It’s About Time column: If only the trainmen could tell the story

Bill Kight
It's About Time
Bill Kight

There is something about the photo that haunts me.

The locomotive is a steam engine from the late 1800s. It’s almost completely out of the engine house and ready to go to work. The crew of 15 men are posing for the camera and positioned in various places.

Six men are on the ground. One stands to the side of the “cow catcher” and has a large satchel in his left hand. Next is a man in coveralls standing next to the first small wheel with his right hand on the cylinder.

The next man to the right — perhaps not sure what to do with his hands — has them behind his back. One man is barely taller than the huge wheel that makes the train go when the large piston moves back and forth.

The rest of the workers are all over this behemoth of a machine. Some have mustaches. All have hats of various styles.

Their clothes are the kind working men wear no matter what century they are from … a sort of timelessness. Perhaps it is the fact that we know nothing about them collectively or individually that haunts me.

Train crew in Cardiff, Colorado, circa late 1800s.
Frontier Historical Society/Courtesy photo

What we do know is where this photo was taken. It’s Cardiff, Colorado, a coal coking town a few miles south of Glenwood Springs. We know the town was established in December 137 years ago. And we know the coke ovens that operated in Cardiff ceased production in 1915.

There are more questions about the men than there are answers: What are their names, ages, nationalities; what personalities and temperaments did they have; are their descendants living among us today?

And what about the locomotive? Did it bring the coal on the Colorado Midland line from the mines up Four Mile and Sunlight? Or did it take the coke the ovens produced through the Hagerman Tunnel on the Continental Divide, and on to the Pueblo steel mills?

There are only a handful of photos of Cardiff and the coke ovens in the Frontier Museum’s photo archives, and of all of them, this one adds to the mystery of history.

The single thing that bothers me the most is the fact that the stories these men could tell died with them. And whether it is the storyteller in me or the historian’s years of training, the task of telling their story — the story of Cardiff and its coke ovens — has fallen to me.

It has become more than a job or a short-lived obsession, it’s more like a calling. The coke ovens call me, and I take it personally.

Only 50 of the original 249 ovens still exist. Almost all of the town of Cardiff has been wiped off the face of the earth.

These forgotten men, and that part of their life story the coke ovens can tell, deserve better treatment than what the passing of time has dealt them.

This is where the National Park Service comes in. This week the historical society will turn in its Save America’s Treasures grant application, to compete for $500,000 to try to bring a part of our history back to life.

Why the National Park Service? Because they are the mechanism that distributes the funds Congress has set aside for those National Register of Historic Places sites that need help, like the coke ovens.

The letters of commitment for funds from the city of Glenwood Springs and Garfield County are only the start. The hard part comes if we are fortunate enough to receive funding. We won’t know until early summer whether our application is a winner.

Then, bricklayers experienced in historic construction will lay bricks to stabilize the ovens. Rocky Mountain Youth Corps will clear brush that has hidden the work of vandals. Historicorps, the volunteer group experienced in saving historic sites, will also help.

In the meantime, I can’t shake the feeling that those 15 men are watching me through an old photo.

Bill Kight is the Executive Director for the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and can be reached at 970-945-4448 or

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