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Comfort Stations

by Nancy Christofferson

HUERFANO- The completion of the Denver and Rio Grande’s narrow gauge railroad through Huerfano County and across La Veta Pass was a magnet to all types of travelers.  Serial tourists wanted to cross the highest mountain pass on the continent, which La Veta Pass was at the time, and anyone wanting to get to Creede and the San Juan Mountains quickly had to take this route.  Previously, the only commercial carrier was the stagecoach, and it was both slow and uncomfortable.

    Politicians relied heavily on the railroad. Most campaigning office-wannabees had to get to the western slope, and they traveled through Walsenburg and La Veta to do so.

    Before the days of the on-train bathrooms and dining cars, trains had to stop for “comfort stations” and meals.  La Veta, with its two hotels and long mountain stretch beyond or before (depending on which way you were traveling), was a natural stopping point.  The Todd or Depot Hotel, located on railroad property next to the depot, and the La Veta/Spanish Peaks/Alamo Hotel were the two choices.  They probably bid for the contract to provide the travelers with food, and earned the sobriquet of “official D&RG eating house.”  Thus, any “celebrity” traveling the route had to get off the train and appear in a public restaurant where the local eagle-eyed editor could see him…

    …Or her.  An early traveler along the La Veta Pass route was Helen Hunt Jackson, a well-known author of the time.  Along with spending the night in the Sporleder Hotel in Walsenburg, Jackson wrote of her adventures crossing into the San Luis Valley in the 1870s.

    In a single week in August 1881, the alert editor of the Huerfano Herald espied both General John Pope en route to Fort Garland, and Governor Pitkin and his staff dining at the Todd Hotel.

    Then, of course, was Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln, the only surviving son of Honest Abe.  Lincoln and his father-in-law, Senator James Harlan of Iowa, owned a “gold” mine on the West Spanish Peak.  Actually, they first bought an interest in the Whale mine, and then Senator Harlan declined re-election to devote his time to gold mining.  He bought a house in La Veta and spent quite a bit of time here while he extended his holdings to include numerous glory holes in West Gulch, aka Hayes Gulch.  The good senator went bust, as the ore was plentiful but of poor quality, so formed his own corporation and sold $10,000 worth of shares.  Thus he recouped his losses and retired from his gold mining ventures, and La Veta history.  Lincoln himself spent part of several summers here but seems to have divested his interests in the mines early on. The last contact La Vetans had with him was when one early resident sent a burro to Lincoln’s daughter.  Unsolicited.

    While these “celebrities” were riding the rails, a railroad employee was raising a son who would become Huerfano’s most celebrated athlete.

    Robert T. McGraw was a conductor on what was known as the Denver and Rio Grande water train.  This train ran for many years between old Cucharas, through Walsenburg to La Veta, and back again.  The train transported water from La Veta to Cucharas, as well as passengers, and running twice a day allowed La Veta residents to go to the county seat in the morning, transact business and return home later the same day.

    McGraw and his wife Nellie welcomed a son, Bob, on April 10, 1895.  They went on to have three more children, including a 14-pound son born in 1898 and named Sampson, but Bob showed early promise.

    R.T. spent 25 years of his life on the Cucharas-La Veta run, but in 1903 moved to Alamosa with his family.  But La Veta remembers her sons.

    Bob Jr. at 17 was showing his skill at pitching while still in high school.  With his mother as his business manager, Bob declined to turn pro at age 18, and went to Colorado College where he continued pitching.  Then he transferred to the University of Colorado and was elected captain of the baseball team.  In 1916, while still at the university, he signed with the semi-pro team of Rocky Ford, in the Arkansas Valley League.  From here he evidently went to Georgetown University and was “discovered.”

    In 1917 Bob was picked up by the pros, and that year, playing for the Yankees, he almost threw a shut-out but was foiled by Ty Cobb, then playing for Detroit, who hit a home run.  From the Yankees he moved to the Boston Red Sox, back to the Yankees and then sat out five years.  In 1925 he was paid $25,000 to join the Brooklyn Robins and in 1927 he went with the St. Louis Cardinals.  He ended his career in 1929 with the Philadelphia Phillies, at age 34.  Bob died in June 1978 in Idaho, but was buried in Pueblo with his parents.

    While Bob pitched 168 games in his career, his claim to fame was being traded by the Red Sox back to the Yankees with another pitcher and $75,000– for Babe Ruth.