Volume 1, Issue 2 - Winter 1997

Typical RGS Wooden Shingled Roofs

A special thanks to Will Cheshire and Richard Dorman for information and help with this issue.

Updates from the Last Issue

Herb Kelsey wrote with comments about the use of 5 post bents on the RGS. His comments spurred further research and prompted a discovery that the 5 post bent only seems to have been used in areas where the the distances between the bents were greater than the normal 16 ft. The stringers normally used in these locations were 8 x 24 in. instead of the normal 8 x 18 in. This was done to carry the extra load produced by the longer span. It seems likely that bents used in these situations were also beefed up by going from 4 posts to 5. Double bents were also common in these areas . Bridges that display these characteristics are: 37B (Bilk); 46A, B, C, D, and F (Ophir Highline); and 64A (Burns Canyon). While I'm sure there are exceptions, Trout Lake for one, this practice seems to be very consistent throughout the Rio Grande Southern system.

Dennis O'Berry wrote saying that the sheet metal placed between the stringers and the ties was actually there for moisture protection. I had always heard that it was fire protection but moisture makes more sense. Without the sheet metal over the stringers they would be partially exposed to the weather and, because they're in constant shade, they would probably be prone to rotting.

Thanks again Herb and Dennis, for your comments. And thanks to everyone else who wrote, all of your comments were appreciated.

If you would like to see the last issue of this page
"Typical Bridge Building Practices on the RGS"
please click here.


With the exception of the Ridgway and Rico engine houses, every major building constructed by the Rio Grande Southern Railroad employed a wooden shingle roof. All of the structures built by the RGS during the construction phase of the railroad, especially the depots, were of the highest quality possible in a wooden building. The buildings exhibit all of the common architectural practices and flourishes seen in most of the contemporary commercial construction. Even the most humble privy or coal shed showed extra embellishment not really necessary for the function of the building. It is obvious that, although built of wood and not brick or stone, the RGS did not short change this part of the physical plant.

Wooden shingles were probably the best roofing system available to the RGS carpenters in the 1890's, when these structures were built. The only other roofing system that could have been used on the steeply pitched roofs common to the railroad would have been corrugated metal, which would have given good performance, but certainly would not have had the hoped for appearance. A wooden shingled roof could be expected to last for thirty to forty years. Due to the financial difficulties that plagued the railroad throughout its history, many of these roofs got little or no maintenance. Yet most of the roofs survived, at least to some degree, for almost 60 years. As late as 1993, the freight portion of the Mancos depot was still covered by wooden shingles, first put on a hundred years before.

This issue of the RGS Technical Page will cover the design and construction of these shingled roofs, along with the rafters, eaves, gutters, etc. that make up the entire roofing system. Two presently existing buildings and some period drawings provided most of the information presented in this issue. I know it's a small sampling, but the majority of the RGS buildings are now gone and the few that remain have been remodeled and upgraded, especially the roofs. These roofs were all built within a couple of years of each other and by the same group of bridge and building gang people. Roofs, like most everything else in construction, even period construction, conform to certain standards and practices, and I believe it is safe to say that the details observed in the roofs of these two buildings were probably common throughout the railroad.

Basic Design and Construction

The drawing above represents a typical cross section of a wooden shingled roof as used on the Rio Grande Southern. The shingles used by the RGS were 15 in. long and installed with a 5 in. reveal. As a result, the entire roof with the exception of the very bottom has 3 layers of shingles on it. The first tier, at the bottom of the roof, had 2 layers. The shingles vary in width from 4 to 12 in. and are installed in such a way that the gap between adjacent shingles falls over the middle portion of the shingle below it. A layer or two of a tar-paper-like material called roofing felt was placed under the shingles. This material came in rolls and was placed lengthwise on the roof starting at the bottom and moving up, with each course overlapping the previous one. Under the felt came the nailers to which, as the name implies, both the shingles and the felt were nailed. The Mancos depot used 1 x 8 in. nailers with a 1/2 in. gap between them. The 1 x 8 in. nailers were also used on the Mancos bunk house; however, the gap between them is approximately 2 in. The size and placement of the nailers was determined by the size (they came in several) of the shingles, the pitch of the roof, open roof or attic, and to a certain extent the judgement of the carpenters doing the work. The gap left between the nailers allowed the roof to breath and it also provided for a more economical use of lumber.

Wooden shingled roofs of the time period exhibit one aspect not generally found on more modern shingled roofs. They were painted using a mineral red paint. Opinions vary as to exactly when the RGS roofs were painted, but there's no question they were. Some argue that the roofs were painted when new. Some photographic evidence of this can be seen in pictures of the Telluride depot taken soon after it was enlarged. The shingles may even have come from the mill already painted, as surviving shingles do show paint in unexposed areas that would have been impossible to get to after installation. Another argument says that at one time; probably in the early forties, many of the roofs on the RGS were repaired. Split, broken, and missing shingles were replaced, and the whole roof was then painted. Painting the shingles would have extended their lifetime by protecting them from water and sunlight damage. Also, painting the roof would remove the checker board effect of mixing old and new shingles. It is very possible that, if the shingles were painted after installation, paint could have reached the unexposed areas by way of capillary action. Examination of existing shingles seem to indicate that might have been the case.

