Sunday, August 22, 2010

Up and over the pass with an extra passenger


Dangerous, isolated, difficult to build and even to keep open, the Rio Grande Southern had its share strange occurrences, especially in the stretches along the Dolores River and up over Lizard Head Pass from Rico to Telluride.
Frequently beset by blinding blizzards and threatened at any time of year by rock slides, snow slides, and mud slides or any combination of the three, the steep grades and high lonesome stretches also had the ability to inspire spirits, it seems.
Or at least to encourage them to appear.
One such spirit was Isidor Henschel, or ‘Jimmy the Jew’ as he was known in the camp of Rico.
In route to Ophir, Henschel died in a train wreck in 1901 when, hopping a freighter from Rico to save time, he turned out to be in the wrong place at exactly the wrong moment.
“At Rice’s Spur, just over the Sunny Side of Lizard Head Pass, the freighter had stopped to pick up a lumber load,” writes Mary Joy Martin in her 2001 book “Something in the Wind: Spirits, Spooks & Sprites of the San Juan.” “ In the process, the freighter escaped back down the hill toward Rico, piling up at Snow Spur, the flat cars helter-skelter, the caboose wrecked, the body of Jimmy crushed by the timbers.”
For years afterward, as long as the RGS ran, folks claimed Jimmy periodically appeared in trains, including the Galloping Geese, traveling on that same lonesome stretch of tracks.
But according to Dan Asfar, in his book “Ghost Stories of Colorado,” Henschel never did anything to call attention to himself.
“He simply appeared on the train from Rico to Ophir just when the locomotive began chugging up the ascent to Lizard Head Pass. His manifestation was always the same; a young man, looking as real and alive as anyone else, sitting at the window seat, wearing the crisp Navy uniform he had been buried in. Most times, he appeared so gradually that people did not even notice he was there. Then, just as quietly, he would fade out of sight when the train approached Rice Spur.”
###

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Three things to be done with a woman



“There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” — Lawrence Durrell, 1957

