Avalanches covered train tracks, killed workers in 1899
Frontier Historical Society
Editor’s note: A version of this column ran in 1999 in the Post Independent.
A blinding snowstorm reduced Engineer Hartenberg’s vision as he guided the Denver and Rio Grande Western passenger train No. 1 through Glenwood Canyon. It was 11:30 on the night of Feb. 1, 1899, and with a full head of steam, he was near Shoshone, nine miles east of Glenwood Springs. Suddenly, the engine’s headlight shone on an obstruction on the tracks. An avalanche covered the route. Shouting a warning to his fireman, he quickly reversed the engine and both men leaped from the train just as it crashed into the mountain of snow and trees. The engine’s tender telescoped into the baggage car, which telescoped into the mail car. Fortunately, none of the passengers or crew was injured.
There was nothing to do but wait until morning when the wrecking train arrived to take the passengers to Gypsum, and to begin the work of clearing the tracks of snow, debris and wreckage.
The wrecking train, with 100 men equipped with shovels, arrived at the scene at dawn to tackle the removal of the 200-foot wide avalanche. Their work proceeded smoothly until 9 a.m. That is when a second smaller snow slide came down, striking some of the crew. Roadmaster John McMahon quelled the crew’s panic, assuring them that they were safe. The work proceeded.
A crew of 50 men worked to uncover the wrecking train from the small slide when at 12:40 in the afternoon a second avalanche of enormous proportions roared down the canyon slopes, striking the crew, burying many, and sweeping three into the Colorado River. A tool car, caboose and a 56-ton engine were pushed to the banks of the river. The tracks were now covered with an additional 20 feet of snow.
The crew immediately began the rescue of their fellow workers, and doctors Marshall Dean and William Crook were called from Glenwood Springs to assist with the injured. Three men did not survive the large slide. The bodies of Roadmaster McMahon, John Dempsy and John Mulvahill were taken to Glenwood Springs. The injured were transported to Salida to receive treatment at the Denver and Rio Grande Western’s hospital located there.
Passenger trains continued to head east, only to be stopped at Glenwood Springs. By Feb. 5, 26 coaches and Pullman cars were sidetracked in town. Additional arriving coaches were sent back after transferring their passengers to the coaches already here. As time passed, almost 300 travelers were stranded in Glenwood, with about 100 finding rooms at hotels or lodging houses. The remaining passengers were forced to stay in the coaches and Pullmans, but their meals were furnished by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. The Avalanche Echo reported that “much care is taken in keeping the coaches clean and well supplied with water and towels.”
The stranded travelers found activities in Glenwood in which to spend their time. The hot springs pool was a popular attraction, but the vapor cave received more patronage. Ollie Thorson’s downtown book shop sold a large number of newspapers, magazines and books to the snowbound. The Western Union operator, Miss Bacon, send hundreds of messages for the travelers.
Those who were more adventuresome found bawdier activities at the saloons and gaming tables, which were in close proximity to the coaches. Some men happily found that the saloons in Glenwood Springs did not close on Sunday, and that spirits could be found easily, day and night. For those who gambled, roulette was the game of choice.
In all, six slides, varying in depths from five to 20 feet and with a total length of 370 feet, covered the tracks over the nine miles from Glenwood Springs to Shoshone. It would take approximately a week to make the tracks passable following the heavy snows of January and February 1899.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.
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