Contact Us

Watch out for the cars

HUERFANO — It was not long after the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built through Walsenburg and La Veta that residents realized that train service was a bit of a mixed blessing. Sure, mail delivery was faster, transportation of livestock, agricultural products, merchandise and people were more convenient, and jobs were provided, but there were the downsides too. There was noise, for instance, which is no surprise even at this late date. As early as November 1880 the La Veta editor noted, “If the railroad boys continue their racket coming down the mountain they will furnish us with an item yet.” One presumes this noise was from the train whistles rather than “the boys” lung power. There were “tramps”, those transients who hopped freights and jumped off wherever they pleased. That same editor complained throughout his three-year tenure in La Veta about the problems caused by these men. Tramps were involved in robberies and thefts from homes and businesses. Tramps were liable to imbibe too freely and fill up the calaboose. With no funds, they couldn’t pay their fines and became expensive to feed and provide

basic necessities for, not to mention those who died and left the town to pay for their funerals. Obviously this was a very real problem because in 1883 the D&RG removed the benches from the depot and replaced them with chairs that made it impossible for these transients to sleep on. Steam locomotives produced sparks, and those sparks ignited crop lands, haystacks and other flammables too near the tracks. A local resident in 1881 lost his stables, 100 tons of hay (worth upwards of $12 per ton at the time) and considerable amounts of corn, wheat, oats and potatoes caused by a spark from a locomotive. The trains also ran over things, like livestock and people. The railroad was responsible by law for paying damages for lost property and livestock, but people, not so much. People were supposed to get out of the way and had to prove in court the railroad was at fault before they could receive any compensation for injuries or death of a loved one. It’s hard to imagine folks could get run over by a narrow gauge train back in the day when it took the 15-mile “run” between Walsenburg and La Veta more than an hour. The train was noticeably slow, and noisy, so a person would surely hear it and take the obvious step away from the tracks. But no. That same editor in July 1882 reported about two men who’d been heavily imbibing and being run over by a train. One was killed outright (leaving a wife and two children) and the other badly injured and later losing his left hand. While drunks might be the usual victims of trains in La Veta, in Walsenburg pretty much anyone using Main Street faced death. In olden days, the Colorado and Southern had its tracks crossing Main Street near Third Street and within a block to the south, the D&RG tracks crossed. In between the two were many buildings. On the east side of Main, there were various businesses. On the west, Furphy’s livery loomed up to the north, and to the south was the Twin Lakes Hotel, a huge structure whose bulk hid oncoming trains from the west. Across its front stretched a porch facing Main Street, and just to its north was a simple sign reading “Watch out for the cars”. This was the only warning passersby on foot or vehicle had of oncoming trains. Not a few took the expedient method of steering his horse or horses up onto the hotel porch. Others were not so lucky to reach safety. In December 1900 two men from Aguilar driving a team and buggy were caught there. They were not killed but surely seriously shaken up. The railroads had hired a watchman to stand and warn people personally, but the cash outlay must have dissuaded them from this because they returned to the “every man for himself” method at the crossing. Not all of the man versus train accidents occurred in the towns, though. A particularly sad accident occurred in January 1908 about a mile south of Walsenburg, near Mayne station, when a buggy driven by Donaciano Vigil, 71, and containing his two-year-old granddaughter, was struck by a train. They were killed instantly. Later the same year a man was run over and killed at Munson siding not far from the Vigil tragedy. Several railroad employees were killed by trains out on the prairie while they were working on the right of way. One engineer made the mistake of stepping out of his engine – while it was stopped atop a trestle. Back in Walsenburg, other railroad crossings also caused havoc. A sheepherder with his flock was struck on the Russell Street rails and the crossings on Fifth and Sixth Street claimed victims as well. In the 1940s the Hendren Street rails claimed a 1937 Plymouth, though not its driver. In 1974, an 87-year-old man lost his car in a battle with an engine on East Fifth. In 1944 August Biggi was struck and killed on the Loma Branch. The next year these rails were removed from city limits. The Seventh Street crossing may have been the worst in the county, however. One reason for this was the Colorado and Southern Railroad itself, which in 1903 built nine coal chutes beside the tracks at Seventh, causing a blind spot. Coal became passé in 1940 when diesel engines began replacing the old steam locomotives, and the chutes were removed after the new diesels took over completely in 1949. Still, Seventh Street was still hazardous. Later that year the famed Texas Zephyr heading south took on a ’49 Chrysler, and won. No one was injured, luckily, but the new car was trashed. Mrs. Clarence Clair, a teacher, received numerous “fractures and contusions” when her car was struck in 1962. Despite fatalities and close calls, both the C&S and D&RG were slow to improve the conditions that caused the accidents. In 1939 the Colorado Department of Transportation, then called the State Highway Department, took matters into its own hands and removed the crossing signal from the middle of Main Street and installed an “illuminated advance warning signs” on the sidewalks beside the tracks. On Seventh Street, the old fashioned blinkers, which obviously did not do the job, were replaced in 1942 with “modern wig-wag” crossarms. That same year both the C&S and D&RG vowed to completely “redo” the Main Street crossing. In 1966, however, both refused to install gates to protect the ever increasing number of motorists using these two major streets. Main Street finally got the descending gates to block traffic from oncoming trains in the 1970s, but Seventh Street had to make do with the flashing lights that had replaced the “modern wig-wag” signals for a few more years. Nothing was done for other streets coinciding with railroad rights-of-way. In the late 1980s the controversy continued between the city and the railroads. City officials demanded Burlington Northern, the new owner of the railroads, to place warning signals on Hendren, Russell and Fifth streets. Burlington countered with an offer to mark Hendren and Russell if Fifth Street were closed down at the crossing. This was finally accomplished at the end of 1991. The old problem of man versus train remained, however, and will, until everyone learns to “Watch out for the cars.”