Though it is only a painting of a woman, the reverent sentiment survives just the same.
In Telluride in the early 1960s, the legal fight and war of words over a life-sized nude called attention to the painting “The Lady Known as Who?”
“As for the painting itself, it probably wouldn’t make the grade at the Metropolitan Museum. Female it is, the proportions of shoulders and arms leave much to be desired though her hips have never been found wanting by generations of hard rock miners. They are wide and spacious, having the same sweeping curves which characterize the rump of another important and cherished inhabitant of Colorado mining towns, the durable mine mule,” wrote Barron Beshoar in the Denver Westerner’s Monthly Roundup in August of 1961.
The painting’s origin, identity, and ownership all were the subjects of Telluride discussions for years, according to Beshoar.
“The most popular story of the her origin revolves around an impecunious young artist and a girl who worked “On the Line” on Pacific Avenue just a block off Colorado Avenue. According to this oft-repeated tale, the artist, suffering from a severe case of gold fever, drifted into Telluride when the camp was at the height of its boom. Such mines as the Alta, the Black Bear, the Tomboy, the Liberty Bell and the Smuggler, were pouring out millions in gold, copper, lead, and zinc. Hundreds of men crawled over the mountains looking for new properties. But the poor artist couldn’t get together enough money for a grubstake because of a fatal flaw in his physical make-up — his hands were callous free and lily white so naturally no one would trust him.
When he ran completely out of funds, according to the story, he wound up “On the Line’ where one of the girls took pity on him.
“She was a beautiful and good-hearted Erskine Caldwell sort of girl. She provided the artist with meals and various comforts of life, and finally posed for the painting, which he sold for enough money to provide the needed grubstake, and he removed her, via the bonds of holy matrimony, from her life of degradation and shame.”
According to the stories, the couple lived happily ever after when his grubstake was transformed by luck into paying claims. Also, it was rumored that grateful miners continued to bring the now faithful wife rich samples of high-grade ore which the couple processed in their house.
The picture never hung in the bawdy houses on Pacific Avenue of the likes of The Pick and Gad, The Idle Hour, The Gold Belt, The Silver Bell, The White House and the Cozy Corner, but instead made it over to the more respectable climes of Colorado Avenue where it hung on the wall of the National Saloon and the Cosmopolitan.
“Certainly it was traveling between the two saloons fifty years ago as it is clearly remembered by a number of local citizens who were also traveling between the two saloons at that time,” noted Beshoar in 1961.
During prohibition, it ended up over at The Diamond, a gambling and drinking joint run by Harry Counterman.
“After Counterman and his girl, Bessie Young, who ran The Idle hour, went out of business and went off somewhere and committed suicide, Thurston “Slim” Parsons came into possession of the gambling equipment and the painting by paying $300 back taxes to the San Miguel County Treasurer,” said Beshoar.
Parsons kept the painting in several of his businesses over the years including (only briefly) The Roma Bar and Café. But his wife wouldn’t stand for it there, and it was banished to a beer garden up the street, next door to Frank Wilson’s Busy Corner Drug Store. The beer garden closed it doors in the ‘30s and it traveled from there to a private gambling club called The Telluride Club in rooms rented to Parsons by Wilson, above the Drug Store, where it watched over poker games until that club closed in 1948. Parsons left it the rooms when he closed the business.
“From that point on, the stories about the gal in painting begin to differ,” wrote Beshoer.
“Slim Parsons says he asked Druggist Wilson for the picture after the latter had it taken downstairs and put in back on the wall in the beer garden room and is using the one-time beer garden as a gift shop in the summer and storage space for some of his excess from the drugstore.”
According to Parsons quoted by Beshoar, “ I told him I wanted the picture, but he could have some of the chairs and tables and stuff upstairs if he wanted them. I don’t have any sentimental attachment to that picture, but it is my property and I want it. In fact, I don’t really care for it very much, but want to hang it in the Elk’s Club.”
Parsons attributes the paintings origin to a dance hall girl in Telluride of times past but doesn’t think Wilson’s correct in the specific identity.
“There were two such paintings, if the woman Wilson talks about was painted, I think she was the model for the other one,” Parsons told Beshoar back in 1961. “Last I heard, that one was hanging in the Stockman’s Café in Montrose.”
Druggist Wilson had a much different view. He insisted it was not just another nude.
“Why, one day an old miner came in here and squinted up at that picture and said, ‘Why Frank, I see you got a picture of Audrey,’ I said. ‘How do you know that’s Audrey?’ The old fellow said, ‘Why, I would recognize her anywhere.’”
Wilson said he told Parsons that he might want to rent the upstairs rooms and he needed to get his stuff out there. Parsons came by and took some stuff, but left the painting.
“People had drawn all over it. I was going to send out to the dump in the trash, but my son Bob worked on it for about four days cleaning it. He is a history major and he said he would like to have it.”
The cleaned-up painting was hung on the wall downstairs in the former beer garden again, in 1949, but Parsons returned to claim it more than decade later.
“He got right up on the player piano and was going to take it right off the wall,” said Wilson.
Wilson, who according Beshoar had holsters nailed to the underside of his counters in his drugstore and kept several pistols in readiness for possible trouble, cried, “I would not let anyone take this painting and I wouldn’t sell it to anyone.”
Wilson who had a reputation for caution in money matters, added however, “... Course I wouldn’t give a nickel for it, either.”
###

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Elementary memory like a cherished toy


