Priscilla Mangnall
Grand Junction Free Press History Columnist

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February 2, 2012
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PRISCILLA'S COLUMN: Riding the Uintah Railway's ghost rails at Atchee

This little trip to the mountains started with a phone call from Theo Mills asking me if I knew anything about Atchee, Colo. "I do not," I told her, but I would try to find out.

Then, as Emma McCreanor and I were driving to the Mesa County Historical Society Oral History Program she said: "You really should do a story on Atchee."

Enough said, when two "long-timers" tell me I ought to know something, I take it seriously. So I took a drive to Atchee, or what is left of it. On my return, I immediately called some of my historical railroad buddies and soon found out that the two volumes of Rodger Polley's, "Uintah Railway Pictorial," was the ultimate source for my quest of Atchee. I found it at the Mesa County Library and Mr. Polley gave me his blessing to share his knowledge. The books are chock full of amazing photos and tons of train stuff.

Atchee lies 28.3 miles north of Mack, Colo., in Garfield County on what is the old route over Baxter Pass in the foothills of the Uintah Mountains at an elevation of 6,340 feet. The town was founded as a railroad town on the famed Uintah Railway line that ran from Mack to Watson, Utah, and was just 63 miles long.

Built primarily to haul Gilsonite from the Uintah Mountains to Mack, the railway served as the only way in and out during the winter. The rail was used to haul wool during shearing season and timber as well. Much has been written about this old ghost railroad and it's known as one of the most interesting narrow gauge railroads of its time.

But what really intrigued me about Atchee was how the community held itself together and how the Ute Indians lived so freely among the townsfolk. Atchee existed between 1904 and 1939 and was dismantled when the need for the railroad ceased. Trucks and better roads made the treacherous route over Baxter Pass unnecessary.

To see it now and the one remaining structure, the old railroad machine shop, it's hard to believe it was a bustling town with a school, a saloon, a hotel, a general store and a giant railroad yard that serviced and repaired and built the Uintah Railway engines and cars. Interestingly, it didn't have a church. Traveling preachers from Grand Junction or Vernal would drop in by train from time to time. It was the stopping off place before the train made its way over the switchbacks of Baxter Pass. A division stop they call it and a place to fill the water tanks for the big steam engines and a place for passengers to ready themselves before heading up the pass to the little logging stop at Columbine, a favorite excursion destination for picnics and flower picking.

Nearly every family that lived in Atchee was there because they worked for the Uintah Railway, except Ruby and Metters Luton and a few Indians in the nearby hills. The Lutons moved to Atchee and remained there for the rest of the town's existence. Ruby was the postmistress, ran the Uintah Hotel, was the election officer for Garfield County, filled in at the company offices, and was called on to administer her skills as "doctor" when needed.

Metters ran the Luton's General Store and eventually the only gasoline pump in town which was only needed in the warmer months as snow stopped all automobile traffic in and out of town. Summers were busy with train excursions and baseball games. Teams from the surrounding small towns would travel from town to town and many a railroad worker was recruited because of his playing skills.

The town was named in honor of the Chief Sam Atchee, a Uintah chief and brother-in-law of Chief Ouray and related to Ouray's wife Chipeta and her brother, Chief McCook. Chief Atchee was respected among Indians and whites in both Colorado and Utah. With the Uintah Reservation just over the hill, and taking the fact that the Indians didn't really care about the white man's boundaries, the Utes roamed freely over their old hunting grounds. The Ute Tribe would summer in the cool hills west of Atchee grazing their animals and frequently visited Luton's store. The townspeople considered the Indians friends and found them peaceful, polite and happy.

McCreanor first told me the story of Chief McCook, who was infatuated by Ruby Luton and her red hair. He dressed in his finest clothes and made a beeline to Metters at the General Store. Seems McCook was bargaining with Metters, who played along, just to see what Ruby was worth. When Ruby found out, she was not so pleased to know she was only worth four cows and two horses.

Another story that is in Polley's book is about a fawn that was raised by the town and hand-fed by trainman Roy McCoy. Seems all was fine for a couple of years until the young deer sprouted horns and started butting everyone, getting into the flowers and shrubs, and once made his way into Luton's store and was caught eating all the peanuts. The townspeople were attached to the deer but knew he had to go so they took him to the hill and let him go, twice. He kept making his way back to town. Finally, they gave him to the Ute Indians and the deer was never seen again.

By the time the town of Atchee had been abandoned, the railway equipment and rails had all been sold off or scrapped. Houses were moved or dismantled and little remained besides a few trees that lined the boardwalk in front of the workers' cottages and the concrete machine shop, which still stands today.

What I've told here is just a small piece of the Uintah Railway's history. Take a drive, go get the books. When the weather warms up I'm going to attempt Baxter Pass and head for Dragon, Utah. Watch for me, I'll be the one straight-trippin' on the ghost train!

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The Post Independent Updated Feb 2, 2012 10:50PM Published Feb 2, 2012 10:48PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.