Article by Ken Stitzel
Transportation – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine
HIDING IN A DITCH like a commando, I cringe as a giant machine approaches. The earth shakes. Twenty feet away, two sooty diesel locomotives roll slowly past, pulling a dark train of hopper cars. Quickly, I rouse Grinch, my travel partner. We wait for the straining locomotives to disappear around a bend, then we approach the train.
A moving train can kill you.
I run, grab the ladder rungs on the car, and climb. The car is half filled with dusty purple-gray pellets the size of marbles: taconite, iron ore traveling from upper Minnesota to the Geneva steel works in Utah. It’s reasonably soft to sit on, leaves room to hide us from unfriendly eyes, and lets us see out. Our ride is here, although if it rains, we’re out of luck.
Grinch and I are elated. Each of us has ridden thousands of miles by freight train. We know the risks of death and dismemberment. We know we are trespassing and could be arrested. We know it’s dirty and uncomfortable.
We have climbed aboard for our last trip on “the Scenic Line of the World” — the Royal Gorge and Tennessee Pass, a rail route doomed by the merger of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific.
I’ve been this way before, traveling like royalty and like a pauper. I rode in a dome car aboard one of the last passenger trains, back when this was the Denver & Rio Grande Western, and I’ve clung to the outside of a freight car in the rain. I drank espresso at the bottom of the Royal Gorge. I rode with a film crew on a flat car, and once rode a boxcar with a modern Woody Guthrie.
The tracks climb around Pueblo reservoir. A disturbed heron flaps over the mirror-still water while the Spanish Peaks display their symmetry to the south.
We roll through cottonwood trees close enough to touch, past Hobson, a siding by the river, then Portland with its giant cement plant.
Florence. I remembered 1964, admiring the cute little depot from the dome car of one of the last passenger trains. The station looked almost festive then with people milling about on the platform. Now it seems empty and forlorn.
Cañon City. Lots of people. Time to duck. Sometimes, waving from a freight train makes a face light up as a child excitedly points. But a wave may also generate a scowl, a thrown rock, or a phone call to the police.
Into the Royal Gorge, huge vertical walls and spires, confused and multicolored. Tracks cling to a slender shelf just above the roaring river. I rode here with three friends last year. One said she couldn’t live without her morning coffee. She conjured a backpack espresso machine, making us each a fine cup as we rolled west.
Today the slender silvery tourist bridge appears high in the sky. The walls narrow until two pointed arches of steel suspend the tracks by cables at the once-famous Hanging Bridge. In 1964, all passenger trains made a scheduled tourist stop here. My family got out — the only one that did. I was very young, but I remember that we chatted with a smiling conductor by a stone balustrade beside the river. The gorge made it dark at midday. The conductor told stories and was sad that so few people got out to enjoy the view anymore. A year later, the passenger train was gone.
Today’s train roars on without stopping, on to Parkdale where the highway rejoins the river. Grinch sleeps through Spikebuck and Texas Creek.
I pop up often to look around: frequent glimpses of alpine peaks, as though a mystery being revealed. Rock formations resemble gawking faces. The valley opens periodically into pastures and ranches, then closes.
Salida. A panoply of peaks and valleys. A near-empty railroad yard where narrow-gauge lines once set out to challenge the high mountains. They’re gone, and this big modern railroad will soon follow.
Last year, I came here with a film crew shooting a documentary about modern hoboes. I “starred” in a two-minute promotion designed to drum up money for the full-length film — which I wouldn’t even be in. They interviewed me outside a run-down freight house here. The director was frustrated by the noise: the nearby railroad crew dropping clanging loads of spikes with a magnetic crane; a shouting man chasing some yelling kids chasing a barking dog; and then, incredibly, a bagpipe across the river.
The train today slowly crawls up the east bank amid low walls of boulders stacked in odd heaps, sometimes looming over the tracks. We see many rafters, handsome healthy people, out for fun. They wave and shout enthusiastically when they glance up and see us on our high perch.
They appreciate the sporting spirit, perhaps even envy our dangerous freedom aboard the train, but no doubt many of them will prefer the bike trail that may replace the rails.
Grinch sleeps anywhere, anytime, but at Nathrop he rises long enough to take in the stunning view of Mt. Princeton as we emerge onto the flood plains.