Like a cherished toy, stored carefully between uses in felt-lined, wooden box, I take my grade-school memories out and play with them at times.
I remember, though not always clearly, all the way back to kindergarten in Dolores. The building was new, maybe even the first year or so, dark red brick, clean polished tile. New metal tables with dark, simulated-wood grain, Formica tops. Morning and afternoon classes. They tabbed me as a morning person. And as students, we were asked to bring a small carpet we could unroll and use for the nap-time break.
Ridiculous, I thought at the time, we don’t need no stinking nap. We are burning daylight. I need to find a girl friend. Such rebellion resulted in an ‘outlaw’ reputation at early age.
First grade was tougher, intentionally, I assume. They sent the ‘outlaws’ to Mrs. Denby’s class. Mrs. McRae’s for those that need nurturing. Mrs. Denby’s for those that need some discipline.
First through third grades were back in the old building. Orange-chipped brick with high-buffed, oaken floors that creaked to the sound of marching munchkins. The floors were always polished to high shine with only the occasional interruption facilitated by the orange-colored, sawdust-like compound that they put down when someone barfed all over them.
In each of the classrooms of that old building was a room not encountered since, a coat room — a long narrow partition with hooks down each side to hang coats, shoes and other articles of childhood. A place to escape to, when the going got rough, to wrestle with the neighbor kid — or if the occasion presented itself, to steal a kiss.
Early in my educational career, the old building was heated with a coal-fired furnace, the kind with two great hoppers that some poor, unfortunate soul every morning had to shovel huge scoops of slow-burning anthracite in though the top opening covered by a red hatch. The furnace room was just off to the right as you pushed the crash bar on one of the big double doors out to the playground. A place of great mystery, and teachers constantly warned of the terrible, disfiguring accidents that could occur if you were to wander into the off-limits area. If it is that dangerous, several of us thought at the time, then why is it right in the middle of the whole campus?
But accidents do happen, I tried to explain.
Like the time I accidentally poked Arthur Meyers in the forehead with a pencil. The teacher’s attempt at a ‘scared straight’ warning, involving potential lead poisoning, fell on deaf ears I am afraid. Because I had it (upon good authority) that modern pencils are constructed almost exclusively with graphite centers.
In those early years, the playground itself was tougher place. Much tougher than the coddled children of recent times experience. Just dirt, and a little gravel with coal cinders under the high-bar swing sets and ‘the maximum vertical lift steel slide of death’ on the far edge of the playground. More than one hapless Dolores student left a hunk of scalp, or several square inches of hide hanging from the metal of that big boy, or in the dirt below.
Of course that was by no means, the only available hazard. Red rubber kick balls flying out of nowhere and everywhere, a decrepit Driver’s Education trailer with steel ‘temporary’ stairs that could knock out the most firmly seated of teeth when properly approached, and students contributing to their own delinquency (everybody was Kung Fu fighting, man those cats were fast as lightning, Huh!)— it is a wonder anybody survived third grade. Later the quality of road rash was vastly improved when, in a stroke of infinite wisdom, it was decided to black top the entire surface.
Third grade was a watershed year.
I, as with other fellow condemned ‘outlaws,’ had the good fortune of once again being placed in the ‘needs discipline’ class. We had two teachers that year, rather than just one.
I recall, on perhaps the very first day, Mrs. Rucker, introducing us to the theory of détente. Standing war-like in an offensive crouch, with a four-foot wooden paddle raised high in hand (the paddle air-vented with several offsetting rows of holes drilled in the center), the five-foot, three-inch, 60-year-old music teacher found it necessary to show us her muscle and identify her willingness to apply corporal punishment.
With the other teacher however, that is where the power resided.
Mrs. Wallace, was not only the afternoon third-grade instructor of English, vocabulary and Social Studies; she was also the principal and perhaps, more importantly, lived diagonally right across the street from my family. She was a person I cared about not disappointing, at least not permanently.
When I went back to Dolores recently after a long absence, I noticed that the old orange-brick building has been replaced. Of course, Mrs. Denby, Mrs. Rucker, Mrs. Wallace and most, if not all, elements of the old playground are now long gone.
But still, stored away in safe place, protected in cushioned fabric and encased in a strong box, are set of memories that could rival the best toys on any shelf, in any toy room.
###

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Springs officer murdered before Thanksgiving

