Until the early 1940s, the D&RGW operated the largest fleet of narrow gauge 2-8-2 Mikados in the world. With 15 K-27 “Mudhens”, and 10-locomotive sets of each class K-28, K-36, and K-37, all delivered between 1903 and 1928, the Rio Grande’s roster was the largest of any slim gauge.
Mudhens #451-466 came first. In a two-year period (1903-1904, they were delivered new from Baldwin Locomotive Works in a grand experiment deemed a complete success by Rio Grande’s management. The locomotives earned their odd nicknames early in their illustrious careers, when they were prone to derailment on the line’s 30- to 40-pound rails. Upon their arrival, the railroad began upgrading its system of narrow-gauge track to 50- and 60-pound rail, “paving” the way for even heavier locomotives.
Although two of the K-27s (the leakiest, hardest-riding pair) were foisted off on Rio Grande Southern ownership, all 45 locomotives ultimately prowled the entire 650-plus miles of the Narrow Gauge Circle.
The 10 K-28 locomotives (#470-479) were built new for the narrow gauge by the American Locomotive Company at ALCOs Schenectady, New York, shops. It was the Rio Grande’s only order of steamers from other than Baldwin. Although well-liked by the crews, these “sports models” were only slightly heavier than the K-27s and thus never as popular with dispatchers. The nickname came from the sleek appearance of the K-28s, with their front-mounted air pumps—and unprecedented acceleration (excellent throttle response and steaming qualities).
The 10 K-36s (#480-489) were products of Baldwin’s Eddystone, Pennsylvania, shops (Philadelphia area). Neither they or their big sisters ever earned nicknames. The K-37s (#490-499) were rebuilt by the railroad in its own shops from too-small, nearly-obsolete standard gauge Baldwin-built 2-8-0 Consolidations (#1011-1020)—basically, the boilers and cabs were moved to brand-new narrow-gauge running gear.
In the 1930s, K-37 #496 was hostled into the Salida turntable pit in a regrettable accident. Considered too badly damaged to be repaired, the locomotive was cut up for scrap on the spot. The rest survived until World War II, when outside forces started eating into the roster.
By 1962, only one of the Mudhens, three K-28s, and nine each of the others, still existed. Well, actually, a second K-27 was in steam, at Knott’s Berry Farm.
Over a period of 20-plus years between World War II and the Vietnam War, Rio Grande dropped the fires of three-quarters of its Mikes, as business continued to slide and the narrow gauge piled red ink on red ink. Some the line sold; most simply slipped into retirement and slumbered away in Chama or Durango until the end of operations.