Review by Ed Quillen
Transportation – December 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine
Railroad Tall Tales (And Other B.S.)
by Samuel A. Dougherty
Published in 1992 by the author
Goin’ Railroading Two Generations of Colorado Stories
by Margaret Coel, as told by Sam Speas
Published in 1991 by Pruett
Connoisseurs of regional railroad lore, or railroad lore in general, will enjoy a feast with either of these books.
Goin’ Railroadin’ is a memoir from a Colorado & Southern family; the Speas lineage goes clear back to the days when narrow-gauge trains used the roundhouse at Como and climbed Chalk Creek canyon toward St. Elmo.
Railroad Tall Tales comes from Samuel Dougherty, whose days as trainmaster in Salida were recalled in an earlier memoir, Call the Big Hook. Here, he presents more of his own recollections, as well as many “sandhouse stories” which deserve Mark Twain’s phrase: “mostly true, with some stretchers.”
Why was the sandhouse a center for railroad story-telling? In Railroad Tall Tales, Dougherty explains. The steel of a locomotive driver wheel often slips against a steel rail. To get traction, the engineer applies sand, which comes from the “sand dome” above the boiler and flows through pipes to fall in front of the drivers.
This sand has to be dry in order to flow where it is needed. So at the railroad yards, there were “sand houses” with big stoves to dry the sand. On cold nights, all sorts of folks gathered, ranging from railroad employees to homeless families, and naturally the stories flowed.
That’s the sort of rail lore that Dougherty delights in throughout this book. Although some of it concerns his Salida years, his native area around Helper, Utah, gets considerably more attention.
Most of it though, goes into entertaining detail about everyday aspects of old-time railroading. Consider the fireman, for example:
“There were many hard lessons to learn before a fireman on a steam engine achieved success. Keeping her hot was the name of the game. Any `tallow-pot’ (fireboy) who could hand fire one of those big jacks when it was being worked to capacity was part artist, part magician, and all man.
“The first lesson a man learned was to shovel in only the amount needed to keep steam pressure high, and to burn what he put in the firebox. He had to be able to read his fire, recognizing the spots where the fire was too thin, thus allowing a lot of cold air to come through the grate. He had to locate the dark areas that indicated a clinker was forming…”
Dougherty provides similar descriptions for conductors, brakemen, dispatchers, engineers, along with their eateries and boarding houses along the line. Since a lot of the people who told these tales are gone or going (kind of like the railroad hereabouts), it’s a good thing Dougherty has collected and published their stories. We get entertained while we’re getting some education — a hard combination to beat.
Goin’ Railroadin’ is the memoir of two generations of Colorado railroaders. Sam Speas the elder arrived in Denver in 1883, going to work for the Union Pacific when its network included mountain narrow-gauge lines like those to Georgetown, Central City, and Leadville (these later became part of the Colorado & Southern system).
His son, also Sam Speas, arrived in 1900 when the senior Sam was working out of Como on runs over Boreas Pass to Breckenridge and then over Frmont Pass to Leadville, runs to Denver over Kenosha Pass and down the Platte, runs to Buena Vista over Trout Creek Pass.
Mountain railroading all the way around, and it is presented in detail from bucking snow to getting back on the rails after a minor mishap.
The added charm of this book is that it goes beyond the rails to include family life, which was complicated when men could be called out in the middle of the night and then be gone for a week.
“Like other wives of railroaders, Ellen found that keeping house in Como was a never-ending job. She hauled buckets of water from the well on washdays — every house had a well on one side and a `chicksale’ or outhouse on the other, located so the outhouse wouldn’t pollute the well. She stacked coal in the kitchen stove, kept the fire hot, heated the water, and dumped it into a large tin tub. Bending over the washboard hours at a time, she scrubbed the clothes with a vengeance, including Sam’s sooty overalls, wrung them by hand, and draped them on lines outdoors to flay dry in the breeze. In winter, she strung the lines through the house and went about her other chores, ducking and weaving through the dripping socks, shirts, and underwear.”
So, railroading wasn’t just hard on the men whose union battled for an eight-hour day. It was a tough pull all the way around, and the Speas family got around the C&S system — Como, Buena Vista, Gunnison, St. Elmo, Boulder, and Fort Collins, to name a few.
Margaret Coel, who assembled her father’s reminisces, has done an impressive job. Not only does she present a vast assortment of rail lore, but she connects it with everything from family life to the economies of the communities served, noting, for instance, that traffic dropped on the Leadville line after electricity arrived in the mine, because they no longer had to haul in so much hay for the mules who had pulled the ore carts underground. This is good history, not just railroad lore.
If you’re only getting or giving one railroad book, Goin’ Railroading is the5 pick of this pair. But you really should read both if you’ve got any interest in how life was hereabouts when the D&RGW and the C&S were major forces.
— Ed Quillen