K-27 Mikado History

Mighty Mudhens

by Jeff Johnson

‘Those things are little monsters’. While this reference to a mere 63-ton locomotive in the steam heyday of the early 1900’s may have seemed to be a bit of an exaggeration, enginemen of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad had cause for excitement on the narrow gauge.

In April and May of 1903, Baldwin Locomotive Works delivered fifteen 2-8-2 Vauclain Compound locomotives to Salida, Colorado. Numbered 450 to 464 and resplendent in their freshly applied livery, thus began the ultimately checkered career of the Mudhen. Originally designated as class 125 (the “K-27” designation was adopted in 1924), they were the largest narrow gauge power the D&RG had purchased to date.

So what was the buzz all about? Up to this point the D&RG narrow gauge had utilized the ever-present 2-8-0’s and 4-6-0’s from the 1880’s to carry the burden of motive power for the line. The narrow gauge men had not experienced locomotives of this relatively grand size and wheel arrangement, much less the newer Vauclain Compound style of using steam. Although a higher rate of pay was awarded to enginemen operating the compounds, it can be easily presumed that crews found it disconcerting that the bigger power would also reduce the amount of engines (and thus labor) needed to handle the expanding business on the railroad.

Vauclain Compound Style, H.L.Curtis Photo, Gunnison 1905. Photo Courtesy John Maxwell Collection.

Necessity is the mother of invention (and hard work), so right of way improvements and a little mechanical “getting used to” were among the adjustments the railroad men had to make while breaking in the new machines. Track upgrades were dictated by the fact that the new engines required a minimum 52lb. rail weight for safe operation.The outside frame arrangement of the running gear meant that the counter-weights (or “cranks”) were well outside of the total width of the rails. The low-slung appearance of these cranks turning just above the ties gave the engines the appearance of almost “waddling” down the sometimes tenuous narrow gauge track. From this observation, the ultimately well-known moniker of “Mudhen” was adopted by operating crews when referring to this class of motive power.

Changes For The Mudhens

The original Vauclain Compound design was conceived in the interest of increasing the efficiency of steam’s expansive force. The more common locomotive design (simple) exhausted the steam after it expanded once in the driving cylinder. The Vauclain Compound system first admitted steam to a smaller high pressure cylinder, then used the steam again in a larger low pressure cylinder prior to being exhausted to the atmosphere.

Slide Valve Era, Otto Perry Photo, June 6, 1923,
No. 463 at Chama, New Mexico.
Photo Courtesy Denver Public Library

Only a few years after the locomotives’ arrival, some impractical design issues with the Vauclain Compound begged for new solutions. The unexpected result of much higher maintenance with this cylinder and driving arrangement forced the railroad to consider another option. Thus, beginning in 1906, the class 125 locomotives were eventually changed to a simple, single expansion design with “D” style slide valves. This change was in keeping with the design of the other narrow gauge power and served the engines well for over a decade.

In 1917, the Denver & Rio Grande engaged an independent auditor to evaluate the railroad and recommend improvements to keep the line competitive. Among other suggestions, the advice to convert these fifteen 2-8-2’s to piston valves and Walshaert valve gear was partially heeded. By 1929, all but four of the Mudhens sported the piston valve arrangement. Other gradual modifications brought about new, larger tenders and super heater installation. Locomotive number 462 was the only piston valve conversion that did not receive super heating. The 450, 451, 457, and 460 remained with the simple slide valve arrangement (and lack of superheating) to the end of their relatively short careers.

Piston Valve Era, Otto Perry Photo,
September 5, 1936, No. 463 at Montrose, Colorado
Photo Courtesy Denver Public Library

While eventually being used faithfully across the entire narrow gauge system, newer, more powerful locomotives delivered in the 1920’s had relegated the now comparatively small K-27 to less prestigious service. The toll of the great depression on the Colorado narrow gauge sent many of the locomotives into storage at Alamosa. The 450, 451, and 457 never returned to the rails beyond the early thirties. By the mid 1940’s, four K-27’s had been scrapped, two were sold to another railroad, and two others were primarily in yard switcher service. However, a struggling little cousin railroad helped keep the Mudhens waddling along.

Rio Grande Southern

By the late 1920’s, the Rio Grande Southern Railroad (operating between Durango and Ridgway) had upgraded its track to accept larger and heavier locomotives. The necessarily frugal railroad had realized the need to lease some of the Mudhens to maintain their operation. By this time, the Denver & Rio Grande Western (as it was re-named during company reorganization in 1921) was able to expend some of the K-27’s for use on the “Southern”. At one time or another, most of the Mudhens had a turn at pulling the diminutive trains through the grandeur of southwestern Colorado on the RGS.

In 1939, the RGS finalized the trade of ditcher 030 to the D&RGW in exchange for engine 455. All was not well for long however. In November of 1943, the 455 was badly wrecked as its heavily loaded manifest lost air braking ability on the north side of Dallas Divide, a mere 11 miles from its destination at Ridgway. The engine crew on board had jumped to relative safety, but the ill-fated engine and train picked up excessive speed and turned over on a curve south of the siding at Valley View.

