The Rifle train wreck of 1902, revisited
One can only imagine the horrific sound of two freight trains running head on into each other. The townsfolk of Rifle heard just that at 5 p.m. Nov. 15, 1902, when two steam locomotives pulling freight and cattle cars plowed into each other just east of the Rifle rail yards.
The event took place where the tracks round the bend coming into Rifle from the east, below and slightly west of where the Rifle City Senior Center is located today. Both of the train crews had no idea they were on a collision course until the last second.
In 1902, the 77 miles of track that ran between New Castle and Grand Junction were shared by two competing railroads, the Colorado Midland and the Denver and Rio Grande. On that fateful evening, the Colorado Midland was eastbound and consisted of 20 cars of cattle and freight being pulled by three steam locomotives, engines 31, 22 and 20. The Denver and Rio Grande train was westbound and pulled by Engine No. 225 with eight cars of freight.
According to a news article published in the Rifle Reveille on Nov. 21, “The Rio Grande westbound freight No. 225 was almost to the whistling post east of town when the Midland extra stock train rounded the curve under good speed. The trains crashed together with terrible force, the engineers not even having warning enough to reverse their engines. Three engines were a total wreck. Midland Engine No. 22 was raised completely on top of its tender, which was telescoped into a car of cattle, 40 of which were killed.”
Cattle weren’t the only deaths in this wreck. Eli R. Thorpe was the fireman on Engine No. 22 and was standing on the gangway between the engine and tender when the collision occurred. He was thrown between the cars where he was cut in half at the waist. “Death was instantaneous,” the Reveille reported.
Thorp was a 22-year-old resident of Leadville and was married on Sept. 30 of that year to Miss Ada Cruson, also of Leadville. He had been working the Leadville line for the two previous years and was recently transferred to the Grand Valley.
In all, nine other men were injured in the wreck. “Out of the crews of both trains not one escaped injury,” the Reveille reported. Most of the men suffered broken bones, lacerations and burns from the scalding water that blew from the breached boilers of the wrecked engines. Several of the injuries were to stockmen who were riding the train with their cattle to the sale yards in Denver.
In addition to Thorpe, Engine No. 22 engineer Frederick Stiffler, who avoided death when he was hurled from the cab, was badly bruised and suffered a broken nose and right arm. He would survive only to die later in another tragic accident.
It would appear Engine No. 22 was an engine possessed with bad luck. “Engine 22 has been in two former wrecks, the New Castle disaster in which a score or more of people were killed, the remains of some of the victims not having been identified to this day, also the Basalt wreck, where it ran into the rear of a passenger coach, killing six or seven people most of whom were scalded to death,” the Reveille reported.
The cause of the Rifle accident, according to the Reveille, was the oversight of a dispatcher by the name of Sykes, who neglected to arrange a time and location for the trains to pass.
“Mr. Sykes is one of the most faithful and accurate dispatchers on the road and has been free from errors in the past. When informed of the results of his oversight he broke down and wept like a child,” according to the Reveille.
The Reveille further reported that officials from both railroads rushed to Rifle, along with two wrecking crews. Large, steam-powered cranes, mounted on flatcars at the end of a work train and backed into the site from each end, were used to hoist the engines and cars back onto the tracks. The engines were then towed into the Rifle rail yard where scores of Rifle citizens showed up in their finest apparel to view the damage.
Local photographer Fred Garrison recorded the scene for posterity, which was only yards from his studio, and prints he made of Midland Engine No. 22 sitting on top of the cattle car were framed and proudly displayed in Rifle bars and businesses for many years to come. The original glass plate negatives of this tragedy are now part of the Garrison Collection preserved at the Rifle Heritage Center.
The November 1902 train wreck is remembered as the second large disaster to take place that year. Much of Rifle’s downtown was destroyed or heavily damaged by a devastating fire that took place in early May and townsfolk were in the process of rebuilding when the wreck took place.
As for Frederick Stiffler, the engineer of Engine No. 22, his date with destiny would come in an unfortunate fashion. Displayed at the Rifle Heritage Center is a newspaper clipping (date unknown) from the Rifle Telegram, another early Rifle newspaper, which tells of a mining accident at the Gordon-Tiger Mine near Twin Lakes. However, it was not the kind of mining accident one might expect.
According to the Telegram, the day shift was attempting to leave the mine at noon when the crew found the mouth of the mine blocked by a solid mass of snow.
“It was only after several hours of hard work that the imprisoned men gained the open air, and then only to see that the blacksmith shop had been swept down the mountainside,” according to the Telegram.
Stiffler was one of two men killed when the avalanche crushed the mine building they were working in. The Telegram stated it did not know when Stiffler left the employment of the Colorado Midland but said he was once editor of a Basalt newspaper and in later years he devoted his time to mining.
“Surely the fates were unkind to this man,” the Telegram concluded.
Alan Lambert writes Western Memories, a monthly look at history stretching from Divide Creek to the Grand Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Fans, players and coaches on both sides of Stubler Memorial Field seemed to know it would come down just the way it did, regardless of who had the ball at the end.