The Geese are native to southwestern Colorado, and ran on the Rio Grande Southern (RGS) Railroad from 1931 through 1952. The hybrid automobile/train engines were an exercise in downsizing at a time when the only thing holding the railroad together was its mail contract.
RGS’s steam trains were old and unreliable, and took five men to run, explained Ouray County Historical Museum curator and railroad buff Don Paulson. The first Goose, pieced together from used car parts by RGS mechanic Jack Odenbaugh and his crew in Ridgway in 1931, cost just $832 to build, and needed a crew of only one.
“It paid for itself in one month in saved labor costs,” said Paulson. “Building the Geese was the main thing that saved the railroad.” More goslings fledged, until they became a gaggle of seven.
Each Goose has its own distinct look. The first two were Buicks, and the rest Pierce Arrow, according to Ridgway Railroad Museum Director Karl Schaeffer. The later, larger models could carry about six people and up to 10 tons of mail, milk cans and express freight, Schaeffer writes. “They were the UPS of their time and kept the RGS going for another 20 years.”
Not only did the Geese get the mail delivered; they also helped passengers get from here to there through rugged and isolated stretches of southwestern Colorado, before automobiles were prevalent. The Geese traveled a 160-mile stretch connecting Ridgway and Durango, along a route now known as the San Juan Skyway, going through the towns of Telluride, Rico, Dolores and Mancos.
“These rail-auto hybrids were a godsend to the then-declining San Juan mining regions, where most of the once-booming mining towns had become ghosts,” writes Denver Post columnist Tom Noel, who teaches history at CU-Denver.
The RGS originally called their unusual vehicles Motors. But by the 1940s, fans were calling them Galloping Geese, because they appeared to waddle down the uneven railroad track with their hoods flared open to keep their engines cool. The open flaps suggested the wings of a clumsy goose racing for takeoff.
Each Motor was equipped with an air horn whose honk was a silly contrast to the elegant, haunting wail of a steam train’s whistle.
“In 1951 the railroad lost the mail contract and was really doomed,” Paulson said. RGS saw its salvation in tourism and converted several Geese for this purpose. “‘Galloping Goose’ with capitals was the official RGS public name for the RGS ‘Motors’ after their conversion to the tourist version in the early 1950s,” Paulson explained. “Without capitals, ‘galloping goose’ is a generic name applied to a wide variety of automotive/rail hybrids.”
Today, the RGS is long gone, and the Galloping Geese have scattered far and wide. No. 3 has flown furthest; it now belongs to Knott’s Berry Farm in California.
The No. 5, built with 1928 Pierce-Arrow limousine parts and rebuilt in 1946/47 with a World War II surplus GMC gasoline truck engine and a school bus body, nests in Dolores and occasionally runs on the Durango & Silverton and Cumbres & Toltec Scenic railroads. The Colorado Railroad Museum owns Geese No. 2, 6, and 7.
Goose No. 1 was scrapped to build No. 6, but Ridgway Railroad Museum director Karl Schaeffer built an exact replica of it in 2000. The museum now proudly displays this replica, and runs it during the annual Railroad Days festival.
The Ridgway Railroad Museum also played a crucial role in restoring Goose No. 4. The engine, which belongs to the Telluride Volunteer Fire Department, languished next to the Telluride Courthouse for more than 50 years. After heavy snowfall caused several of its roof ribs to break, a group of 20 volunteers at the Ridgway Railroad Museum rallied to restore it starting in 2009 and the engine now honks and waddles as well as the rest of its flock. This October, No. 4 is returning to Telluride. A book on the restoration is due to be published this summer.
But first, in about 10 days’ time, No. 1 and 4 will be loaded onto flat-bed trailers and trucked across the state to Golden for the much-anticipated reunion with their siblings.
According to the Colorado Railroad Museum, having the seven Galloping Geese together and operating is a big deal for the rail-fan community. Train enthusiasts will be able to ride on select Geese throughout the two-day festival, while a museum exhibit will highlight all the historic details of these unusual rail vehicles. Plenty of Goose merchandise will be available for purchase, and kids’ activities will include – what else – story time with Mother Goose.