D&RGW No. 462 on the RGS,
Otto Perry Photo, July 13, 1946, at Glencoe
Photo Courtesy Denver Public Library

RGS No. 455, Wrecked Near Dallas Divide,
Otto Perry Photo, June 19, 1944
Photo Courtesy Denver Public Library

While operating under the auspices of the Department of Defense, the RGS rebuilt the 455 at Ridgway (returning it to service in April of 1947) and managed to squeeze a few more good years out of her. The “new” 455 sported a rebuilt standard gauge cab (from D&RGW 0-6-0 #60) and a very different looking tender tank acquired from D&RGW 2-8-0 #933. The instability of this retro-fitted tank resulted in the railroad borrowing the tender from the 452 and coupling it with the 455 toward the end of its career. The engine lasted until the end of RGS operations and fell to the scrapper’s torch at Ridgway in 1953.

RGS No. 455, Post-Wreck, Otto Perry Photo,
May 30, 1947, at Ridgway, Colorado
Photo Courtesy Denver Public Library

RGS No. 461, at Ridgway, Colorado
June 27, 1951,
Photo Courtesy John Maxwell Collection

Engine 461, often leased to the RGS in the 1940’s, became the second K-27 acquired by that railroad. This purchase in February of 1951 came at a time when the end was well in sight for the RGS. The 461 was slated for the scrapper’s torch when the RGS and D&RGW struck a purchase agreement that was favorable to the RGS’ limited resources. It briefly carried the so called “Rising Sun Herald” on its tender before joining the 455 for dismantling in 1953.

By the beginning of the 1950’s, the Denver and Rio Grande Western’s need for the surviving
K-27’s came full circle. With the ending of the RGS operations, and the coming abandonment of the narrow gauge line from Salida to Montrose, most of what remained of this faithful class of motive power chugged into our history books.

Modern Mudhens

Only two Mudhens remain today. The 463 is currently stored in Antonito, Colorado and serves the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. This locomotive found its way from Durango to California in 1955 after being purchased by western film star Gene Autry for use at his Melody Ranch film studio in Placerita Canyon, California. It languished until the early 1970’s when Autry donated it to the city of Antonito. In 1994, the 463 was rebuilt and returned to the rails between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado.

The 464 worked in the Durango yards into the late 1950’s then remained static until it was purchased by Knott’s Berry Farm in 1973. The 464 returned to service later that year pulling amusement park visitors around a loop in the balmy, palm tree filled atmosphere of Southern California. The locomotive was a bit big for negotiating the relatively tight radius of the curves at Knott’s, thus it’s operation was sporadic in favor of the other 2-8-0’s that operated at the park. In 1981, the engine was donated to Genesee County Parks and Recreation in Flint, Michigan and eventually began service on the Huckleberry Railroad. Faithfully restored, the 464 works hard to this day, hauling the many visitors through the scenic theme park and surrounding area.

Cumbres & Toltec No. 463, November 1994, Photo Jeff Johnson

For the final disposition of K-27’s not covered in the previous text, please note the details in the following chart.

Road No. ScrappedComments
450 1939 in Pueblo, CO Stored as Alamosa 1932 to 1939.
4511939 in Pueblo, COStored at Alamosa 1932 to 1939.
452 1954 in Pueblo, COOut of service as of Dec. 1951
453 1954 in Pueblo, COUsed as Durango switcher until 1953. Boiler sold to Weidman Lumber Co., Durango, CO.
454 1953 in Pueblo, COLast used in Montrose, CO as yard switcher.
456 1952 in Montrose, CO*Gunnison switcher in the 1940’s.
4571939 in Pueblo, COStored at Alamosa, CO 1932 to 1939.
458 1957 in Mexico Sold to Nacionales De Mexico Dec. 1941 and became #401. Converted to standard gauge June 1949 and re-numbered 2251**
459 1963 in Mexico Sold to Nacionales De Mexico Dec. 1941 and became #400. Converted to standard gauge July 1949 and
re-numbered 2250**
4601939 in Pueblo, CO Last used in Salida, CO.
462 1950 at Alamosa, COTender tank survives today in Chama, New Mexico.

* Official records are unclear as to the exact scrap date of this engine.
** There is some argument as to whether the 458 or 459 became Nacionales De Mexico #400, therefore the scrap date above may be in question. the author's inspection of the only known photo of the #400 and it's unmistakable similarity to the 459 leads to the information provided above.

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During the creation of this document we received input and material from a variety of people and places. We'd like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the following persons or organizations:

Dennis O’Berry, Author, “The Mudhens”
Bruce Maxwell, the John Maxwell Collection
Ray Loose, Durango, Colorado
Jim Booth, PBL
The Denver Public Library, Denver, Colorado