Seven contraptions known as the Galloping Geese may be the most motley-looking machines _ and the most endearing _ ever to rattle down American railroad tracks.
A mash-up of vintage autos, buses and railroad cars, the Geese were cobbled together in the 1930s by the Rio Grande Southern, a luckless and threadbare railroad that served mining towns in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.
The railroad shut down in the 1950s, but six Geese were rescued by collectors and museums. This weekend, five of the original Geese and a replica of another will make a rare joint appearance at a "Goose Fest" at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, just west of Denver.
"People can touch these things, they can ride on them," says museum director Donald Tallman. "And that's pretty magical."
The narrow-gauge Rio Grande Southern was built in the 1890s to haul gold and silver out of the San Juans. Financial panics, blizzards, landslides and other calamities kept the railroad on the verge of collapse for most of its first 40 years.
By 1929, it faced extinction without a cheaper alternative to steam-powered trains. So in 1931, shop workers took up torches, saws and drills and tore into a used Buick sedan.
"No blueprints," says Bill Gould, a volunteer and former director at the Golden museum. "They just started hacking away."
What emerged was a peculiar machine: Gasoline-powered, part auto, part pickup and part railroad car. It needed only one operator and a few gallons of gas, versus several crewmen and tons of coal for a heavy steam locomotive.
Over the next five years, four Pierce-Arrow limos, one Pierce-Arrow sedan and another Buick disappeared into the Rio Grande Southern shop and emerged as Geese.
The railroad called them "Motors" _ Motor No. 1, and so on _ but everyone else called them Galloping Geese, and by the early 1950s, the railroad started calling them that, too.
How they got the nickname isn't clear, but aficionados have theories. They seemed to waddle on the railroad's uneven, worn-out tracks. Their air horns sounded like a goose honking. They often ran with their side-hinged hood doors propped open to cool their overworked motors, making it look like they were flapping their wings.
Goose lore is full of stories of derailments, lost wheels, overheated engines and brake failures.
"They never killed anybody, though," Gould says. He makes this fact sound both surprising and impressive.
"I've talked to people who rode them, and it was an adventure," Tallman says. "You never knew if you were going to get there."
The Geese changed over the years, most notably when three had their limo shells replaced with sawed-off bus bodies. One Goose got an unplanned new look when it collided with a snowplow in 1949. The scar is still there.
"We can't repair that," museum volunteer Al Blount says. "It's a historic dent."
Goose No. 1 proved to be so primitive, even by Goose standards, that the railroad scrapped it in 1933. The other six flourished, and they kept the Rio Grande Southern operating for a remarkable 21 years. They hauled passengers, mail and light-weight freight while steam engines pulled ore, livestock and other heavy loads.
The railroad shut down in December 1952. It had lost the mail contract, a vital source of revenue, and a brief fling with the emerging tourist business failed to generate enough money.
Knott's Berry Farm amusement park in Southern California bought one of the Geese. Two stayed close to their native habitat, at the Galloping Goose Historical Society in Dolores, Colo., and the Telluride, Colo., Volunteer Fire Department. The Colorado Railroad Museum owns the other three.
The Dolores and Telluride Geese will be featured at the Goose Fest. The museum had hoped to bag the Knott's Berry Farm Goose for the weekend, but the deal fell through.
All the surviving Geese have been restored to running condition, and they're big crowd-pleasers.
Blount, who drives No. 7 on tourist excursions around the museum's loop track, estimates he carried more than 10,000 passengers last year.
"I've probably hauled more passengers than the Rio Grande Southern did," he says.
On a recent afternoon, Blount slid into the front seat of No. 7, started the motor and gave the horn two honks. He eased down on the accelerator and the motor roared. The Goose began to move.
It rattled over a switch, chugged up a hill and drifted down a short straight stretch, past trees and vintage railroad cars.
Blount wore a dreamy smile, his head cocked slightly to the right, left arm resting in the sunny open window.
A passenger remarked that he looked happy.
"Oh yeah," he said.
Railroad Museum: http://coloradorailroadmuseum.org/