I can’t sleep. It’s my last ride here, and I want to remember everything. Buena Vista, then the sidings of Americus and Riverside. Higher and higher, into and out of unnamed canyons, across amazingly flat parks. We play tag with an industrial ghost, the abandoned grade of the Colorado Midland Railway. Sad to think the old Denver & Rio Grande Western route, here since the 1880s, will soon join its former competitor.
Granite. Kobe. Malta, below Leadville. The land opens again, Fourteeners east and west, still clad in pure winter white. We feel their cold breath. The train winds north through forest, then the meadows of Tennessee Park.
On a long straight track, we catch a rare glimpse of the entire train. I wish I could remain. But all I can do is watch the departing view — and nudge sleepy Grinch with my foot to stir him before he misses more scenery. The tracks climb a hillside. Rushing snow melt covers everything. The aspen aren’t leafed out yet. Winter has barely relinquished its grip, and summer will be brief. Lugging hard, the train reaches the long double track south of the summit tunnel.
I ruefully recalled last year. An enthusiastic partner climbed atop of the car for a better view. The train crew saw us, stopped the train, yelled at us, and made sure we got off. We had to hitchhike into Minturn in the cold rain.
Then a recollection of 1984, of a modern Woody Guthrey. Eastbound, I met another young freight hopper in Minturn. He was writing a song about riding a freight over Tennessee Pass, something he had done long ago, and had come all the way from Seattle for “research.” He told the railroad crew what he was doing, and they had grinned and told him which train to get on. We rode on together. When the train stopped south of the summit tunnel to cut out the helper engines, he took out his guitar and sang:
From Grand Junction the train comes at last. He grabs up his bedroll and sack. On a boxcar he climbs leaving Minturn behind Crawling up Tennessee Pass
Forever the rivers will flow Surrounded by Rockies and snow Free as the eagles in the Colorado sky Forever the railroad will roll.
WE GO UNDER Tennessee Pass in a smoky tunnel. The downgrade is steep and the track swings through big S-curves. The engineer brakes to keep the speed down, amid reminders of what could happen if he doesn’t.
Piles of purple marbles from a runaway taconite train still litter the trackside. On downhill, we see where another runaway left the track at 65 mph. A cross and a bell commemorate the two railroaders who died.
We creep along through pine and naked aspen above Eagle Park, where tough mountain soldiers trained at Camp Hale during World War II.
We reach the infant Eagle River. At Red Cliff, the tracks curve along the mountainside above town, showing us everyone’s back yard. We roll under highway bridges, one a gigantic arch several hundred feet above. Then we’re in Eagle River Canyon.
I rode this stretch with the film crew last year. We were obvious as hell, riding on a flatcar with a three-person camera crew. The railroaders in the helper engine saw us. I expected them to stop the train and call the cops. Instead, they just waved.
Gilman — rusty metal buildings and industrial wreckage mark the former New Jersey Zinc mine and current Superfund site. High above, the empty company town clings to the canyon wall. A smashed jeep sits by the river, fallen from the highway above town. A drunk? Some poor working Joe commuting from Leadville to the ski towns? Or just somebody trying to get a closer look at a train in this astounding canyon?
Minturn sits almost 2,000 feet below the pass. The train stops to change the crew, our first stop since Pueblo. It’s warmer here. I think longingly of a cold drink and a good meal at the little restaurant next to the railroad dormitory. But it’s not to be. We barely have time to climb down and pee in the weeds before our train leaves for Glenwood Canyon and our next stop, Grand Junction.
Here we parted ways. Grinch continued west, bound for Oregon. My home lay east. I found a grain car and survived a cold mountain night and diesel fumes in the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel. After a spectacular ride through the Front Range down onto the hot plains, the train stopped in north Denver.
I gave my remaining food to some hoboes camped under the 20th Street viaduct and found a bar close to Union Station. It wasn’t quite open, but the bartender kindly poured me a cold one anyway.
I toasted sleepy Grinch, a good companion, and wished him well on his travels. I toasted having a few bucks for a beer at the end of this questionable adventure. I toasted my own safe return and having a job and family to go home to — though not every hobo would care for that life. I toasted Tennessee Pass, where the river will always run, but the railroad probably will not. It seemed too short a wake.
When he’s not trespassing on railroad property, Ken Stitzel is a technical writer on the Front Range for a Fortune 500 company which would prefer not to be in any way associated with this article. (Lyrics from “Royal Gorge” copyright ©1993 by Tom Rawson, used by permission.)