“And there is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that, like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all, where this train is going.” __ Bruce Catton
It is a characteristic of speech to call almost the worst thing that can happen “a train wreck.” Maybe that is why, when I’m feeling pessimistic, I wonder about them.
Driving to work every day I look at the window. In the distance, I might see a train off to the left, and it offers a sort of comfort. In fact, one day last week, I saw three trains at once, each going about its business, or waiting on a siding while the other passed. There is something about a train traveling down the tracks in its own direction, on its own schedule, that provides its own sort of reassurance.
But when things go wrong, they go horribly wrong.
A few miles from where I live, in a long-ago time, the worst thing that can happen, did.
“A frightful collision occurred on the Denver and Rio Grande one and one-half miles below Palmer Lake yesterday afternoon about two o’clock, between two extra engines, in which Engineer Hart and Fireman C.F. Fogle lost their lives. The accident was said to have been caused by the carelessness of the two men named and their lives paid the penalty,” according to the Thursday, August 21, 1890, Rocky Mountain News.
“Engine 581, with a pile driver and a caboose attached, left Husted, nine miles below Palmer Lake, about 1:30 o’clock with orders to run through Palmer Lake. At the same time, Engine 258, in charge of Engineer Hart and Fireman Fogle, was given orders to run extra from Palmer Lake to Husted and protect against Engine 581. By the word protect it was meant that they should watch out for the northbound engine and in case where could not see ahead, the fireman was to go ahead with a flag until a clear stretch of track was reached. The track between Palmer Lake and Monument is very tortuous and winding with frequent cuts and great caution has always been observed, especially work engines and trains running as those were yesterday. Engineer Hart, and his fireman, it is presumed, believed that they could reach Monument in time to meet Engine 581, or that they would meet it on the clear track just north of that point. In this supposition they were mistaken and as a result the collision occurred.”
According to reports, the engineer and fireman from the northbound train were able to leap to safety but Hart and Fogle, headed south, were caught in the cab and crushed to death, as well as being badly scalded.
“Poor Fogle was standing between the cab and the tender, just ready to jump for his life, but was caught and horribly crushed, his leg and arm being broken.” He died before his wife could be summoned from Husted by telegraph.
The report noted “Hart, the dead engineer, has been on the road for some time and was a very efficient man. His first and last mistake occurred yesterday.”
But unfortunately, that was not the last mistake made in that area.
Just five years later, in July of 1895, a Santa Fe freight train went through the bridge at Monument and killed four.
“An appalling wreck occurred on the Santa Fe road near Monument at 11 o’clock this morning,” according to the New York Times. “A freight train consisting twenty cars plunged through a bridge near that place, burying beneath the debris the train crew, a number of tramps and several bridge carpenters who were repairing the bridge. Wrecking crews were quickly dispatched from Denver and Pueblo a special train from Colorado Springs with physicians. These with the citizens of Monument, worked heroically rescuing the dead and injured. One hundred and fifty feet of trestle went down with the train. The scene under the bridge was described as most shocking, freight cars, bridge timbers, and railroad iron being a horrible wreck. The plunge was 50 feet to the rocks below.”
But amazingly sometimes, you could experience a big wreck with no fatal injuries, as happened in Mancos, Colo. in May of 1920.
“Twelve persons were injured, some seriously late yesterday when Train No. 5 on the Rio Grande Southern derailed at Mancos, Colo. … The train was en route from Vance Junction to Durango. All coaches turned over. The train was carrying the private car of Superintendent C.B. Carpenter. The wreck was due to a water-soaked roadbed, according to railroad officials,” reported the Albuquerque Journal then.
In December of 1897, near Castle Rock, Colo., 33 men were injured when a southbound freight engine slammed into a runaway chair car.
“The car was not part a passenger train, but contained about 50 of the men who have been employed in the vicinity laying rails on the Rio Grande. In its two-mile dash it had acquired great headway and when it collided with the engine of the southbound train, the engine forced itself halfway through the car and the seats. Only a few are seriously injured,” according to the Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette.
“The fireman and the engineer of the colliding engine escaped injury by jumping. The men on the runaway car did not try to set the brakes on their car, because they did not know it was running away. They thought their train was being drawn by their engine. Most of the injuries were flesh wounds and bruises.”
It was a train wreck, of course, but not as bad as some. On occasion, there is a glimmer of optimism, despite the worst thing that could possibly happen.
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