Denver and Rio Grande (film)

Denver and Rio Grande is a Technicolor western film, directed by Byron Haskin and released by Paramount Pictures in 1952. The film is a dramatization of the building of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which was chartered in 1870. It was filmed in the summer of 1951 on location on actual D&RG track (now the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad)[N 1] near Durango, Colorado.[2]

Denver and Rio Grande
Directed byByron Haskin
Produced byNat Holt
Harry Templeton
Written byFrank Gruber
StarringEdmond O'Brien
Sterling Hayden
Kasey Rogers
Music byPaul Sawtell
CinematographyRay Rennahan
Edited byStanley E. Johnson
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • May 16, 1952 (1952-05-16)
Running time
89 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.18 million (US rentals)[1]

The film's storyline is a fictional account based on two factual right-of-way struggles in 1878-1879 between the D&RG and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (here the Cañon City & San Juan RR [N 2]): across the Raton Pass from Trinidad, Colorado to Raton, New Mexico, where an armed confrontation actually took place, and the "Royal Gorge War" over a route between Cañon City and Leadville, Colorado."[2][N 3]

Filming began shortly after the release of Santa Fe, starring Randolph Scott. which interpreted the railroad war from the point of view of the AT&SF. Santa Fe, however, had been filmed in Prescott, Arizona, without access to the actual locations, and portrayed the D&RG as an honorable competitor. Both films followed an entirely fictional depiction in the 1950 western A Ticket to Tomahawk, which was shot on the same Silverton Line trackage as Denver and Rio Grande.[N 4]

Denver and Rio Grande features a spectacular head-on collision between two Denver and Rio Grande Western locomotives that were slated for retirement and scrapping, filmed July 17, 1951.[2]


In the late 1870s, chief engineer Gil Harkness (J. Carrol Naish)[N 5] and construction foreman Jim Vesser (Edmond O'Brien)[N 6] are surveying a new route for the D&RG through the Royal Gorge in Colorado. Vesser learns that a crew from the competing Cañon City & San Juan Railroad is also in the gorge and confronts former friend Bob Nelson and his unscrupulous boss, McCabe (Sterling Hayden). McCabe shoots Nelson in the back during a fight but he and crony Johnny Buff (Lyle Bettger) blame Vesser, who thinks he accidentally shot Nelson while stunned from a blow. Linda Prescott (Kasey Rogers), the secretary of D&RG president General William J. Palmer (Dean Jagger),[N 7] believes Vesser to be a cowardly killer. An injunction stops work by the D&RG in the gorge and Vesser suggests they run the CC&SJ men "out on a pole." Linda, who is actually Nelson's sister and is spying for McCabe after being told by him that Vesser murdered her brother, angrily accuses him of acting above the law.

Vesser talks Harkness into defying the injunction. When he enters the camp saloon to bring the men back to work, one of McCabe's agitators sparks a brawl over not being paid. Palmer obtains payroll money in Denver, but the train returning him to the construction camp is robbed by three men, who shoot Palmer's accountant. Vesser returns to the saloon, sees two men gambling with a lot of cash when everyone else is broke and accuses them of robbing the payroll. They try to flee towards the CC&SJ camp and a gunfight ensues. Vesser kills one and wounds the other, who Palmer identifies as one of the robbers but says that the unknown third robber is the man who murdered his accountant. Vesser confronts Linda, revealing that he saw her riding in the direction of McCabe's camp, but she dismisses his insinuations.

The injunction is lifted but Palmer announces he must go to Denver to keep the company out of receivership (and takeover by the CC&SJ). Linda reveals his plans to McCabe, who assembles his drunken thugs to prevent Palmer from getting to Denver by stealing a D&RG train and seizing all its stations to block the tracks. A D&RG telegrapher warns Palmer, who rallies his men to fight McCabe's. Vesser, Palmer and the D&RG men barrel through the blockade. Vesser and Harkness uncouple the engine from the rest of their train and allow it to crash head on into the stolen train to stop it from killing all of the others. Linda has doubts about McCabe after the violence and admits everything, but Palmer lets her go free.

Vesser barricades the gorge to keep McCabe in his camp while Palmer continues on to Denver via another branch. Linda returns to the camp and recognizes Buff as the killer of the accountant, who admits it just as McCabe enters. They argue and Buff exposes McCabe as Bob Nelson's killer. McCabe puts dynamite on a train car that will be sent hurtling into Vesser's barricade. Dodging bullets from McCabe and Buff, Linda runs to the barricade to warn Vesser and the others, who scatter in time to avoid the blast. McCabe, however, is shot in the back by Buff and killed in the explosion. Vesser forgives Linda and looks forward to building the railroad.


Home media

The film was originally released on VHS on November 11, 1998. DVD and Blu-ray issues were released on May 29, 2012.



  1. This branch of the D&RG was used for filming of at least six movies, including the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
  2. The fictional CC&SJ bore the name of an actual company organized by the Santa Fe in 1877 as its legal proxy (the AT&SF was not incorporated in the state of Colorado at the time) in the right-of-way battle and later merged into AT&SF's Pueblo and Arkansas Valley RR.
  3. Historically, the right-of-way battles were a draw. The Santa Fe reached Raton Pass first and forced the "little company" to back down. However the Rio Grande, after initially losing in the courts to the claims of the CC&SJ, prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1879.
  4. A Ticket to Tomahawk was a semi-comedic musical vehicle for Dan Dailey. Its plot of the first narrow gauge railroad through the Rockies had as the antagonist not a competing railroad but a stagecoach line.
  5. Harkness's real life counterpart was Rio Grande Chief Engineer John Armstrong McMurtrie.
  6. Vesser's real life counterpart was Rio Grande construction supervisor Robert Foster Weitbrec.
  7. General Palmer was the actual founder of the D&RG.


  1. 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, January 7, 1953
  2. Agnew, Jeremy (2012). The Old West in Fact and Film: History Versus Hollywood. McFarland & Company: Jefferson, North Carolina, ISBN 978-0-7864-6888-1, p.97
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