing, distributed by McMillan Publications, Inc.
Suggested Retail: $69.95