Other period buildings with shingled roofs have been examined and also show traces of mineral red paint, so it would seem that painting this type of roof was a common practice of the time.

All of this barrier type material sets on top of 2 x 6 in. rafters set on 24 in. centers. The rafters were the main structural and load bearing component of the roof and, along with the ceiling joists set directly on top of the outside walls. The rafters, in conjunction with the ceiling joists, form a triangle, one of the strongest shapes available in construction, thus giving the roof enormous load carrying capability. A notch was cut into the rafter where it sets on top of the top plate of the wall, providing a horizontal mating surface. This notch also results in the rafters being reduced from 2 x 6 under the main roof to 2 x 4 under the eaves of the roof. Rafters used under extensions of the main roof such as porches, passenger platform eaves, and bay windows were 2 x 4's laid beside the main rafters and usually having a shallower pitch than the main roof.

The drawing below shows the combination of layers that make up the barrier portion of the roof. It also shows how the eaves were constructed on the gable ends of the buildings. 2 x 4's, cut to the proper length, were nailed to the outside of of the end rafters and to the bottom of the nailers. The soffit was then nailed to the bottom of these 2 x 4's and a fascia board added to the outside edge. If molding was being used, as in the Mancos depot, it was also added. The shingles overhang an inch or two on the sides of the building, just as on the front and rear. This method of construction resulted in eaves of the same size and design running all the way around the building.

At the ridge, or very top of the roof, a crenulation type molding was placed. The design of the molding was virtually identical throughout the RGS. On historic drawings, the molding is referred to with a detail number which told the carpenters which one of a whole series of available moldings to use. This molding seems to have been either very fragile or not installed very securely because most historic pictures, except the very early ones, show it partially or entirely missing.


Construction Details

The above photos are of the Mancos depot as it appeared in 1993 and '94. In 1993 the shingled roof was being replaced with a metal one, but enough of the original was still in place to allow for measuring and photography. We visited again in 1994, and this time, the interior of the building was accessible. As the photos show, the Mancos depot was built with a number of architectural embellishments to the roof. Molding was added to the outside of the fascia board, and the soffits were made up of several milled boards tongue and grooved together. These details differ from building to building, but the underlying construction of joists and rafters etc. remained the same.

The photos below are of the Mancos bunk house and were also taken during 1993 and '94. They show a much simpler building with a plain board fascia and soffit. The Mancos bunk house is of wooden beam construction, and identical bunk houses appear in various spots along the RGS right of way. All of those buildings, and the very similar wooden beam section houses, will have roofs constructed in this manner.

Thoughts on Modeling

The information presented in this issue covered wooden shingled roofing methods in detail. Parts of it are of little or no use in modeling Rio Grande Southern Buildings. Other parts, however, cover major aspects that, if included in the model, should enhance their appearance and accuracy.

Missing shingles could and perhaps should be included on any building. It is an easy way to add character to a roof and very prototypical for any building more than a few years old. Remember the shingles are three deep on the roof, so just one or two missing would not necessarily expose any of the underlying layers of the roof. If more shingles are missing, then the roofing felt, probably still in fairly good shape, should show. Because of the gaps in the nailers, missing felt would result in a badly leaking roof, and that was a situation even the RGS wouldn't tolerate. Many of the depots and section houses had people living in them, meaning a leaking roof was out of the question. There were also a large number of mostly abandoned buildings along the right of way, and modeling them could very well entail missing shingles and felt. Also remember the red paint, applied in different degrees, according to the era modeled. Chalk is excellent for simulating traces of the paint, which would have been the case from the late forties on.

Toward the end of operations, there is ample evidence the railroad used tar paper and composite shingles to patch roofs. Models of this time period would have added interest with the inclusion of odd colored and textured shingles and papers. The decorative molding along the ridge of the depots could be omitted wholly, or in part, on all but the newest buildings. Loose, hanging, or even partially missing soffits and fascia boards such as those seen in the pictures of the Mancos bunk house are also possible. This sort of thing; if done with restraint, would be effective, especially on the lesser buildings, such as section and bunk houses.

After just a few years of prosperity, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, brought very lean times to Rio Grande Southern. From then on the RGS seems to have spent money only when it had to. The buildings were only maintained to the extent necessary, with little regard as to their appearance. Considering the financial restraint the railroad was forced to work under I suppose we can't fault it too much for the condition of the buildings.

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This is the end of Volume 2 of the Rio Grande Southern Technical Page. I hope to continue updating the page quarterly, so please continue to visit in the future. Please feel to write me with any comments, good or bad, or just to chat. My e-mail address is: bdwhite@orci.com