America was a little different then. Colorado Springs too.
On November 26, 1953, Eleanor Roosevelt commented on the upcoming holiday.
“HYDE PARK, Wednesday—Thanksgiving day is the most personal of all our holidays, I think, because it carries us back to our own past history and we are primarily celebrating the survival of our first ancestors in this country. There may be other countries which have their own Thanksgiving days but this is our day, the day when we review the things that we in the United States have to be thankful for.” Less than 10 years separated that time from her husband’s official establishment the holiday on the fourth Thursday in November. Before then, Thanksgiving had moved around a bit.
That same day, actor John Wayne and his entourage touched down at the airport in El Paso, Texas, and the ‘Duke’ stopped on the tarmac to shake hands with a toddler on his way to the premier of “Hondo,” based on the book by Louis L’Amour. The show, of course, was in Three-D and WarnerPhonic Sound and Color.
The population of Colorado Springs, according to the 1950 Census, was 45,472, and that included the recently annexed town Roswell that was brought into the fold in June of that year.
Patrolman Richard Burchfield reported for duty on November 26, 1953 and left the station in Colorado Springs at 7:40 that evening. He had told his wife a few days before that he thought he knew who was involved in a series of stickups around town.
At 7:55 that night, the officer called to ask if any detectives were in, police reports said. When told they were, he stated he would be in shortly. This was taken to mean he had someone in custody or had some pertinent information for the detectives.
“Shortly after 8 p.m., Robert McVay of 540 East Boulder, spotted the police car on the west side of El Paso Street, near Bijou, and five blocks from the police station; he saw a man on the outside of the car, stooping down and looking in. He became suspicious when he and his wife saw the man run up the street and enter a car, so McVay drove two blocks north, made a U-turn and went back. The man was still sitting in the car so McVay drove home, then decided to make another trip and drove to the police car and again saw the man looking into the car; McVay stopped and asked ‘Do you need any help?’ to which the man replied ‘Hell no!’ Returning home, McVay tried to call police but the lines were busy, so he drove to the station and reported the incident. Detective Irion and Officer Garred went to the scene with him and found Burchfield slumped behind the steering wheel dead.,” according to an account by Carl F. Mathews on unsolved crimes in the Pikes Peak region. Mathews was the former Superintendent of the Bureau of Identification in Colorado Springs Police Department.
Burchfield had been shot eight times, behind the right ear, over the right eye, once in the right cheek, twice in the right shoulder and three times in the right arm. Nine shells, (along with the bullets identified by the FBI lab as coming from a Colt Woodsman automatic .22 caliber pistol) were found in the car.
“The suspect was thought to have been the holdup artist who had committed seven stickups in the month previous and had been describes by most witness as young, apparently 17 to 25 years of age, about six feet tall, an of slender build. His latest holdup had been that of Alton Peterson, who had been stopped in the 1400 block of North Cascade at about 7:15 p.m. which led officers to believe the killer was the holdup man,” wrote Mathews.
A witness account by Mary Lowe, living at 233 North El Paso, which was diagonally across the street from the scene of the killing, described hearing shots and an outcry. She told police she looked out her upstairs window and saw a man running up the street to a parked car, apparently a dark Ford Coupe, 1941 or 1942 model. He backed up, made a U-Turn and drove a short distance north, stopped and ran back to the police cruiser where McVay had talked to him after his third trip around the area.
“Police asked all parties who had Colt Woodman pistols to bring them to the station for checking and number I.D. s, but without results so far as any connection with the shells found in the car,” Mathews said.
Burchfield was 34 at the time of his murder and a father of three children. Rewards totaling nearly $1,700 were offered and private contributions and returns from movie houses (perhaps from the Three-D version of “Hondo.”) made up a purse amounting to $3,650, which was given to the widow.
“It was theorized that the man was in the police car when Burchfield started to question him, drew the pistol and shot the officer as outlined. No real clues have ever been found,” wrote Mathews.
Officer Richard Burchfield's murder, five blocks from the police station in his own patrol car, has never been solved. In Colorado Springs that year, for the police, for the family of Richard Burchfield, for witnesses Robert McVay, Mary Lowe and robbery victim Alton Peterson, and for others … it was as the former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the most personal of all of holidays.”
America, and Colorado Springs, too, is a little different now.
###